Interview: Gallerist Boris Vervoordt
The Axel Vervoordt Gallery prides itself on the power of true meaning.
Boris Vervoordt’s husband received a sheepish phone call the other day. It was Boris, calling to let him know that he had acquired another “little sculpture” for their living room. This one, however, was 4m high by 4m wide. Created by Belgian artist Peter Buggenhout, on first glance, it appears to be an asteroid of randomly stuck-together junk, from rusting corrugated iron to deflated pool toys. “We had to move all of the furniture out to fit it in,” shrugs Boris. “But the moment I saw it, I fell madly in love with it.”
In a household such as Boris Vervoordt’s, the crown prince of the Axel Vervoordt art and antiques business, you can’t really imagine a three-piece suite anyway. A cosmic junk heap seems much more appropriate. For Boris, having grown up on a diet of interior design, art and antiques dealing, the line between work and play is blurred to say the least. “I don’t really do on-duty or off-duty,” he muses. “I really enjoy my work, so I don’t feel as though I’m doing ‘a job’.”
We are speaking at the launch of the new Axel Vervoordt gallery during Hong Kong’s Art Week. A moody, echoey space in Wong Chuk Hang, an industrial suburb, it is a good 25 minutes away from the central buzz and action. It has been a four-day whirlwind of clients and events, and Boris seems nearly ready to switch off. “It’s the constant socialising and parties that wear me out,” he admits. Nevertheless, he is well presented, balancing an espresso between elegant fingertips, dressed in his uniform of blue blazer, jeans and crisp white shirt. His wardrobe consists almost solely of these three items, so that, in between his ritual of an early gym session and breakfast of avocado and eggs, he doesn’t have to think too much in the mornings.
Boris Vervoordt joined the family firm when he was 22, which as well as famed antiques dealer Axel, includes his brother Dick, who looks after the real-estate part of the business, and his mother, May. May runs the show, says Boris with a deferent whisper. She is currently upstairs, shouting at the caterers (whom I later discover have laid on an excellent brunch). “My mother is the one who makes sure everything happens. Whereas my father is a bigger-than-life personality, the ideas man, she was always the one who squared things off and made them happen.”
The Vervoordt empire grew organically. In the spring of 1969, following a tip from his mother, a 21-year-old Axel Vervoordt walked through a hidden passage in the centre of Antwerp and discovered a medieval alleyway lined with 15th and 16th century houses. The collection of buildings — known as the Vlaeykensgang — were in desperate need of renovation. Following his instinct, he acquired the first 11 houses and saved them from demolition. In the Vlaeykensgang, Axel and May restored the buildings, created a home, and built an art and antiques business that became the company it is today.
Fast forward several decades and in 2011 Boris set up the contemporary art gallery arm of the business, while his brother Dick spearheaded Kanaal, a multi-use real-estate complex close to Antwerp, Belgium. Set alongside the peaceful waterfront of the Albert Canal, the converted red-brick 19th-century distillery is now the site of 98 apartments, 30 offices, an artisanal French bakery, as well as an organic food market and restaurant. It’s also home to the Axel Vervoordt flagship occupying several floors, with 600,000 square feet of exhibition space. The complex looks out across the Antwerp skyline with the cathedral and the Boerentoren beacons. The location is far from the well-trodden art centres of London, Paris and Zurich. But that was the intention, says Boris.
“It comes naturally to us. We don’t like the concept of a gallery as a shop, we don’t like it to show art as a commodity, for sale. If you go to the main-street shopping area art becomes like a commodity. But if you bring it further away, the experience of the work and the expression of it becomes more important. It feels more authentic to the artists,” he explains.
Of course, it is ultimately his job to sell art, but he says his clients are happy to travel a bit off the beaten track. And a good roster of clients he is not lacking, with high-profile collectors including Robert De Niro, Kanye West and Brad Pitt.
“We’re used to being off-centre, our galleries are a destination,” he says. It is the quest to be off-grid that brought him to this rough-hewn space in Hong Kong, where the gallery has inaugurated with an exhibition entitled Infinitive Mutability. Taking its cue from the 1970s and Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction, the exhibition aims to focus on limitless shifts of possibility offered by the multiple meanings of art. I admire a room filled with gigantic colourful hula hoops of copper and thread by Korean artist Kimsooja, and canvases of red and black spattered magma by Mexican contemporary artist Bosco Sodi.
What is it, I wonder, that links his artists together? “They are all centred around the idea of origin and voyage. We’re all born out of what was there before the Big Bang and we are on a journey. That’s our inspiration.”
But the key thing for Boris when selecting artists, and in life in general, is the importance of true meaning. “Everything needs to have meaning. If I don’t know why something is happening, I don’t think it’s interesting. Even within my team. If someone says, ‘we should do this’, my answer is always, ‘why’?”
A large tapestry of sewn-together beer caps and liquor tabs catches my eye, draped across one of the gallery’s giant grey walls. Boris explains the work is by a Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui. He started this collective by asking his village to save their bottle caps to incorporate into the work. Then he found jobless young people on the street to sew them together into a tapestry, giving them lodging, tuition and food. “It’s a comment on alcohol’s destructive effect on poor communities like this, where kids end up homeless or worse. But through weaving these alcohol caps together — weaving being a traditional West African family activity — he is creating new families and lives and a new society.”
True to form, there can be fewer works with greater meaning than that.