Western brands are increasingly tapping hip Chinese artists for millennial kudos - and one French cognac maker's Chinese New Year commission has reaped a bold, six-metre canvas from a modern master
There is a growing trend in recent years of big brands collaborating with contemporary artists, especially in China, as a way to drive young millennials to global luxury labels. Think multimedia artist Cao Fei designing an Art Car for BMW in 2017, and then again, her 2019 work with Prada on Code Human, a multidisciplinary study of the nature of influence in the age of the digital culture.
Last year Hennessy courted contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan for the cognac distillery's 2020 Lunar New Year campaign, which marks the Year of the Rat and is also the start of the new cycle of the lunar calendar. The Maison Hennessy commissioned a monumental work of art, in addition to designing a special Lunar New Year edition of the Hennessy collection from the artist.
When the Maison Hennessy unveiled the finished work in the presence of Zhang, at its distillery headquarters in Cognac, France, last October, Chinese and international media flocked in attendance. Zhang, dressed in his signature white, unveiled the six-metre-long masterpiece entitled Eaux-de-vie, inspired by Hennessy's world-famous library of eaux-de-vie - which refers to the clear, colourless fruit brandy that is produced by fermentation and double distillation.
The work looked like a dreamscape of bubbles or cells done in vibrant hues that seemed to be floating. It featured mainly red hues which is the Chinese lucky colour, exuding happiness and joy.
"Hennessy's eaux-de-vie were the direct inspiration for my artwork," said the 55-year old artist, who is based between Shanghai and New York. "I saw each eaux-de-vie like an individual cell, and they come together to create something unique. If you look closely, inside of them you can see red Chinese lanterns, grapes and amber wine. The synergy between Hennessy and China is rooted in an understanding of the harmony as well as the festive atmosphere we celebrate during the New Year."
Zhang spent several months in Cognac observing the lifestyle of the people involved in making brandy as well as the process itself.
"Cognac is a beautiful place with an aristocratic spirit," he said. "Watching the cognac-making process first-hand touched me deeply, and the eaux-de-vie inspired me a lot."
Hennessy master blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde said, "We wanted Zhang's way of reading what Hennessy is and it was important to show him our daily life here and why quality is so important to Hennessy."
"It is important when you are working with an artist that he can do whatever he wants," continued Fillioux de Gironde, who is the eighth generation of his family working alongside the Hennessy family. "And I shared with him my understanding of how we make cognac, what is the purpose of quality, how we work. We had a tasting together, a discussion and it is really his inspiration of the process of discovering Hennessy too. One of the beauties of this kind of art is that you can translate it in different ways."
During Zhang's career he has transitioned from painting to performance art, sculptures and photography. He and a group of art school friends worked in an artistic community know as Beijing East Village, where they pioneered a particular style of performance art which usually involved the body. One example was when he and nine other artists climbed a mountain near Beijing, stripped and lay on top of one another to create a second mini peak. The 1995 work was called To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain.
Zhang also involved the body in his sculptures, making giant copper hand and feet, magnified versions of broken Buddhist figures that he found in Tibet. In recent years, however, he has gone back to his first love of painting.
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"Painting is never about just the object, it's about using the object as a vehicle to express your inner thoughts, or a spiritual side," he says. "For Hennessy, I was thinking about the new year, so it is a time of joy and celebration, but also a time of reflection on essential questions and the cycle of life.
"As the start of a new cycle, the Year of the Rat represents new beginnings, infinite hope and possibility. The rat is the first, the smallest and also the most alert, intelligent animal in the Chinese zodiac," Zhang continues. "It is free, intelligent and full of spirit. In my work I tried to express this through different colours on large and small life cells - my wish was to let people experience the hope of life, the true meaning of life."
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