As Maison Ruinart moves towards its 300th anniversary in 2029, the oldest champagne house in the world has chosen to celebrate with a ten-year countdown focused on art, nature, and sustainability. The house will work with a different contemporary artist each year to install a specially commissioned artwork in the grounds of Maison Ruinart to not only mark the historic occasion but also encourage visitors to consider their place in nature and how it can be preserved and protected. Earlier this month Berlin-based Argentinean artist Tomás Saraceno unveiled his work for 2021, and Nicola Leigh Stewart was there to observe the unique event
Daylight is rising over Reims cathedral. It is uncomfortably early but we are at the whim of the weather, especially today. Two hours from now, at 8am on July 2nd, Tomás Saraceno will unveil The Aerocene Project for Maison Ruinart, a collection of flying sculptures which require the energy of the sun to float above the earth. Fortunately we are predicted good weather, a lone sunny day in a month of rain.
In honour of the event, the evening before Maison Ruinart had hosted its first ever dinner in one of the house’s crayères, the almost impossibly deep chalk galleries that lie under the Maison and which provide the perfect conditions for ageing champagne. During the dinner I sat next to Tomás, who spoke with concern about not only climate change and our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels, but also the environment in general, social justice, and the lasting impact of the pandemic on both. It is this worry which has inspired the artist’s latest artistic project. Through flying his Aerocene sculptures Tomás wants us to imagine another form of movement: slowing floating without fossil fuels rather than flying with them. As the evening drew to a close the clink of champagne glasses was replaced with silence as Tomás took to a rocky podium to reflect on The Aerocene Project and the worries of climate change with the group. “We are always thinking about what will happen tomorrow: will it be good or bad weather? But we don’t know what will happen anymore.”
The next morning we awoke to sunshine. After a hasty breakfast of coffee and croissants guests were driven outside of Reims to Maison Ruinart. Almost immediately Tomás gathered us together in a large circle in the courtyard for a moment of meditation. We were asked to close our eyes, observe the sound of the birds, and be present. Tomás’ assistant Lucía performed a reading, a reinterpretation of the essay “Drift as a Planetary Phenomenon” by Bronislaw Szeszynski, in which the professor presents his idea that “drifting can lead us to a deeper understanding of the way that all things move, that move within the extended body of the Earth.” As if to give her words a physical embodiment, Aerocene flight trainer Lorenzo stepped forward to demonstrate the Aerocene. He opened a large backpack which carried inside it the flat-packed structure, crafted from a technical fabric similar to nylon and designed in black to absorb the heat that it needs in order to float. It also comes fitted with high tech GPS tracking device which records the trajectory of its flight. This recording is then transported to the Aerocene app which uses the data to create a line drawing, or what Tomás calls an aeroglyphic sculpture, of the Aerocene’s journey. It is this drawing which is the artwork, a digital piece called Movement that can be seen in the sky via the app’s augmented reality function when a user is in the vicinity of an Aerocene flight. As guests tapped away on iPhones to download the app, Lorenzo and another member of the team prepared the Aerocene for flight, each taking a corner of the fabric and running with it until it filled with warm air and transformed into a dark cloud-like balloon. Tomás took the tether and patiently walked the Aerocene around the courtyard. It was still early but the heat was increasing. So was the height of Aerocene, which now floated above the buildings of Maison Ruinart, no longer a lifeless fabric or even a balloon, but a floating sculpture powered not by fuel, but sun.
After the project’s inauguration in the courtyard we moved to Maison Ruinart’s vineyards a short drive away. Tomás and his team brought several backpacks and unpacked them on a large open field opposite the leafy vines. Two energetic volunteers repeated the process we observed in the courtyard, running with each Aeroecene to fill it with warm air. The sun was now surprisingly strong, too strong for most of the party who shaded under parasols to witness the artistic event. However, with those who did fly a sculpture reporting a unique sensation of being connected simultaneously to both land and air, The Aerocene Project is art to be experienced and immersed in rather than simply observed.
The idea to collaborate with Tomás came from Maison Ruinart’s desire to combine art with science in order to highlight the worrying progression of climate change, whose effects are now reaching every corner of the world, including our own. As Tomás told me over dinner the evening before, for him part of the appeal was working with a name bigger than his own in the hope that the message will reach more of us who need to hear it. The project isn’t the first time that Maison Ruinart has tried to shine a light on the environment and sustainability. Last year the champagne house launched an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional gift box in the form of an innovative paper skin which wraps around each bottle, whilst the 2019 artistic partnership with art duo Cyril Laurier and Maya Maouwad of Mouawad Laurier (Maison Ruinart’s ten-year countdown was interrupted in 2020 due to obvious reasons) also invited the viewer to reflect on the fragility of our ecosystem. However, this latest collaboration feels particularly poignant after an unexpected frost in April, which followed an unusually hot March, wiped out a large percentage of France’s vineyards. Thankfully for Maison Ruinart, Champagne was one of the few lesser affected regions however the threat is always there; in the last 30 years the average temperature in the region has risen by 1.3°C. This increase may sound small but it is enough to cause the grapes to ripen earlier, disrupting the schedule of the harvest and posing a new challenge and concern for winemakers.
Whilst Tomás’ latest artistic venture may seem fleeting – a short flight on a gust of warm air – his work with The Aerocene Project is far from over. The Aerocene Foundation hold backpacks at borrowing stations around the world, including London, for public use, those interested simply need to contact the foundation via the website. Maison Ruinart will also keep a backpack and there are talks to hold more Aerocene flights in the Champagne region, which guests of the champagne house could potentially attend. Visitors will also be able to view the Movement artwork in the sky above Reims by using the app during their visit. During Tomás’ presentation I asked Ruinart’s president, Frédéric Dufour, what was the plan B in case the weather hadn’t been as expected or taken a turn for the worse. “That’s a good question!” he replied. The same question could be asked in regards to climate change but, as Tomás’ work has highlighted, here there is no plan B.