Vik Muniz is the artist who recreated Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper out of chocolate syrup, Andy Warhol’s Double Mona Lisa out of peanut butter and jelly, portraits of black Caribbean children out of white sugar, Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night out of pictures from magazines, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Le Songeur out of yarn and likenesses of Hollywood’s golden age stars like Elizabeth Taylor out of diamonds.
Now, he has been chosen by Ruinart – the first established champagne house that has been collaborating with artists since 1896 when Czech Art Nouveau painter and illustrator Alphonse Mucha designed an advertising poster for the brand – to be its artist for 2019, which sees him give his interpretation of the values, savoir-faire and heritage of the house. Each year, in a demonstration of its commitment to art, Ruinart commissions the world’s most acclaimed contemporary artists and designers to pay tribute to its wines, terroir, history and magnificent chalk cellars that are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and partners with 34 international art fairs and numerous art institutions. Muniz accepted the brand’s invitation as collaboration comes naturally to him. He explains, “A lot of what I do as an artist has more to do with ignorance than knowledge. I am very drawn to things that I don’t know. I am not a studio kind of artist. If I stay in the studio, I become very unproductive. Normally, I always need to learn new things. Also, the idea of meeting new people, people working and specialising in other areas, is very important to me.”
During his artist residency in Reims at harvest time and in October 2018, Muniz concentrated his time in Sillery, a Ruinart vineyard on the Montagne de Reims, and in the forest of Faux de Verzy, gaining precious insight from the house’s Cellar Master, Frédéric Panaïotis. Discovering that the Champagne region has a harsh climate that would appear unsuitable for growing crops, he learnt that this hardship actually brings out the best in the vine as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produce their best fruit under tough conditions in their struggle for survival when they feel under threat. The more difficulties encountered along the way, the better the result. “We are in a region that is quite far north, quite cold and quite difficult with poor soils,” notes Panaïotis. “And this is where you basically get the best grapes. If we were to make champagne in rich soils, it wouldn’t be as good as the one we get in poor soils. That adversity makes better fruit and better wines. As a winemaker, I learn more when the year is difficult. When the year is easy, the wine is made by itself. When the year is more challenging, you need to change your mentality, you need to adjust. If you want to create as good as in an easy year, then it takes more of yourself, and in the end, you gain more experience and it is more exciting.”
Using organic elements such as blackened wood, charcoal, leaves, shoots and branches to depict vines, vine stocks, Panaïotis’ hands and a Chardonnay leaf, Muniz paid tribute to the power of nature, the idea of flow, creative tension and the complexity that goes into making Ruinart’s wines. The result was six photographs inspired by the winegrowers and vineyards and the challenges they face, thereby capturing the strong relationships between humans and nature. He also created a permanent, site-specific interactive art installation located in the chalk cellars. Mixing the age-old tradition of entreillage (the stacking of bottles by hand in an orderly fashion) with the latest technology, the five-metre-long wall composed of 1,400 bottles of Dom Ruinart equipped with an advanced LED system displays images of viewers taken by a device concealed within. Muniz also designed a jeroboam case containing a three-litre bottle of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. Limited to just 30 pieces worldwide, each edition is numbered and signed and can be used as a pedestal table.
Born in 1961 into a working class family in Sao Paulo, Muniz won a scholarship at the age of 14 that allowed him to study art while taking evening classes. There, he learnt to draw and came up close with masterpieces of academic painting and sculpture. “I was born very poor in Brazil,” he discloses. “We had very few books in my house. I wanted so much to learn and to be around books and knowledge because they were very scarce around me. That was the main motivation for me to learn. I am not good at anything, except that I am very curious. I am the most curious person I know. I have to say that the idea of plants that thrive in a very dry terrain, I love the way they are shaped. They are complex. Then I came to Ruinart. This collaboration was in the works for a long time, and for a long time, I have wanted to work with the idea of tree morphology. And when I met Frédéric Panaïotis, it’s great to meet people who know what they are talking about. I saw that I had not only the materials, but also a lot of knowledge that I could use to do this, so it was very inspiring. My experience of nature is very specific, and trees are definitely a part of it. I have been looking at trees for a long time, and this was the first chance I had to actually do work about them. ”
Since debuting his international career in 1989 with his first show at Stux Gallery in New York, Muniz has become known for his artistic approach using unconventional materials like chocolate, linen thread, dust, sugar, ketchup, garbage, diamonds, caviar and flowers to form photographic images of famous art historical paintings, thereby exploring our collective memory in order to question it more effectively. Conveying the social and political character of his work, he spent three years with the catadores (people rummaging through garbage to find recyclable materials) to produce his Pictures of Garbage (2008) series made from thousands of objects found in the world’s biggest landfill in Rio de Janeiro, photographing trash pickers as figures from emblematic paintings that he reproduced, such as Woman Ironing by Picasso or The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. He also shot an award-winning documentary about the project called Waste Land to raise awareness about urban poverty and established an audio-visual school for teenagers in a Rio favela.
“As someone deeply invested in understanding what is the relationship between my mind and my surrounding environment, whether natural, social or otherwise, I think that what we are trying to do – artists, scientists, chefs, journalists – we are trying to make sense between reality and mind,” says Muniz. “We are living in a crisis of reality. I feel it. There is a deficit of reality that is quite alarming. While we cannot control or remedy this completely, my solution is always to be very experimental about it. And I think working and getting out of the niche of contemporary art has always been very rewarding to me. I worked with people in a garbage dump, making art, I am working now with refugees in Bangladesh, and I worked with very sophisticated people in Champagne. The idea of being open is very important, and I love to be part of projects like this, when you have a chance to do this.”
In addition, the Ruinart x Vik Muniz collaboration marked the launch of the new “Food for Art” programme, which curates unique culinary experiences inspired by the partnership with the selected artist for the year and the champagnes of the house. Together with Muniz and Panaïotis, French chef David Toutain, whose eponymous restaurant in Paris was recently awarded two Michelin stars, crafted a six-hand menu based on root vegetables, and the theme of “shared roots” was born. “To create some dishes for Ruinart, it was not just to taste the champagne, but to go out and see where the grapes grow and the soil,” Toutain remarks. “We spoke about the dirt and the roots, and everything started to make sense. Roots for me were the main ingredients in creating the dishes. Roots are beautiful because they are different every season: winter, summer, spring, autumn. We spoke about texture, but for me, colour is very important because we used some green, some brown, some black, some blue. Everything we made was inspired by where the grapes were born. We shaped the entire menu around that so that it would make sense. We spoke about hands because you pick grapes with your hands, so after we decided to eat differently, not just with a fork, spoon and knife – we ate with our fingers. We made the menu with all the senses, not just the taste of the champagne.”
Muniz concludes, “We live in a world of images today – we see images all the time, on our phones. But what makes an image a work of art? I can always tell when somebody is going one step beyond what is usually done. He is not just cooking food; he is making food that makes people think about food. You are not just making wine; you are making wine that makes people think about how wine is made. I have worked with many materials for many years because each material forces me to adopt a different process. I’m not interested in materials; I’m interested in processes. What I think is interesting here is that when I met David and Frédéric, neither were interested in making only food or wine – there is something beyond that. Image becomes art when you look at it and you are not just seeing the image of art, but it inspires you to change the way you see things.”
This article was written by guest contributor Dionne Bel