Brussels-based collector Alain Servais is not only an art expert but a visionary. InWho’s still workin’ on this masterpiece? the Servais family collection is explored in all its thought-provoking complexity.
“What is it that motivates a collector? Sometimes, I say that a collector may be nothing more than a pair of eyes that sees what others try to think later,” collector Herman Daled once said in an interview for Initiart Magazine. “By this I mean that a collector is a man of action.”
That definition suits Alain Servais pretty well. A long-time collector, the Belgian financial adviser is regarded by many as both a visionary with a sharp eye for talent and an expert in art and its market. Ubiquitous, he seems to be everywhere, tirelessly walking down the art fairs alleys and biennales around the globe. He says it himself: his curiosity is insatiable and he often has the urge to be on the move.
Rooted in the reality of humanity and its evolution, the Servais family collection is infused with the founder’s dynamism. For Servais, being a great collector means being a step ahead of time to identify what is essential before everybody else does. He focuses on artworks that will be remembered 100 years from now.
He believes these are the ones dealing with socio-politico-economic challenges, as the movements that have marked the history of art are those that reflect the social or economic changes of their times, be it Impressionism and the industrial revolution, or Pop Art and consumerism. The collector argues that to remain relevant, he has to adapt almost constantly.
He defines the collection as a snapshot of the world, encapsulating what is happening at a given moment. That gives the Servais family collection a dynamic polymorphic structure, as opposed to the linearity of museum collections, which usually illustrate an evolution over time. This sense of “art in motion” is also linked to Servais’ constant questioning about what art is for him and about what matters today.
He is convinced that to be interesting, a collection needs to reflect the collector’s worldview. Servais is an optimistic pessimist. Violence, sex and chaos are omnipresent. But he is hopeful that usually final catastrophes are ultimately avoided. And art is a way to make viewers feel and see what is happening, by surprising them and challenging their preconceptions. For “art is language which opens your heart to the Other,” as collector Mera Rubell once said.
Looking at the world and its challenges, Servais has identified a few key topics that shape his collection: minorities, globalisation, information technology, religion and environment. His interest in minorities relates deeply to Claude Levi-Strauss’ theories on anthropology and ethnology: one can analyse societies and judge their level of “maturity” through the way they treat their minorities, whether religious, racial, political or sexual.
Servais is also deeply allergic to Western solipsism and centralism, underscoring the importance of the very notion of globalisation and the access to dynamic art scenes, from Latin America to Asia, reflected in the collection by the acquisition of works by artists from around the globe. Information technology and the Internet are another major driver of development over the past decades, and it is no wonder that digital art is so present in the collection.
Deeply inspired by French philosopher Edgar Morin, Servais acknowledges primal animal instincts, which translates into artworks that are often crude and troubling, revealing the compulsions, violence and desires as ingrained in humans as they are in animals. It gives the collection a certain rawness, which may be perturbing for some viewers; Servais likes to say that art should disturb him.
“This violence that you don’t like to see in art is also inside you, so, don’t reject it! Because sometimes when you are conscious of that violence, you can control it; if you are not conscious of it, it can explode and then you don’t know how to react to it or control it,” he told Initiart Magazine in 2009.
The works reflect the integrity and the audacity of a collector who gathers art that shows the world as it is, not as it should be, without concession. Collecting comes with responsibility: art has an important function in society, having in part overtaken the educational role media used to have. Part of the responsibility of the collector is to contribute to the transmission of knowledge, by giving artists a platform. And, in that respect, collectors like Servais help write the history of art. He has an undeniable eye, like for Thomas Houseago, whose works he bought at the beginning of the artist’s career. A great collector has flair – Servais likes to mention Pinault, Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Stein – and is not afraid to take risks.
This audacity, and maybe a certain sense of the dramatic, is palpable when entering the Loft, in Brussels, where Servais is sharing part of his collection with the public through annual thematic exhibitions. Visitors are immediately confronted by a life-size walking TV man who seems to head towards them. The sculpture could be humorous, with the filiform body and the massive TV head. Instead, the violent images are screaming at us: Look! Here is what is happening today!
The Apostle by The Bruce High Quality Foundation immediately sets the tone of the current exhibition, Who’s still workin’ on this masterpiece? Curated by Dragos Olea from the collective APPARATUS 22, it addresses the process of collecting, its function in societies, the meaning of the works as a group and the role of the collector.
Asked about his choice of curator, Servais shrugs. Olea has been in residence at the Loft for two years now. Artists are allowed to stay there as long as they need. His knowledge of the space, as well as his involvement in the contemporary art scene, have made him the obvious curator to set up an astonishing show that focuses on the storytelling potential of the act of collecting, and how that unfolds in the context of the Servais family collection.
The narrative of the exhibition is non-linear and best described as being in a hypertext mode: this references the links in texts we can click to get access to content, in a webpage or text. Each work seems to incorporate a web of references and ideas; throughout the exhibition, works appear to be in continuous dialogue with one another, complementing a point of view or contradicting it. It engages the viewers provoking reactions and thoughts. Even more importantly, it provides another window to experience, feel and, why not, to change the world. And it works: the complexity of the artworks, and their messages, are thought-provoking. Although not too large, the exhibition requires full concentration and an open mind.
Throughout the Loft, installations co-exist with videos, photographs and multimedia sculptures. A very peculiar “music” emerges throughout the exhibition. On the scruffy ground floor, the contemporary cacophony of The Apostles seems justified by the unbearable silence of The Petrified Petrol Pump by Allora & Calzadilla, which broaches the contentious subject of energy consumption, not unlike the fossilised future we are building for ourselves.
A low and maybe reassuring note is given by Mater Veritas, by Russian artist Gluklya. It raises quietly above the other works, in her corner. The installation reflects upon the interconnection between botanic culture and organic culture and may open a new door to the reflection going on in the agitated mind of the viewers. But this moment of hope is sliced by a saw blade, etched with beautiful calligraphy, casually lying on the ground.
“So here, there is a saw, which can be bad – it can cut people, it’s sharp. Yet on it is this beautiful calligraphy, which talks about the uniqueness of God. So what I was interested in was how the Quran can be interpreted by different people in both violent and beautiful ways,” the artist Mounir Fatmi said in an interview with The National. He questions, plays and provokes with caustic insolence, taking on notions of power and all kinds of extremism.
The Flags, by Andrea Canepa, then give room for the viewer to imagine the future. Pieced together from the flags every South American nation, they create a unified representation of the geographic region. And the viewer carries on this journey towards introspection of the self, its relationship to others, nature and the universe, through works from Folkert de Jong, Elsa Sahal, Nikki Lee, Ryan Trecartin, Apparatus 22, Lynn Aldrich and Julian Charriere. Notes are high and low, sometimes hurtful. The small door at the back of the space provides a welcome break from the dark polyphony on the ground floor. Viewers walk up the purple stairs towards the unknown, wondering what the present holds for them.
The bedrooms, on the mezzanine floor, are used by the artists in residence but are also turned into exhibition spaces. There, the “melody” changes and becomes more subtle, intimate even. The rhythm of the exhibition slows down and viewers can take a breath, recuperate from their experience on the ground floor.
In the first bedroom, the works question reality, image and perception. A large and glittery award, Kassel Congratulant by GCC, shows how different the image and their reality of the Arab world can be. Two cloaks – Art is Work by Apparatus 22 – refer to the topic of valuation and remuneration of artistic work. Olea insists that creative freedom is romanticised and reflects on the reasons behind the structural poverty of the cultural sector.
In the corridor, the Rag Faces by Korean artist Yoon Ji Seon are arresting. The self-portraits are stitched with fabric, screening the faces. Interested in the Korean constant quest for beauty perfection, the artist also seems to hide her face behind a mask, or even a shield: she leaves it open for interpretation and the mysterious faces follow the viewers like spirits. This artist also illustrates Servais’ collecting philosophy: he is above all interested in discovering new talents, new voices.
Another room focuses on the notion of time. Telephones, the video by Christian Marclay, could be reason enough to see the show; the tension of time is altered by the Broken Clock / Powerless Structures by Elmgreen & Dragset.
The third space, on the second floor, is light and spacious, in contrast with the two other floors. And again, the “music” changes. It is airier, like the space, and more playful, like the balloons –PYT by Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom.
Viewers can get in touch with their feelings through an interactive installation by Thomson & Craighead and discover two beautiful panels by Josep Grau-Garriga. But the large birdcage, with built-in speakers amplifying a soft heartbeat, gives the final note. (Just in case) you don’t know what the meaning of life is by Vytautas Viržbickas concludes the exhibition masterfully: see, feel, and absorb! Listen to the music of the collection for it tells you who you are and who you may become.
Artists exhibited: Lynn Aldrich, Allora & Calzadilla, Apparatus 22, Ivin Ballen, Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom, Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion,The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Irina Bujor, Andrea Canepa, Julian Charrière, Ian Cheng, Claude Closky, Elmgreen & Dragset, Erro, Mounir Fatmi, Josep Grau-Garriga, G.C.C, Nan Goldin, GUKLYA, Robert Heinecken, Anna Hulačová, Michael Johannsson, Folkert de Jong, Gülsün Karamustafa, Nikki S Lee, Christian Marclay, Eva & Franco Mattes, Adrian Melis, Moris, Farhad Moshiri, Elsa Sahal, Seon Yoon Ji, Elisa Sighicelli, Haim Steinbach, Tobias Sternberg, Thomson&Craighead, Ryan Trecartin, Vytautas Viržbickas.
Curator: Dragos Olea – member of art collective Apparatus 22 and of the curatorial duo Kilobase Bucharest
Who’s still workin’ on this masterpiece? continues at the Loft in Brussels until March 15, 2018
All photos courtesy Family Servais collection / the artists
by Valerie Reinhold
Featured image: Ji Seon Yoon, Sew Me, 2008, sewing on fabric and photograph (detail)