On Risks And Rewards: Erwin Olaf For Ruinart.
Mar 29 2016
To anyone who observes the luxury industry even casually, it's fairly clear that while many brands talk a good game about innovation and risk-taking, a lot of it is just that, talk. Advertising and communication styles have become formulaic with brands relying largely on glossy images of famous people. It's all very pretty but rarely generates more than a blip on your radar.
So rare is it to witness a luxury brand reaching beyond it's comfort level that when it does happen, you pay attention. When I learned that the venerable house of Ruinart would be collaborating with contemporary Dutch artist Erwin Olaf, my ears perked up. While Ruinart, France's oldest champagne house and arguably it's most prestigious, does have a long record of artistic collaborations dating back to 1896, there is a world of difference between an association with say, The Royal Opera in London and a contemporary artist well-versed in the art of provocation.
Known for his highly stylized photographs, Olaf clearly relishes playing with taboos. Whether issues of race, sexuality, children or violence, a just below the radar kind of provocation has become his signature: As a viewer, your eye is drawn to the static perfection of the image but it's the underlying tension that holds your gaze and draws you in. The surface image may be cool and controlled but something is simmering below the surface that threatens to erupt at any moment. For this reason alone, Olaf would be a surprising choice for any luxury brand.
The images shot by Olaf for Ruinart are a stark departure from his body of work. They're also not in keeping with the concept he started out with. While he set out for Reims with a brigade of models, stylists, hair and make up artists and assistants in tow, after a day and a half of shooting, Olaf started to feel the niggling of self-doubt. "Everybody was doing their best but it just didn't feel right. I was starting to feel this mounting pressure so I just took off by myself and started wandering through the crayeres".
As he explored the eight-kilometer long former chalk mine that now houses Ruinart's finest vintages, he became fascinated by the graffiti left by successive generations across the newly-minted UNESCO World Heritage Site. That's when he came to the realization that his initial concept was all wrong. "I think I let myself be a little bit too influenced by the glamorous side of champagne." Instead of the carefully orchestrated, glossy tableaux he had initially imagined, Olaf decided to place the crayeres front and center. Using a Hasselblad and shooting exclusively in black and white, he proceeded to explore the naturally-occurring cracks, grooves and indentations along with the manmade scratches and doodles. What emerges from his exploration is a series of photographs displaying an almost Brassai-esque primitiveness reminiscent of the artist's graffiti series shot throughout Paris.
There is a beautiful, ethereal quality to Olaf's photographs that are infinitely more interesting than the typical glamorous depiction of the "good life" found in most champagne imagery. Perhaps they serve as a reminder of the benefits of pushing beyond your comfort level both as a brand and as an artist. The collection of 26 photographs will be traveling to a succession of contemporary art fairs around the globe. They're well worth seeking out. For more information, please visit the Ruinart website.
The Luxe Chronicles