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 Seon Yoon Ji 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: Seon Yoon Ji, Sew Me, 2008, sewing on fabric and photograph (detail)
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 154-159.
Thank you Colette Khalaf and L’Orient le Jour for spreading the word and helping us make this exhibition a success!
Thank you Beatrice de Rochebouet for this wonderful article in Le Figaro!
Download the article here
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written by Valerie Reinhold & Rania Tabbara
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Collectors Issue #38, pages 98-99.
Two of the three curators behind ART IN MOTION’s first public exhibition, Resistance and Persistence, discuss building bridges between Europe and the Middle East, and the role of art as a unifying force.
Marwan Rechmaoui. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Courtesy of the artist
This October, 24 Lebanese and international artists are set to transform Beirut’s Sanayeh Garden into an artistic spectacle the likes of which the city has never seen. Sculptures, installations, videos, conceptual art, design and performances will be choreographed within the theme Resistance and Persistence with the joint aims of reconciling a painful past and a chaotic present through art and identifying new points of reference in our turbulent times. This public exhibition marks the first project launched by ART IN MOTION, a non-profit organisation co-founded by Rania Tabbara and Rania Halawi, Lebanese art-world personalities.
Dome Atelier Yok Yok. 12m diameter paper and wood. Courtesy of atelier Yok Yok
Two of the exhibition’s three curators, Valerie Reinhold and Rania Tabbara, cross-interviewed each other exclusively for Selections.
Valerie Reinhold: Rania, how was ART IN MOTION born?
Rania Tabbara: Rania Halawi and I share a common vision about contemporary art and its critical role in our societies to raise awareness and create a cohesive force. We believe that art should not be a privilege given to a certain category of people who can afford it. It should be a right accessible to everyone.
That’s why, through various art events, exhibitions and performances, ART IN MOTION makes it possible to pave the way for exchange and encounters between people from various backgrounds and to strengthen the dialogue between Lebanon and the region.
VR: The goals are very ambitious!
RT: Indeed, Rania Halawi and I want to give Beirut what it deserves — to let it revive and shine through contemporary art and culture. Call us persistent! We are fortunate to have a great team, including Lina Ghotmeh and Sylvia Beder, and amazing sponsors like Banque du Liban, MTV, BB Energy, Université Antonine and private donors: they believe in us and in the importance of this project on a social, artistic and cultural level.
VR: Resistance and Persistence: why did you choose this theme?
RT: First of all, the theme relates to Sanayeh Garden itself. It was built following a plan for the modernisation of the city and turned the area into a new urban development centre in the 19th century. Adjacent to the garden, a school of arts and crafts and a hospital were built. Sanayeh means “creation” or “craft.” The garden, the hospital and school were celebrated as a triumph of man over nature.
After the attack that took the life of President René Moawad in November 1989, the authorities wanted to honour him and decided to give his name to Sanayeh Garden. In recent decades, the garden has become a symbol of resistance and solidarity. In 2014, after two years of renovation by the Azadea Foundation, a non-profit organisation, Sanayeh Garden reopened; trees were replanted, flowers blossomed, ideas began to circulate again. It regained its initial function as a forum of dialogue and communication.
I also chose this place to honour my dad, Ahmad Tabbara, who gave all kinds of support to this garden throughout his life. I decided to give back to him, but to do it my way, through art.
Ziad Antar. Cactus Cactus and mixed media. Courtesy of the artist
VR: You also told me about a song —
RT: You may laugh, but I was also inspired by a song by France Gall called Resist. This song is about life. It tells me that life is mainly about joy, continuity and persistence, without always showing the pain.
VR: Is that the quality you were looking for in the artists you invited?
RT: Yes, I guess so, in a way. Some choices were obvious, like Ziad Antar and Marwan Rechmaoui: their body of work is all about our theme and they are also key Lebanese artists on the international art scene. Mustafa Ali investigates the fragility of mankind and Houmam Al Sayed speaks about revolt. Lutfi Ruhmein brings a positive energy to the exhibition and Chaouki Choukini a degree of spirituality.
We also selected other works from prominent and upcoming MENA artists to show different generations of artists whose works investigate the theme in a very complementary way.
It was also important to have artists from the whole region to outline the diversity and richness of our culture. We are very grateful to have this amazing artistic network here in Beirut, such as Ghiath Machnok, Agial Gallery and Galerie Tanit, who willingly lent us works from many of the artists we were very keen on having!
RT: How did you select the artists from Europe?
VR: The reason you and Rania Halawi invited me as the co-curator was to engage in a dialogue between European artists and MENA artists, as well as visitors, with one rule: the artworks would have to be produced in Lebanon. I selected artists whose investigations are complementary and who work with very different media.
Cathy Weyders talks about survival, and to some extent about the issue of displacement. Yok Yok incorporates news in their work and manages to merge different cultures so that the most delicate shelter lures us and creates a safe haven. Karine Debouzie explores the relationship between humans and their environment, and the tensions, the resistance and the persistence of both. Ada Yu confronts us with ourselves in her delirious installations, where the only way out seems to be the way up: peace of mind, despite a chaotic world. Vika Kova’s video installation pays tribute to Lebanese women. Hanaa Malallah counts as British, but tough — she is also a MENA artist: she talks about the relationship between neoliberal capitalism, consumption and waste production, referencing Beirut’s recent environmental and public health crisis. All of the artists’ works seemed to relate to an aspect of the theme Resistance and Persistence.
This year, we are very proud to have the support of one of Lebanon’s most prominent collectors, Samir Abillama, who kindly lent us works by Xavier Veilhan, Thomas Houseago and Xander Spronken. This adds, in my opinion, another dimension and level to the exhibition. It would have been impossible for them to produce work specifically for the exhibition, so the rule didn’t apply.
VR: What is the expected outcome and impact of the exhibition?
RT: I think that this first exhibition, accessible to all, will be a true surprise, and that people will see and accept that there is a change in motion in our city. The exhibition is not only about reuniting different societies and cultures; it is also about individuals questioning and integrating their beliefs in this complex socio-economical region, so as to be able to have dialogue and understanding. I believe that this is an important step, and such established and emerging artists are able to give us a platform from which we can move forward and establish art as a universal and unifying language.
VR: I really hope the project will foster exchange and dialogue between the participants and the public. I think that the scenography by Lina Ghotmeh will increase the interaction between the public and the artworks and trigger discussions, questions and debates.
The whole project has been an eye-opener for me, about Lebanese and MENA culture and the transformation of societies, as well as the incredible diversity of the region. I have also learnt so much about the local history, mentalities and customs. I expect European artists to learn as much and come back home as messengers: it is time Europe learns more about the MENA region!
VR: How do you see ART IN MOTION in 10 years?
RT: We know that ART IN MOTION will act as a changing force, be it artistic, individual, social or political. It will create a movement that will raise awareness of connectivity between all people. We believe in the power of art to make this world a better place.
VR: I see ART IN MOTION as a driving force to promote art to a broad audience, and MENA culture abroad. It is as much social as artistic, and that’s what makes it so important. We need more initiatives of this kind in the world.
ART IN MOTION’s first public exhibition, Resistance and Persistence, will be on show at René Moawad Garden in Sanayeh from October 5 to 24.
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Curator and co-director of the Serpentine Gallery Hans Ulrich Obrist reflects on art in the digital age and his relationship to art in the Middle East
7:30am was the only possible slot Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London and world famous curator, had free for an interview. After reading his book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating But Were Afraid to Ask, I knew that it was actually a pretty decent timeslot — for Obrist hardly ever sleeps and simply never stops.
Do it! and the internet
Obrist had just taken part in the Art for Tomorrow conference, which was organised by The New York Times and ran from March 12 to 16 at the W Hotel in Doha. Together with prominent art-world personalities like Rem Koolhas, Jean Nouvel and Jeff Koons, he discussed subjects including about digital art, one Obrist’s many areas of interest.
Three years ago, the Serpentine gallery commissioned its first digital piece, AGNES, by Cecile B. Evans — a benevolent- spambot that lives in the online Serpentine Gallery system and interacts with users wherever they go. In 2015, the gallery asked artist Ian Cheng to develop Bad Corgi, an app at the junction between digital art and gaming technology. Digital art has all the qualities that appeal to Obrist: it is based on a set of instructions — the algorithms — that are never-ending and always evolving.
He stresses the commonalities with Do it!, the show that he originally developed in 1993 with Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier as a reflection on how to make exhibitions more flexible and open-ended. Curators encounter many obstacles that prevent exhibitions from entering the world and becoming part of it: shipping costs, loan fees, customs, etcetera. So the trio eliminated all these parametres.
Do it! provides instruction pieces that can be executed anywhere. “It is not something we have invented, it is something that has existed in art history,” Obrist underlines. The show draws its origins from artists like Marcel Duchamp, conceptual and minimalist art of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Fluxus practices and curators like Harald Szeemann or Lucy Lippard.
“The rule of the game is that the curator and the artist can never go to install, because it is kind of against the rules if I interpret,” adds Obrist. “I shouldn’t police the instructions… I want to be an enabler, a catalyst, I don’t want to be someone who controls. I don’t want it to be top down.” Obrist has been promoting the idea of the curator as catalyst for his whole career. Over the past 20 years, the concept has evolved by taking into account local histories of instruction art. “What we have to do is not just send out our instructions to the world, but actually listen to each place where we go, and that was the biggest change of the concept,” he explains.
Do it! is a sort of toolbox provided to communities to make art happen and to make it accessible. The result is an ever-growing archive in art. “Do it! is almost an open source to come back to the digital age. It is for free, people can download instructions and do them,” says Obrist.
The exhibition has so far travelled to more than 50 locations worldwide and is currently on show at the Sharjah Art Foundation, where it was co-curated with Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi.
Art in Dubai
When we met, Obrist was in Dubai for 89+, another project he actively promotes. 89+ is a platform, co-curated with Simon Castets, which aims to map the post-internet generation — those born after 1989. This idea stemmed from an article written by Randy Kennedy about Ryan Trecartin in 1999, in which Trecartin spoke about this amazing generation of artists born in the 1990s. Obrist and Castets realised they didn’t know any of them. The 89+ platform currently has more than 7000 artists from all over the world catalogued.
In collaboration with Art Dubai, Obrist started an 89+ workshop in 2015, where artists from the region could send their portfolios. It led to countless meetings and interviews, and ultimately two artists, Abdullah Al-Mutairi from Kuwait and Sarah Abu Abdullah from Saudi Arabia, did a performance and had the video, Vessel Verse, installed in a shack at Art Dubai. The piece explored the relationship between the virtual self and the physical self — specifically, the disparity between how one reacts emotionally to online interactions and those that are face to face.
Art in the Middle East
Obrist first came to Dubai 10 years ago, for the first edition of Art Dubai, where he was invited to take part in a conversation with Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. “Visiting the cities here, Dubai, Doha, the exhibitions, the fairs, gave me the possibility to become more familiar with art from Iran, Lebanon, even Turkey, because in a way all these artists and galleries that participate in the biennales, fairs, they would all come here. And then I would also do local research,” says Obrist. He discovered many local artists, like Hassan Sharif, but also those from the wider region like M. F. Hussain, the famous Indian artist who lived in exile in the U.A.E.
For the past 10 years, Obrist has pursued his research in the countries of the Middle East. He stresses the long cultural history that one shouldn’t forget. “I very much make a protest against forgetting,” he says. “This part of the job of a curator.”
In the course of our interview it became clear that Obrist is much more than a curator. He captures histories from the past and the present, learns about them, records and archives everything, maybe to fight the amnesia that he believes “is at the core of the digital age.” On that note, Obrist dashed out of the hotel for his next meeting, this one with Lebanese artist Marwann Rechmaoui, who later greeted me with: “So you were the reason he was late!” Had it been up to me, I would have ordered more coffee and carried on until dawn.
by Valerie Reinhold
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Creative Issue #36, pages 54-55.
Photo: Courtesy Lapesh Lathigra
Playtime issue, Selections the art magazine, July 2015.
We were invited to curated the “Colours” issue of Selections, a leading Art Magazine from the Middle East. We decided to focus on a personal area of interest: the use of colours in relation to different materials.
We were thrilled to have Akili Tommasino and Pendar Nabipour as our contributors. A big thank you to the artists for their time and great insight: Jean-Michel Othoniel, Jacob Hashimoto, Nabil Nahas, Marcel Wanders, Hadieh Shafie, Anish Kapoor, Sidney Regis, Hoda Tawakol, Nadim Karam, Maha Malluh and Farhad Moshiri.