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Each year, Maison Ruinart welcomes one contemporary artist to Reims to celebrate the creation of champagne. Reimagined through their artistic lens and vocabulary, the artist is asked to create art that reinterprets the house. This year, the champagne brand collaborated with the British artist David Shrigley to present a unique presentation of multimedia works that embody his humor and wit.
In Reims, Shrigley wandered the vineyards, explore the cellars, and examined the history of crayères. Fascinated with ancient techniques and modern approaches alike, he worked hand-in-hand with Ruinart’s Grand Cellar Master, Frédéric Panaïotis, to better understand the complexity of champagne making. The result is “Unconventional Bubbles”—an exhibition that tells the tale of bubbly in 36 drawings and acrylics, three neons, two ceramics, one door.
In addition to these artworks, Shrigley was invited to design a limited-edition jeroboam Blanc de Blancs bottle, which rests in a box that doubles as a champagne bucket. The reinterpretation marks the first time an artist has worked directly on the emblematic Ruinart bottle. Included are 30 numbered and signed boxes, featuring a black-and-white work entitled Unconventional Bubbles / Bulles Singulières.
Whitewall spoke with Shrigley to learn more about his time in Reims, how his works tell the tale of champagne, and what he’s toasting to this season.
WHITEWALL: What was it like visiting the region, the crayères, the vineyards, and the production facilities? What inspirations are translated in your designs?
DAVID SHRIGLEY: I think one of the principal things about going to Reims is to learn how to pronounce the name of the place! I even had to look up how to pronounce “Reims” on YouTube. It happens to be in the top ten of most difficult French places to pronounce for English people!
Before I visited Reims, I knew I liked champagne. But I didn't know an awful lot about champagne.
This commission has given me the opportunity to learn something about the complex process of making champagne and to make some art that addresses that; to find a way to say something about that process. It is very much a voyage of discovery.
WW: What most surprised you about the creation process of Ruinart in Reims?
DS: I learned about the fact that it is a living product and that it is made from a plant that grows in the ground; that it is subject to the elements; that it is subject to the soil and to the sky, to weather conditions, to the bugs that fly around it, which either destroy it or facilitate pollination. For me, there is a lot of metaphor there that is interesting.
There is a certain magic to it, in which the microorganisms that make the bubbles create the critical element of the champagne. I like the idea that it is something from nothing, that it has to be kept in darkness and all these things have to happen in darkness, that they happen in a cave which is found under the ground.
WW: Your "Unconventional Bubbles" project with Ruinart presents 36 drawings and acrylics, three neons, two ceramics, and one door. How do these works represent the heritage and the savoir-faire of champagne?
DS: The way I approached the project was first to write a list of all the things we were talking about. My work is much about statements that are a bit like concrete poetry. We’ve looked at the history of Ruinart, the archives. Ruinart is the first champagne brand in existence. It was an unconventional wine at the time, and we don’t really know exactly how it came about. Then there’s the process of making it: the microorganisms, the riddling, the disgorgement, the growing of the grapes, the nature of the farming, and how delicate that is.
There’s also the tasting of the champagne with the Cellar Master, the cuvées, understanding all of it. So, there was a lot to write down. When I got back into the studio, I wrote little poems about everything, made lists, and that’s basically the way I work. I drew the caves, the bottle, the grapes, the vine, the bees, the birds, the weather, the frost, the rain, the sunshine, the air, the soil, the worms in the soil… It tells the story of the champagne-making process.
WW: Your work embodies irony and humor with a playful approach. How do these new works fall in line with your creative language?
DS: I guess there’s a certain lyricism to these works, they share a reference to craft albeit quite clumsy and crude. Humour, sometimes dark or absurd, is clearly an element of tension in a lot of my drawings. People tend to see it as typically British humour. For me, it’s a way to question a reality or a given situation.
WW: Your work also points out the problems with prefabrication solutions. Did you find any in the making of champagne that you wanted to highlight?
DS: One of the things I really like about this project is that I was free to say whatever I like. It’s just about having a creative response to the experience of being in Reims. So I played with this idea of a luxury product by referencing unusual figures like worms or washing machines.
WW: The collaboration also features a limited-edition item—a Jeroboam, reinterpreted by you, which is the first time an artist has worked directly on the emblematic Ruinart bottle. How did you want to approach this inaugural intervention?
DS: I see it like designing a sculpture, the object itself is very impressive, the bottle has this typical 18th Century shape. I redraw their typeface to create a new version of the logo. I wanted to keep it simple. The wooden box that encases the jeroboam bottle is covered with contradictory statements in black and white. They’re all true but they seem to be adverse. I liked to play with opposites and confronting them. In the end, they unite in the same sculpture.
WW: You've said that the privilege of being an artist is that you "constantly get to surprise yourself." What surprised you about yourself through this project?
DS: This time, with the majority of the drawings an image came first. Afterward, I thought about what the text should be. Then again with this project, there has been quite a strong conceptual element as well, in that I wrote a lot of text before I started working which is not what I usually do.
On another note, I also feel I'm one of the few educated people in Britain who knows how champagne is made. I find it exciting.
WW: How did you approach this as an opportunity to touch upon sustainability, such as when creating your drawings that focus on the soil, the grapes, and the worms in the ground?
DS: Visiting Reims and speaking with Frédéric Panaïotis, the cellar master, and his team about the production of champagne, I'm really aware of how tiny variations within nature and within the weather particularly can have such a massive impact on the champagne that we drink and how difficult it is to deal with those things. Going to the vineyards, you don't realize that even within half a kilometer some grapes can be ruined in one evening, one night, one frost, while some can survive.
Today we have a big problem that the world has presented us with, but you just have to deal with what you get and start to think of ways to better care for the planet. I think Ruinart has a very sustainable approach. Nurturing the soil is so important to them, the bottles can be recycled, the cardboard boxes can be recycled—the product literally relies on the earth being looked after. They truly talk the talk and walk the walk. That inspired me to draw the birds, the worms, the planet… This commission is clearly a way for me to raise awareness about those topics.
WW: What are you toasting to this season?
DS: My wife Kim’s birthday.