When Hennessy tapped contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang to help celebrate a birthday unlike any other, the famed fireworks auteur delivered a poetic, ephemeral interpretation of the elements of cognac, and a visual poem with themes on loss, destruction and optimism. The Chinese artist, who was behind the grand fireworks at the Beijing Olympics and whose gun powder paintings hang in museums all over the world, delivered a daytime spectacle dedicated to a world aching under a global pandemic.
“A World Odyssey,” in honor of Hennessy X.O’s 150th anniversary, was live-streamed from the banks of the Charente River in France, steps from Hennessy’s headquarters, on September 25. It was also beamed onto massive screens in New York City’s Times Square and across social media platforms.
The work, inspired by Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, took some of the essential parts of cognac-making (wood, smoke, fire, water) and transformed them into a three-part meditation on the cyclical nature of pain and optimism, punctuated by trails of colored smoke that unfurled like calligraphy. More than 150 oak barrels used to make cognac were set to float on the river, and loaded up with over 20,000 fireworks. The fireworks were remotely detonated from a safe distance, as crowds watched along the river.
There were delicate, unexpected touches incorporated, such as a series of river lantern fireworks that skipped across the water, as well as streams of stacked rainbow ribbons for the finale. During the live stream, the artist introduced each section of the work, and narrated elements of the action. (A full replay of the event is now available on Hennessy.com, YouTube and Facebook.)
“At first glance, having a firework performance seemed like a simple celebration,” Cai Guo-Qiang says. “However, if we change our perspective and watch the fireworks from a different angle, it could become a vision for a hopeful future as it gives us a sense of resilience, courage and optimism.”
“We want to encourage people to stay positive and look ahead into a brighter future,” he adds. “That’s the reason why I’ve decided to use fireworks during daytime instead. It can endure the change in weather and storms, hoping it can really reflect the human spirit we all share.”
Gun powder, the artist points out, was originally used as in medicine and for healing. Gun powder’s flammability led to its use in war, but its components (sulphur, saltpeter and charcoal) were originally deployed for purification and sanitation. It’s that long-lost feature, as well as the joy in fireworks themselves, that the artist hopes to bring to the global event. “As we are overcoming a global pandemic collectively, we must come together, set off this colorful celebration and use fireworks for its original purpose – to heal,” Cai Guo-Qiang said.
An outdoor, globally live-streamed event, which the public can enjoy from a safe distance, might be a turning point for luxury brands like Hennessy, which typically host rarefied invite-only affairs. While Hennessy itself was founded over 250 years ago, 2020 is the 150-year anniversary of its flagship product, Hennessy X.O. A major milestone like turning 150 years would, in pre-pandemic times, be the occasion for grand balls and late night parties. Instead, the storied maison is taking the opportunity to share their event with the world, and hopefully bring a touch of inspiration in otherwise dark times.
“2020 will remain in all our memories for its uncertainty and difficulty,” says Laurent Boillot, chairman and CEO of Hennessy. “This exceptional performance is intended as a message of hope—and we feel that today it is practically our duty to be optimistic. Cai Guo-Qiang’s work has an impalpable poetry, as does Hennessy X.O.”