Daytime fireworks may seem oxymoronic, not so for Chinese pyrotechnic wizard Cai Guoqiang.
The artist’s international reputation exploded following his display at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and led to exhibitions from Florence’s Uffizi to Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, a Netflix documentary in which Cai blasted a ladder into the heavens, and now a live streamed display created with French cognac brand Hennessy.
To mark Hennessy X.O’s 150th anniversary, the LVMH-owned brand invited Cai to create a 15-minute firework performance on Cognac’s Charente river, Sept 25. Produced to coincide with the end of the harvest, the display was live streamed on Tencent, Facebook, YouTube, and Hennessy’s own website. The event is part of its “World Odyssey” program which has also tapped architect Frank Gehry to provide a new interpretation of the Hennessy XO Decanter.
The broadcast began with an introduction from Hennessy’s Master Blender Renaud Filloux de Gironde before providing a behind the scenes look at the preparation Cai and his pyrotechnic team took to make a daytime explosion possible — it involved a two-week quarantine, 150 Hennessy barrels, and 20,000 fireworks. Inspired at a moment of global suffering by Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy”, Cai addressed his audience at the beginning of the live stream saying he hoped to “honor the human spirit of optimist while acknowledging pain and the universal values of resilience, courage, and hope.”
Poetic license. Although Cai’s performance was live streamed on a handful of non-Chinese platforms, the inclusion of Tencent evidenced Hennessy’s will to make connections in China. Cai talked to the audience (in Mandarin) throughout the explosion event and connected each of the three acts to elements of traditional Chinese culture, including the poetry of Li Bai, ghosts, and different calligraphy styles. This allowed Hennessy to make cultural connections that it would have less authority to on its own.
(un)Planned authenticity. While the spectacular footage from a drone spoke of Hennessy’s professional approach, the live stream was far from flawless. A week of rain hampered preparations, strong wind distorted plumes of smoke, and technical connectivity issues momentarily postponed the event. And yet, this added to the intimacy of Cai’s display with the artist calmly addressing his audience — “can my computer do it?” he asked hopefully at one point. It made his exclamations and gleeful yelps of excitement all the more intimate.
Southern comfort. Cognac may have the highest penetration of all imported spirits in China, according to a 2017 Mintel Report, but it still has great room to grow. Since 2016 Hennessy has focused on promoting its brand heavily in southern China — leading to events in Guangzhou, Xiamen, and Shunde. Accordingly, tapping one of South China’s most celebrated contemporary artists to promote the brand (in his southern accent) makes sense.