Previous years have seen Belgian collector, art and antiquities dealer, gallerist and celebrated designer, Axel Vervoordt, stage some of the most beautiful exhibitions during the Venice Biennale at the Palazzo Fortuny. Filled with works from his collection –– paintings by Gutai and Dansaekwa masters Kazuo Shiraga and Yun Hyong-Keun, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, as well as ancient antiquities and artefacts, and works by modern and contemporary artists, Cy Twombly, Jean Michel Basquiat, Antoni Tapies and Anish Kapoor––the palazzo exhibitions (from 2007-2017) were a personal and idiosyncratic curation, a palimpsest of the old and the new. 2017 saw the last of Vervoordt’s beautiful Fortuny series, but it was by no means the end of Vervoordt.
Kanaal, his most recent monumental project, finally opened in 2017, a feat 18 years in the making. Located outside Antwerp, several red brick warehouses and grain-storage silos of a former gin distillery built in 1857 were converted and consolidated into a 55,000 square meter labyrinthine residential and cultural complex on the banks of the Albert Canal. Working with and preserving as much of the original structure as possible while balancing it with more contemporary additions and renovations, Vervoordt employed the services of Belgian architecture practices Bogdan & Van Broeck, Coussée & Goris and Stéphane Beel to transform them into a complex of 98 apartments, 30 offices, an artisanal bakery, an organic food market, a restaurant, and multi-use auditorium.
In the same vein as art real-estate developments that have become a trend the world over, Kanaal is also home to the Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation housing the couple’s art collection––featuring permanent installations by Anish Kapoor, Tatsuo Miyajima, Marina Abramović, and James Turrell––and the Axel Vervoordt Gallery. The additional exhibition spaces were designed by Vervoordt himself and Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki based on wabi-sabi principles that have long informed Vervoordt’s aesthetic. But unlike many art real-estate projects where art merely furnishes the real-estate offerings, Kanaal offers art as an experience, rather than just commercial window dressing intended to add value and prestige to the property. ‘The vision,’ Vervoordt states, ‘represents more than four decades of working and living with art. We’re engaged in a search for the universal in artistic expression.’ The foundation’s art collection, which aims to bridge artistic expression between east and west, includes over 700 works and ranges from ancient archaeology to contemporary art.
Outside a tower of eight concrete silos which have been converted into circular apartments also house works by Abramović, Otto Boll and Tatsuo Miyajima on the lower ground floors. Kapoor’s ‘At the Edge of the World’, a vast red dome under which visitors are invited to stand and experience a glimpse of infinity, is the symbolic heart of the complex, situated in a grey cylindrical former grain silo located by a reed-filled pond. The Escher gallery, where large holes that used to house the grain silos are still visible through the floors of the second storey, displays temporary exhibitions, such as Renato Nicolodi’s photographic and video work at the time of my visit. In an adjacent white exhibition space the reductive and minimalist sculptures of Russian artists Emilia and Ilya Kabakov are displayed.
Many works reveal a dialogue with the architecture. In the Karnak space ––a cavernous hall of columns devoted to permanent exhibitions from the Vervoordt Foundation–– solid concrete columns which used to support 60-metre-high silos stand solemnly among four Mon dynasty Dvaravati busts from the 6th to 8th century, a juxtaposition of ruins both industrial and ancient.
The exhibition spaces of Henro I reveal more works from the Vervoordt collection, including Italian artist Lucio Fontana, German Zero artist Gunther Uecker, and Antoni Tapies, shown against black walls so that ‘the light then emanates from the pieces themselves,’ Vervoordt states. A 13th-century Chinese Luohan sculpture of a monk in meditation sits on its own within a circular cave-like space, the spiritual energy of the sculpture amplified by the single beam of golden light falling upon it.
The most breathtaking of the works can be found in a square grey exhibition space in Henro I. Softly lit from a window above, it houses three dramatic red action paintings by Kazuo Shiraga, one of the most prominent and influential members of the Japanese avant-garde art movement, Gutai. A carnage of textured bloody paint these dynamic, visceral, spiritual and explosive paintings are alone well worth the pilgrimage to Antwerp.