Rodney Graham, Labelmaker


On the Tuscan coast of Italy rests a vineyard that, after six years of collaborations with artists, is beginning to resemble a small art gallery or miniature museum. The Ornellaia Estate displays a range of artworks created by artists from around the world, including a sculpture composed of gold spindles twisting outward from a central point by German artist Rebecca Horn. Horn’s sculpture stands in one of two wine cellars, far beneath two other sculptures by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletti and Zhang Huan, which stand in front of the estate. This month, Ornellaia will add a six-by-eight-foot black and white photograph taken by Canadian artist Rodney Graham to its collection.

“Rodney did a group exhibition in Rome and the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1997, so I’ve known his work for many years,” Ornellaia curator Bartolomeo Pietromarchi said. “There’s this sense with the wine, which he interpreted very, very well.”

Every year, Ornellaia partners with an artist from a country important to its market for the series Vendemmia D’Artista. The series invites the selected artist to interpret the name of the year’s harvest through creating an artwork and designing labels for bottles of vintage wines that are then auctioned, with proceeds benefitting local art organizations. Since the Vendemmia D’Artista‘s inception in 2009, artists from the United States, Germany, England, Italy, and China have interpreted characteristics like L’Energia (energy), L’Armonia (harmony), and L’Equilibrio (equilibrium), with proceeds donated to institutions including the Whitney Museum in New York, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and Royal Opera House in London. Last week, Graham debuted his photograph and read excerpts of his original poetry that accompany this year’s harvest, L’Infinito (infinity), at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“I became obsessed with light, rhyming poetry and making shapes of labels that follow [the words],” Graham told us the afternoon before the auction. “It was meant to be amusing.”

Although Graham is widely known for photographic and film endeavors, rather than embossing the L’Infinito wine labels with photographs, he wrote a series of poems. Thus, each label had a different light verse pantoum—a Malaysian form of poetry— about topics ranging from balcony chairs to the characteristics of ballerinas.

The poems are humorous and full of irony regarding the culture of wine and art. For example, two stanzas of one poem titled Le Balcon (for Baudelaire) read: “I wrote this verse / In the open air / With a registered nurse / In a collapsible chair / In the open air / After a major incision / In a collapsible chair / Under strict supervision.” As Pietromarchi commented, “The sense of irony was something we had never had until now, which I consider absolutely central to the wine.”

The photograph Graham made for Ornellaia’s estate is in one sense an extension of his personal series of inverted trees that he began in the ’80s, but in another sense, the collaborative project required Graham to push his boundaries. “I struggle with special projects like this,” he said. “It’s not entirely my comfort zone. I came up with a lot of different ideas before settling.”

During a black-tie dinner auction and gala on June 12 at the AGO in Toronto, nine lots of bottles featuring Graham’s poetry were auctioned by Sotheby’s, raising over $115,000. In addition to one 9-liter Salmanazar, 10 6-liter Imperials, and 100 3-liter Double Magnums, each lot at auction also included a book of Graham’s poems bound in materials like leather and canvas.

“I knew I was going to work with good bookbinders and printers in Florence,” Graham said. “Working with Italian craftspeople made that interesting.”