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2018.03.14 Wed, by
Grand Kanaal — interview with Axel & Boris Vervoordt

Axel Vervoordt is one of the most influential interior designers of his generation, with clients running the gauntlet from Bill Gates and Calvin Klein to Robert De Niro, Sting and Kanye West. Axel started his career as a collector and art dealer, and in recent years, he’s returned to this with his son Boris, who leads the gallery in Antwerp and Hong Kong, as well the company’s architecture and design business. Ran Dian spoke with Axel and Boris on chilly, bright day in London’s Regent’s Park about creating exhibitions at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Korean art, and their new HQ at Kanaal, located just outside of Antwerp.

Palazzo Fortuny, Venice

燃点 Ran Dian: So, this year was the last time you go to work with Fortuny?

Axel Vervoordt: I’ve worked with Fortuny for ten years. The first exhibition I thought that I would do, for one time in my lifetime, just to share my way of looking at art, and the way I look at Minimalist art, whereby time itself would transform the material.

Artempo, 2007, included 300 objects by over 80 artists, including Francis Bacon, Alberto Burri, Fontana, Giacometti, James Turell, Picasso and Warhol.

Axel and Boris Vervoordt in front of a work by Gutai artist, Kazuo Shiraga, at frieze London 2018 (photo Chris Moore)

Axel and Boris Vervoordt in front of a work by Gutai artist, Kazuo Shiraga, at frieze London 2018 (photo Chris Moore)

For me, [the staging] is as good as any other artist would put an appealing mirror next to an appealing picture of Murakami and an appealing picture of Andy Warhol, just to prove that we have to look at things, not because of the name, but also because many things are very fascinating. Also, showing how old Venice and the old walls are the most beautiful abstract art, made by time. When one day they restore Venice, I think it will be terrible. It would be like Disney world.

Otto Boll (b.1952, Germany) Untitled, 1994, Aluminium, steel, 400 cm, Edition 1 of 6, shown with classical torso.

Otto Boll (b.1952, Germany)
Untitled, 1994, Aluminium, steel, 400 cm, Edition 1 of 6, shown with classical torso.

I never thought I would do such an important exhibition. [I decided] I will do it, even with the risk that nobody even likes it. I will do it on a basis in a way I feel it’s going to be an important message for the world. It’s like sharing the experiences in all my life, everything I worked for.

After that exhibition Artempo, when I was in Japan I saw the Noguchi workshop, with all the unfinished sculptures. I liked his unfinished sculptures, more than the finished ones. I realized that the real infinity — the divine — is present in the non-finished. Then we made the exhibition “Infinitum” from the ideas in Noguchi’s workshop. I called Daniela Ferretti [Director of Palazzo Fortuny] — “Can I get the Palazzo a second time?” and she immediately said, “Yes”.

Through my friendship with architect Tatsuro Miki, we talked a lot about where East meets West and about the search for the universal spirit, where contemporary art — all the Zero art especially — and the emptiness, already in the old culture of the East, where it meets. Then we worked together with scientists in the dialogues to create the concept for each exhibition…

燃点 Ran Dian: You work with scientists, as well?

Axel: Yes, I work with scientists, as well as specialists in architecture, musicians. We have a group of eight to ten people, who come together for meetings. Every exhibition includes one year of preparing the theme—knowing what the theme means before we choose the art—and then we spend one year choosing the art.

In the beginning, a lot of people didn’t understand what I was doing… A lot of colleagues said, “Oh, he’s not a curator. And it really hurt me a lot, when people said that because it was something really very profound, I wanted to do.

Now, since PROPORTIO won a prize for the best exhibition of the year, people really are believing in it and they love it. …I never believed in splitting the contemporary art from the old art. Almost all my life I have combined both. My work is always searching for a dialogue between both.

I love to find very old things that look like contemporary art and I like to find contemporary art that has the serenity, the feeling, that Renaissance concept, the feeling of old art, as well… I never wanted to have a style. It’s always searching for something new, it’s always evolution. It’s trying to understand the essence of life. I like to bring art in an atmosphere that you really feel it. I was just at one of the big auction houses and it was overlit. There were so many spotlights on a Fontana and on a Rothko, it looked like color. You didn’t see the image in the work. The image is very important, the energy. With a little light, you make it very sacred, very silent, and [then] energy comes out of the work. Then you feel it, you’re getting contact with it! Living with art is like living with an artist, living with a friend, somebody at home, you start resembling it.

燃点 Ran Dian: Do people start resembling their art, the same as dog owners, resemble their dog?

Axel: Exactly, it’s like that!

燃点 Ran Dian: How do you describe yourself?

Axel: I don’t know. I’m mainly an art dealer now. But I also share a life experience, a way of life. I don’t like to [distinguish] good wine from art, from great architecture. For me, it’s all in one, really. I like to purify, to adapt every moment. When people say I’m an antique dealer, I’m also an antique dealer and I’m also an architect, I do a lot of architecture, I love architecture. A curator and so many things. I can’t find one word for it.


Anish Kapoor installation

James Turrell installation “Red Shift”, 1995, ©JanLiégeois, Courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundatio


燃点 Ran Dian: How did you start? How were you introduced to art?

Axel: I started very, very young. When I was a child, my mother took me to see our cousins. They were artists, they there were musicians, they played violin —

燃点 Ran Dian: Was this at Antwerp or somewhere else?

Axel: It was mainly outside Antwerp — Brussels. They had workshops [they let me use] and very soon I was seven and I made a Christ, because I couldn’t believe that when Christ is a God, that he could suffer. So, I made a smiling Christ like a Buddha, that was not suffering. I was in a Jesuit college and the Jesuits liked it a lot and they reproduced it a 100 times and to hang in all of the classrooms. That was a little bit of first success when I was seven.

燃点 Ran Dian: [laughs]

Axel: After that, I did science and mathematics but my mother took me to art classes, as well, formal art classes, which I always loved. I started to collect stones.

燃点 Ran Dian: That’s very Chinese.

Axel: Yes. I think, in a way, perhaps the best I could describe myself is, I’m a collector of stones that tries to give them a better place. [laughs]

燃点 Ran Dian: You grew up in Antwerp?

Axel: Close to Antwerp. My father was a horse dealer. I was surrounded by horses. It was his passion and for him, horse was a passion, as to me, art is a passion.

燃点 Ran Dian: That’s funny because a lot of art dealers are described as horse traders, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively! Later on, when you were finishing school, what were you deciding to become, or did you?

Axel: I needed a sabbatical. I was fourteen. I went alone to England. My parents paid for the trip and I went to stay with family. I already had to raise some money because I was all the time buying and selling, and I bought a lot in England. I came back full of silver and things to put in my room and then all of my parent’s friends bought it. Every school holiday [from then on] I was going on buying trips.

燃点 Ran Dian: By yourself in London. When was this?

Axel: When I was fourteen, so in 1961.

燃点 Ran Dian: So you were a collector before you were an architect?

Axel: Yes. My father would say, to be a good collector you have to study and have a good business or a good factory, and then you can be a good collector. I went to university when I was eighteen but I wanted to give up the studies. I hated economic studies! I was already collecting and doing business and already I had some money. I went to the army for the sabbatical year.

燃点 Ran Dian: Sabbatical year?!

Axel: [laughs] That’s the thing I wanted to do! When I went to the [army], I said, “you don’t need me in the army because I won’t kill anybody. Not the enemy either!

They put me in the pharmacy, to cure people. Quickly I turned the apothecary into a bar, so everybody came to have an aperitif I had some martini and gin. [laughs] I asked everybody, do you have anything to sell? Ask your grandmother, go look in the attic. And I bought immensely well at the army. I bought eight [….] silver and I bought a fabulous painting of Magritte, a very famous painting of Magritte …

燃点 Ran Dian: whilst you were on your ‘sabbatical’ in the army?!

Axel: [laughs] That was the start that made me say, my talent is here; I won’t study further!

I never wanted to [have a] shop because I don’t like the feeling of having to shop. I want to live with the things I buy. My mother was already collecting old houses, [which] she was renting to artists in the center of the city — 15th, 16th century houses — and I said I also want to have a very old house to restore because I like the really old houses.

Then my mother found a beautiful medieval street near the cathedral of Antwerp. I wanted to buy one or two houses but I could only buy the whole street or nothing. Then I bought the whole street [laughs], and I was not 22 yet!

Installation in grain silo at Axel Vervoordt Foundation, photo Chris Moore

Installation in grain silo at Axel Vervoordt Foundation, photo Chris Moore

燃点 Ran Dian: It was during that time you started to develop your aesthetic?

Axel: Yes. I never realized [I was developing it]. It’s a continuation of discovering things, of meeting wonderful people. In the beginning I restored these houses with different artists. I’ve always been surrounded by artists. I met Jef Verheyen (1932-84), the most important Zero artist in Belgium. He introduced me to all the Zero group, from Günther Uecker (b.1930) to Lucio Fontana (1899-1969).

Boris: At that moment, Antwerp was the real artist center for that generation.

Axel: Yes, Günther had a workshop. They all had studios in the courtyard around my place, and even in my place.

燃点 Ran Dian: What was the address?

Axel: Vlaeykensgang.

Boris: Antwerp is not a very big city but it has a strong cultural background.

Axel: And a lot of creators, also in fashion.

Boris: There is a strong sense of pride but we realize that we are not Paris or London. A lot of the designs come from the Latin and Anglo-Saxon worlds and in a way these visions are combined.

燃点 Ran Dian: Antwerp was historically a major trading center, also of the Diamond Market?

Boris: In this generation of artists Antwerp was very, very fortunate in the 1960′s, as a hub, but then in the 1970s and ’80s, it was also a center for fashion and the fashion school got started. The proximity of London helped. Antwerp was like an island that’s very close to everything. Japan has that same quality.

Anish Kapoor installation “At the Edge of the World” 2017, in a custom-made pavilion at Kanaal © Laziz Hamani

Anish Kapoor installation “At the Edge of the World” 2017, in a custom-made pavilion at Kanaal © Laziz Hamani

燃点 Ran Dian: Actually, I think Japan is more like England. Island on the coast of a big continent with whom it has a difficult relationship. 

Boris: That’s also something in Antwerp.

Axel: Yes. Antwerp people don’t feel Flemish.

燃点 Ran Dian: No.

Axel: They are Antwerp?

燃点 Ran Dian: Yes.

Axel: You know there are in Belgium since the 19th century but Antwerp since middle ages.

燃点 Ran Dian: Yes, exactly. The city, the culture, is very important.

Axel: It has always been invaded by all kinds of Austrians, Germans, Spanish,…

燃点 Ran Dian: So how did it develop? You’ve done up your first set of houses…

Axel: Then we bought another house and we acquired part of the neighborhood in the street. In 1984, we needed a bigger space to expand the business. A lot of people had escaped from Belgium and were investing in America. [The exchange rate] was almost like two Euros to a Dollar, and there were several beautiful castles for sale. We fell in love with the castle of ‘s-Gravenwezel, where we live in now and which had not been on the market since 1728. It’s why it is still a beautiful, big property near the city.

I love the place so much. I am missing it now! And there again we live, we sell. It’s a mixture of things from our private collection and from the private collection we made a foundation, so it has a future.

燃点 Ran Dian: When did you set up a foundation? That’s quite recent though.

Boris: 2008. After Artempo, we realized that the collection has a future as a group. It meant more as a group than as an individual.

燃点 Ran Dian: But it’s a foundation, it’s not a museum?

Boris: The collection — It’s a permanent collection.

Axel: For me, as always in my life, everything was so mixed, but the collection is protected by a foundation.

Boris: But the physicality of it is its pieces. It’s really a permanent collection, it’s not [like] a building, so it is protected for future generations. That’s really the reason why it’s exists.

Axel: With the foundation, we lend to other museums, we do these big exhibitions [like] in Fortuny.


燃点 Ran Dian: When was your first foray into Japan? Because one of the strengths of the collection and gallery is Japan.

Axel: My interest in the Far East is very old. I feel very at home in the Eastern world. When I go into Japanese monasteries I really feel at home there.

燃点 Ran Dian: In your twenties you went to Thailand?

Axel: Yes, and then I bought quite a lot because I like very much the early Thai periods. These are really the 6th to 10th century, the beginning. Very, very pure.

Tan'yu KANO (1602 - 1674) Six-panel screen featuring a dragon within clouds, Ink on paper, 17th century, 171 x 372 cm

Tan’yu KANO (1602 – 1674) Six-panel screen featuring a dragon within clouds, Ink on paper, 17th century, 171 x 372 cm

Axel: In 2003, I discovered Gutai and that was a major change in my life. I was so flabbergasted by that. Wow, that’s exactly what I was looking for my whole life. I was so enthusiastic that every day I would meet another Gutai artist and I bought everything they had…Then the success came so quickly, I think we now have a major collection of Gutai works, which is protected by the foundation, so we will never sell them. We’ve lent many pieces to major shows in the past at the Guggenheim in NYC and MCA in Chicago.

Axel Vervoordt (photo Kris Janssens, 2016 ©)

Axel Vervoordt (photo Kris Janssens, 2016 ©)


燃点 Ran Dian: Have you traveled much in China?

Axel: Yes. Much more in Japan than China but now we’re busy with a great project in Hangzhou.… Beautiful Hangzhou. Hangzhou — to stay there is fantastic. You have to go look at it, it’s the most beautiful I have ever seen. Old village [Wuzhen] totally restored.

燃点 Ran Dian: What are you doing in Hangzhou?

Axel: We are doing a project for a designer in an old quarry in the mountains. In front is a lake. In the quarry, we have to make an exhibition room or meditation room. 

El Anatsui with Boris and Axel Vervoordt at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong

El Anatsui with Boris and Axel Vervoordt at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong

Hong Kong

燃点 Ran Dian: Can you tell me, given your close relationship with Japan, why open a gallery in Hong Kong? Why not in Tokyo?

Boris: It has a lot to do with evolution. Hong Kong is a kind of a new territory, [whereas] Tokyo is already developed. We decided to do Hong Kong in a very intuitive way, [because] we have an existing relationship with it.

Axel:  We have a long relationship with Hong Kong.

燃点 Ran Dian: When was your first time in Hong Kong?

Axel: In the 1980s. I bought, officially from the state, fantastic pieces. In those days they were excavating things and they needed money.

燃点 Ran Dian: Wow. Then you probably got some incredible pieces.

Axel: Yes.

燃点 Ran Dian: Which would not be possible now.

Axel: No. Totally impossible now.

The gallery

Axel: Boris started the gallery in 2011. He wanted to split from all that way of life, the mixture that we do of architecture, art, and furniture.

Boris: It’s really about the representation of an artist. To go to the studio and say, I am going to represent you and I am going to introduce these works to a new audience of museums and collectors, you have to go through an exhibition and it has to be the message of the artist, it cannot be our reading. Our reading can be in the selection of the pieces and the curating choices you make. The work itself needs be there for itself.

The first presentation, at that moment, I think can only be the message of one artist. That’s why we do the solo shows. After that, it will have [its own] life, it will end up in somebody’s home or it might go to a museum.

Because we were in Venice and Basel, we realized that the artists had confidence in us, and we wanted to do something for them, and also it was about friendships that that were there from the beginning. That’s why I did the first solo show with Günther Uecker.

Axel: An old friendship.

Boris: It links back to my own youth — when I was born, that’s when they met.

燃点 Ran Dian: You grew up with all these artists around you?

Boris: Yes.

燃点 Ran Dian: Was there any point in your life growing up when you had to begin with the, “Oh art, I can’t stand this. This is what my father did.”

Axel: No, he loved it! His brother didn’t like it at first. But he changed!

Boris: This artist mentor of my father, Jef Verheyen, introduced me to photography and pushed me into art.

Axel: It’s true.

Boris: He taught me a lot about photography. I was six, seven.

Axel: He gave you a camera.

燃点 Ran Dian: What did you study? Did you study art history?

Boris: I studied economics first, and —

燃点 Ran Dian: — Notwithstanding what he said about economics?

Boris: [chuckle] Then I did the course with Christie’s.

Axel: Our second son, Dick, he does real estate. He went to study in Canada, perhaps he wanted to get away from us!

燃点 Ran Dian: [laughs]

Axel: And he returned like lost son.

Axel Vervoordt Foundation, Kanaal

Axel Vervoordt Foundation, Kanaal


Kanaal, a converted mill on the outskirts of Antwerp, is the ambitious and striking new headquarters of Axel Vervoordt, including gallery, foundation, architecture and design office, shop and apartments. [Boris to confirm desired description]

Boris: I feel the gallery has reached a new stage, with Kanaal opening and the new spaces, and the gallery program that will run there next to the program of Axel’s curating the collection, and all of the dynamics that will arise, they will come together but each will have its own voice.

That’s also the permanent installations, like the Kapoor you saw, there is James Turrell also.

Axel: Now we have the James Turrell installed in a former chapel.

Boris: It also gives a benchmark.

Axel: James Turrell, Kapoor — it works together.

Boris: For the gallery program, we will start with Saburo Murakami (1925-1996), who’s a very important –

Axel: Gutai.

Boris: The most important member of Gutai and quite unknown, because his production was very small, and so market hasn’t really developed — there’s no real visibility, because there are so few pieces. That’s a rediscovery idea, [which] is very much present in the program. We will also have more established contemporary art, with El Anatsui (b.1944). Then Lucia Bru (b.1970), a younger Brussels artist who is for me a discovery. She is 44 years old, and her work is at price level that many people can afford. I like to see this dynamic when you can walk [around Kanaal] and discover an Egyptian piece or a work by Lucia. Everything will make each other stronger.

An installations in one of Kanaal's eight former grain silos: Takis (b.1925)

An installations in one of Kanaal’s eight former grain silos: Takis (b.1925) “Signal” 1968, a kinetic work in iron, aluminium, bronze and steel. Photo: Courtesy Laziz Hamani, courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

Axel Vervoordt (photography by Viktor Bentley 2015 © )

Axel Vervoordt (photography by Viktor Bentley 2015 © )



燃点 Ran Dian: Something else you’re very much, profoundly engaging, is book production. You produce a lot of books. And they are of extremely fine quality.

Axel: I think it’s important to do books. Especially for the artist, this is the best present you can give to an artist.

Boris: The virtual world with its algorithms only make knowledge available that everybody knows. It’s very difficult to find the information when nobody is looking for it.

燃点 Ran Dian: Yes. You also employ in-house a number of art historians. You’ve got a team of them.

Axel: Yes, we have doctors in science, we have five I think.

Boris: We have many more, but not all of them work in the art history department…It’s definitely a plus if you do an interview with us if you have a degree in art history. History is something that has to be re-written all the time.

燃点 Ran Dian: I think history and time is a key part of the whole aesthetical concept behind what you do.

Axel: I think it’s also the concept of the void, giving body to the void, as the void is our own origin. That’s why I love Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008) so much, because he was really into being one with the void, one with emptiness, before he made a painting. The painting is like the Big Bang. It’s like the origin of the world. I think the whole collection is lot about our real origin.

Boris: Yes but your process — your learning curve — is by learning from the past, you see the future. We might often look back, but it’s really because we feel we are working on the future.

Axel: Yes. There’s no rule, it’s a free walk in a way. But then when you look back, you find something in common. It’s always searching, always.

Boris: That’s why the idea of program and process is so important. It’s like we build something somehow, and in the end, it made sense.

Axel: I think all great creativity comes out of total freedom. 燃点

Axel Vervoordt: Inauguration Kanaal

Axel Vervoordt: Inauguration Kanaal