t the Zaha Hadid-designed Guangzhou Opera House — a squat organic structure of latticed glass and dove-grey granite — premium cognac producer Hennessy has chosen to launch its 250th birthday world tour. The show, which travels to Moscow, New York, Johannesburg and Paris, is a constellation of contemporary art works orbiting a limited release Hennessy collector’s blend produced from only 250 casks of the finest oak.
Hennessy is the world’s largest exporter of cognac, and nouveau riche China is the world’s biggest importer by value. So it made perfect sense to kick off the 250th anniversary world tour in China’s southern megacity of 14million; a thrusting boomtown where, as a Hennessy spokesman succinctly explains, “they buy a lot of cognac”.
Early in a media preview of the art exhibition unveiled in Guangzhou — six installations have been especially curated to reflect the House of Hennessy’s heritage — I’m drawn to a video installation designed by the English-born artist Charles Sandison. It’s a narration, using digitised and archival sources, of Hennessy’s complex genealogy: a braiding together of one Irish and one French family line. Sandison starts his timeline, naturally enough, with a portrait of founder Richard Hennessy. An Irishman who fought in France in the service of Louis XV, Richard Hennessy was rewarded with a royal land grant in Cognac. The commune that lends its name to the world’s finest brandy straddles the river Charente whose mouth, on the Atlantic, afforded 18th-century producers easy access to the English market for distilled spirits. In the portrait Hennessy wears his regimental kit, and beside him in large type embossed on a raised plaque is the year — 1765 — in which he decided to enter the spirit trade.
It’s only after reading the inauguration date of 1765 on Sandison’s timeline that the depth of the Hennessy legacy really registers. “The Maison is older by 23 years than Australia,” I explain to a Hennessy executive, who offers a Gallic pout and a reflective tilt of the head before reaching for a notebook to take the point down. Heritage is of supreme importance to a brand such as Hennessy, boasting a chain of family ties, even though the company itself is subsumed into the LVMH group, and this little riff on the 250th birthday theme casts the Maison’s story in a fresh light.
The travelling Hennessy show is not only about the brand and the product — it’s also about the people and
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