Hennessy Teams Up With Artist Cai Guo-Qiang To Mark The Explosive 150th Anniversary Of Its X.O Cognac
It was literally raining down fire all around us.
The high winds had caused the still-burning firework tubes to drift and come tumbling down onto our heads rather than into the nearby Charente River as anticipated on this stormy, blustery fall day in Cognac in west central France.
Cai Guo-Qiang, the mastermind behind the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies, was commissioned by French cognac house Hennessy to present a color-drenched daytime pyrotechnic display, which saw 20,000 fireworks exploding from 150 oak barrels floating on the Charente’s surface. The spectacle was part of Hennessy’s “A World Odyssey” anniversary program in 2020 celebrating 150 years of Hennessy X.O (Extra Old), the brand’s iconic cognac consisting of long-aged eaux de vie, perfecting the blend concocted by cellar master Emile Fillioux at the request of Maurice Hennessy.
“I wanted to create something vibrant and colorful to evoke emotions of optimism and courage,” the 62-year-old New York-based Chinese artist explained.
“Staging the event on the Charente as a metaphor for Hennessy’s history seems appropriate. The river was the channel through which its cognac traveled to the rest of the world. It has a history of delivering joy and romantic courage throughout the world, so through this project, we’re going to use the same river to show people romance and courage. Fireworks in the daytime allude to another dimension of poetry, as the smoke creates forms akin to wild cursive scripts written in the air. There’s a feeling of freedom and movement despite the unknown, of creating joy and persisting despite obstacles in an unpredictable context.”
Entitled “The Birth of Tragedy” after Friedrich Nietzsche’s work of dramatic theory, the 15-minute, three-act spectacle that required one and a half years to prepare conveyed a message of hope and unity during a period of uncertainty and was live-streamed to a global audience – a first for the maison and for the artist.
Shades of pink, yellow, blue, green, orange, purple, red, and white were propelled into the air as a symbol of resilience amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to uplift spirits, heal, and carry on with our lives, echoing Nietzsche, who believed there is a human spirit that, after acknowledging the pain of life, still welcomes and embraces it.
“After all, mankind is a part of nature, and in life, spring always comes after winter,” Cai pointed out.
After having been approached by Hennessy at the end of 2017, Cai agreed to the basic concept and collaboration format in early 2019, then held his first site visit to Hennessy in July 2019 before setting about creating the artistic content of the explosive event.
It’s a major production each time: subsequent to conducting tests in July 2020 in China’s fireworks capital, Liuyang in the Hunan province, he arrived in Cognac ten days before the performance along with ten pyrotechnicians from Hunan, 20 French pyrotechnic workers from Toulouse, a technical director from Japan, a documentary film team of seven from China and France, and a broadcasting director from Beijing.
“I have done daytime fireworks on boats, but have yet to realize daytime aquatic fireworks, of which this is probably the world’s first,” admitted Cai.
“Seeing the Charente and the barrel workshop along the river in Cognac, I immediately envisioned a picture of wine barrels floating and winding through the river like a dragon! This is my first time using barrels, letting them float on the river. Launching fireworks from water is different from doing it from land. You have to consider buoyancy, how the barrels flow, and the waves. The direction is constantly changing. The wind is also complicated because it comes from the waterway. Water is more spontaneous, similar to gunpowder – it’s full of surprises. The idea of using barrels comes from my visit to Hennessy’s cellar. They store a lot and can also float like a boat, to be the carrier for fireworks.”
Born in Quanzhou, China, and a child of the Cultural Revolution, playing with fireworks had set Cai free. Gunpowder is fundamental to his practice, with obvious connections to Chinese history and the origins of the world.
Communing with the spiritual universe, the concept behind Cai’s art is based on a dialogue with unseen worlds, the cosmos, the deceased and his ancestors, and the never-ending cycle of life and death. Having introduced gunpowder to contemporary art, converting the tension, fear, and recklessness of destruction into beauty, he has redefined the possibilities of what art can be.
Although his theatrical pyrotechnic performances may be of epic proportions, their very nature is ephemeral. “In my creations, I always chase after uncertainty or the unstable factor, the troublemaker that sparks the surprising element that I do not anticipate,” he noted.
Laurent Boillot, chairman and CEO of Hennessy, commented, “2020 will remain in all our memories for its uncertainty and difficulty. But for the maison Hennessy, this is also the 150th anniversary year for an iconic cognac, Hennessy X.O. This exceptional performance is intended as a message of hope, and we feel that today it is practically our duty to be optimistic. Cai Guo-Qiang’s work has an impalpable poetry, as does Hennessy X.O. It is our pleasure to host this fireworks event for the people of Cognac and our friends all over the world. From our vantage point in Cognac, where fireworks from the East bloom in the sky overlooking the Charente, Hennessy and Cai are proud to welcome one and all to participate in an artistic event that honors generosity of spirit and looks to new horizons with renewed courage.”
In anticipation of the outdoor event, Cai had also produced a large-scale, colored gunpowder painting by igniting explosives directly onto canvas. Reflecting his vision of the fireworks spectacle he went on to orchestrate, it now forms a part of Hennessy’s permanent collection and will soon tour internationally.
Hennessy will also be supporting his upcoming exhibition, Odyssey and Homecoming, opening this winter at the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Hennessy x Frank Gehry
Further celebrating the 150th anniversary of Hennessy X.O, the brand has released a 150-piece limited-edition decanter designed by world-renowned American architect Frank Gehry.
Acclaimed for his deconstructivist architecture of curved façades, leaning walls, and gravity-defying lines that are pure whimsy and poetry, the genius behind the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris drew inspiration from the Hennessy X.O blend, terroir, vines, and the Charente River to create a bottle enveloped in a rippling sleeve of bronze dipped in 24-carat gold that mirrors the water’s movement, reflecting the light, itself housed within a fractured clear glass glorifier.
“It was an honor to be asked to celebrate this milestone for Hennessy X.O,” Gehry stated. “While I was excited, it was also daunting because a bottle of cognac is already a work of art, one you can smell, taste and feel – it doesn’t need embellishment as it’s already there. We are showing how we can be creative within that language. There’s such a powerful history and serious emotional commitment from the people who make this product. It has a resonance that’s interesting to tie into and become a part of.”
The decanter, glorifier, and a brass-and-gold elongated fusil pipette – an instrument used to serve the extra-old cognac without wasting a single drop – are packaged in a protective case crafted from compressed cardboard and imprinted with Gehry’s signature, paying homage to his legendary 1970s corrugated cardboard furniture.
Selling for €15,000 through Moët Hennessy branches and by direct request, it’s also available as a more affordable version retailing for €220 through the usual network of wine and spirits purveyors in markets worldwide.
For more information, please visit www.hennessy.com/en-us/collaborations/hennessy-xo-x-frank-gehry.