Erwin Olaf: The House of Ruinart

We took a trip to the Ruinart cellars with world-renowned multidisciplinary artist Erwin Olaf.

There are few things that get us as on board with an art exhibition than a glass of champagne. You’ll always find us perusing galleries on First Thursdays — that’s the East London gallery initiative, well oiling art-lovers with delicious beverages every first Thursday of the month — and so when we were invited to uncover Erwin Olaf’s collaboration with the House of Ruinart champagne, we knew exactly where we needed to be.

The House of Ruinart was founded in the age of enlightenment in Champagne, France. A period of great intellectual awareness that had a big impact on the way our French counterparts live, champagne was the drink for dinner parties of the era. Forget talking about the weather, think: art, film, politics, fashion… all lubricated by the delightful bubbles of the newly born champagne. Quelle pleasure!

From day one, the House of Ruinart have fostered a serious interest in the arts. In 1896, they invited artist Alphonse Mucha to create a striking advertisement for the House to underline the ties champagne had to the culture of its time — this was a first in advertising of the era. Over a century later, and Ruinart continue to support and collaborate with artists, not only working with artists on projects associated with the House, but also partaking in art fairs worldwide to show their support.

This year, the House of Ruinart have collaborated with Dutch artist Erwin Olaf — known for his striking, oil-painting-reminiscent, highly stylised portraits with their powerful subtext often addressing social issues such as taboos or gender politics. Olaf visited the cellars of Ruinart to shoot an editorial, and it was there that he discovered the centuries old ‘graffitis’. From etched drawings in the chalk cave walls to carved out alters for saints and signatures of past employees, Olaf discovered a wealth of history in the cellars. Discarding his shoot, Olaf embarked on a new project: photographing his findings. Presenting the initial photographs to Ruinart, the House were enamoured with the images’ painterly lighting and Olaf’s innovative attention to detail and cropping. So, the Ruinart x Erwin Olaf project began!

Olaf’s original work for the House of Ruinart tells the extraordinary story of Ruinart’s cellars and the thousands of workers who have served the Maison for over a century, through his original lens. The House gave Olaf a ‘carte blanche’ – or, free pass – to explore and create as he pleased. It was this freedom of expression that Olaf was drawn to (believe us, he’s a wild-spirit), alongside the unique light in the cellars – the interplay of light a main feature in Olaf’s work. Using his Hasselblad camera (which he has had for the last 35 years), Olaf shot in black and white, and the result is a series of 26 images that will be touring art fairs around the world.

We sat down with Olaf to find out a bit more about his background, techniques and how the project both propelled him forward and took him back to his roots.

So firstly, give us a snapshot into your art background?

Yes. Well, I am, lets say, self educated more or less because I’m trained as a writing journalist like you at first. I was a writer from 1979 to 1981 but threw that away very quickly because I was not made for it. So at the school of journalism, I was taught already in photojournalism in the last year. After I left school I was first a volunteer for the gay movement because there was a huge amount of unemployment in the beginning of the 80s, and slowly I developed, lets say, my own style influenced by Joel-Peter Witkin and Helmut Newton and I started to make my own projects.

What were your first projects?

In 1988 I made a series called ‘Chess Men’ of all of the pieces of the game in black and white, strong and huge and this was rewarded in Germany with the prize of young European, the prize for young European photographers. It was a big breakthrough for me and got me the recognition to develop more and more of my own style. So that period it was very much about the height of punk rebellion and things like that. Then I’d say in 2001, 2002, you know this signature was glued to my name.

It’s interesting because you explore some really interesting themes in your work, which have almost become a signature of yours also…

Yes. I did a series called ‘Royal Blood’ about the silent debt of royalty,which I think one of the pictures caused a scandal because everyone said it looked a lot like Lady Diana which is a total coincidence. From the images you can see that this was to celebrate the beauty of photo shop, the fascinating world of royal blood and also the astonishing beauty of youth.

From there, I decided to reflect more on inter-human relationships and staged photography. In 2003 I did more time travel like going back into the past and did a staged series on pain, hope and grief which I made between 2003 and 2007, it was like I was reflecting on the 50s and 60s and then I was kind of influenced by the cinematic graphics in many European and American movies, what was happening between people was introspective, introvert, more an aid to myself you know because you know, I was growing older, I’m not the rebellious guy of 20/30 years ago.

Where do you feel like your work has travelled to now?

I slowly developed my style and now I’m doing more and more still life and abstract art and photography and do more installations and exhibitions on historical fashion in writing, I actually have one that just opened 3 weeks ago. I also designed a Euro coin for our new king 2 years ago so it’s getting wider, more varied you know, installations, coins and exhibitions. It’s an interesting life!

You’re so busy! Let’s talk about your latest project with Ruinart…. What inspired you to first visit the cellars in Reims?

Every year Ruinart focus on an art discipline, the cover all the disciplines you like; glass, sculpture, design… Ruinart give artists an assignment to get inspired by their heritage or cellars or by everything, whatever they want to choose from their heritage. I was very much focused on the Ruinart heritage as I though that was what I needed to do. So, they told me lots of stories and I picked some of their stories and visualised them with models in the cellars – very staged.

How did the process work?

I was doing my classic process and I just felt very uncomfortable with it, like I really felt a stone in my stomach and made me feel like ‘oh this is so bad’ but there were so many people behind the camera it puts some pressure on your shoulders and it was far too complicated. I wanted to get rid of all those people behind the camera and have time just to think, so I could wander around for half an hour and then I discovered that there’s a lot of legacy involved created by nature and mankind by the little wall arts they have made, or the signatures, the little drawings or the skulls and lacerations they have made in the walls, the patterns by moisture, you know so that caught my eye.

Did that inspire you to change direction?

I was just thinking about the complex you know, and just from the markings in the wall I could see what was happing, so then I went back to the group of people I was working with and I asked one of my assistants if we could take one chance, go in once together and shoot some ground and do some examples and some try outs. Then I came back and by coincidence, Fredrick – the big boss – was there unexpectedly and he of course wanted to see what I was making, so I showed him what I had done and said ‘you’re going to be quite uncomfortable with this but I made something a few minutes ago which I think is far more interesting’ so I showed him and then he said he liked it much more, so I got to continue with it, even though it was a completely different idea but that’s just the way it went. From there, for the next year it was a case of going up and down, up and down, about 5 times in total in to the cellars looking at the details and I photographed it in black and white. Which for me was like, not only going back in time, but like going to my old career you know and going back to the beginning in strong black and white but offering something new whilst still taking still life taken from the walls.

The cellars are so vast and there are so many parts to photograph… how did you pick your favourites?

It’s quite a big series to do, 26, but you know I wanted to translate what I saw into one feeling that I saw and also as I explained downstairs, that you cannot photograph the atmosphere, which is so difficult to capture the atmosphere, so I broke it up into 26 details to create a whole atmosphere of those cellars, that’s what I tried to do.

What’s been the highlight about this series? What’s been the best moment for you?

Freedom. The absolute freedom of it you know, because I’m always a little suspicious when a company like Ruinart say to me ‘you can do whatever you like, do whatever you want’ you know… because you know it’s not true because they want to make a good name with it. But when I had this conversation with the president, Julie, of course she is my soul mate within the company, they were there and were like ‘No, if you want to change it, you change it! You follow your heart and do what you have to do’ so there was absolute freedom in every detail you know, because at one point Julie said to me ‘Can’t you photograph the bottle’ and then I photographed a broken bottle and so she was like ‘that looks good!’ and I was testing her to see if could.

That’s fantastic!

Yes. I really have to give them huge compliments because in the beginning I was a bit overwhelmed by the freedom and the assignment or if I had created something too big with models and light and styling, hair and make up and if you look back in my portfolio, I have never made anything like this so this is also the client pushing you in a new direction and most people, when they ask you do something, they’ll say to you ‘can you do it again like you’ve done in the past.’

That’s really special then, to have them propelling you into new areas…

Yes and I’m being really honest. In the past I might not have done that for them but now I look at my portfolio and I think that I did something completely different that the idea of going back to my roots, with one assistant, one camera, one tripod, you know. I created it in August last year, I created a series of nudes that were on display at the Hamilton that were very classical, not still lives of the human body, but seating the subject that I learnt in the cellars which is completely simple that is one talent, one lamp, one assistant and one photographer to go back to basics like I worked in the beginning but with the knowledge I have now, you know. That was quite interesting for me.

Erwin Olaf: The House of Ruinart

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