The Belgian collector, Alain Servais, started collecting art in the late 1990s. In 2000, he moved into a 900-square meter old factory which he transformed into a three-storey loft, located in a working-class neighborhood of northern Brussels. This is where he lives and works, as well as showing his contemporary art collection. “There are two lighting systems, the artwork lighting system and the living lighting system. This is my way of living”, he said. The freedom he enjoys as an independent financial consultant allows him to travel at his own rhythm. Art is taking up most of his personal and leisure time. He visits more than 10 art fairs, festivals and biennales around the world every year. Other than collector and Financial Consultant, Alain is a happy father of two lovely daughters, Alexia (14) and Marie (12).
Alain is “the most hardworking collector”, as I used to call him. Avid of information and knowledge, he’s digesting large quantity of newspaper articles and browsing different websites. For the last 2.5 years, I have been receiving his newsletter on a daily basis. Yet, he has a very ambiguous attitude towards the media – generous and skeptical at the same time.
Alain’s contradictory personality is even more explicit in his collecting activity. As he analyzed during the interview, we have to embrace our intellectual aspirations but also acknowledge the perpetual confrontation with our own bestial instinct. It’s only by acknowledging its presence that we learn to handle and perhaps sublimate it.
In the interview, we talked about how a collection betrays its master, the collector. Alain is very open and sincere in sharing his experiences and philosophy. I am very grateful for his generosity, and I really admire his courage to confront himself. “This is really the most revealing and personal interview I ever did and probably will ever do”, he wrote me a week after the interview.
29 March 2011, Paris
What is Collecting Art?
Selina Ting [ST] : You are young, and a very active and “hard-working” collector. What are your basic ideas about collecting art?
Alain Servais [AS] : There are different things about collecting. The very first aspect concerns what you think of art. It’s almost the first question I am asking to everyone I meet to know in which artworld category to find them. It’s a tough question to answer, “What is art for you?”, and I ask myself this question regularly.
ST: Throughout the years you must have very different answers to your own question.
AS: Yes, of course.
ST: Perhaps it’s interesting for us to start with the question.
AS: I don’t know but let me finish your question first. So, you have the art then you have the collecting. Why is it? You said earlier that I am fascinated by collectors, and it’s very true. I am very interested in them across history, not just today, but in general about the phenomenon of collecting. There are many different ways of collecting, but I like the following definition that I read somewhere: The difference between a museum and a private collection is that, a museum is trying to illustrate an evolution of time, while a collector is encapsulating a point in time. A collector is very often active in a certain time span, usually they are good for 10 to 12 years, then they often become bad or they stop. Why? It’s because things are changing so much that you can’t adapt many times in succession. That’s why it’s so amazing to see some collectors changing and re-focusing their collection. It’s an amazing personal effort to do that. That’s also why you would see so often the same artists in different collections active in the same period.
ST: How can you try not to become a victim of this?
AS: That’s the second level about collecting, which means you have to try to give a message through your collection. I tend to explain it in this way: an artist is creating a sign, and the collector at a certain point is taking these signs and putting them together to give another message. He’s making a sentence, if you will. He’s creating something new. He’s expressing himself also. I think it’s important. I am trying to express something. Sometimes I have the impression that I am not being listened to… [Smiles] I ask the work of art to speak for me, on my behalf. I am hiding behind what they are saying, or in fact, I am saying what they are saying.
ST: Because you are the one who’s organizing the sentence.
AS: Yes, or sometimes, I can go to another level than what the artist really intended to say. I like the idea an artist told me, that once you sent the work of art to the world, you are losing control of its meaning. Some artists want to fight against this; some are just fine with it. Also, with the passing of time, you can never really see the work with the same eye as at its time of creation. That’s why I like to visit museums. I try to put myself in the mindset of times during which the work was created to understand how people in that time looked at those pieces. I don’t want to see the works only with my eyes of today because when one makes the effort to imagining oneself back in the artist’s own time you realize how those works could be really revolutionary and radical, and it feels even better to understand that. [Smiles]
ST: Can we say that what we get from your comparison of a collector commanding the sentence is the subjectivity of the collector?
AS: That’s what I like: the subjectivity, but not the “command” in your question. [Smiles] I don’t feel myself as the “boss”. For example, I never commissioned a work. I don’t want to give instructions to an artist on what he has to do. At the same time, I don’t feel myself as the owner of the work. I am just a custodian of the work. Ok, I am given the work in exchange of a payment, I integrated the piece into my sentence, but it’s not my work. Because anybody coming here to see them can own them, appropriate them in their own way. That’s why I lend works to museums or others as often as I can.
ST: But then, we come back to the question, you can also go to the museums to look at them, to appropriate them in your own way. You don’t need to possess them.
AS: But the immense joy is that I don’t need to go to the museum every time, I can be here, look around, and say, oh, how lucky I am to live in a “museum”.
ST: Is there an obsession to own it?
AS: Yes and no. I have the obsession of putting them in evidence. Yes, I love the impact they have on me and others. It’s a nice feeling to see how the art work sometimes can influence people, can change certain things inside me and others, and can be useful to everyone. That’s why the works are not my property. They are the artists’ property, the world’s property, and I am happy to share them. I am just the lucky guy who’s living with them at the moment. [Smiles]
ST: Is it also your reflection from history that a collection can never stay in the same hand in view of changes of time and circumstances?
AS: Yes. That’s why conservation is very important for me. Because I hope someone will have them in 50 years, in 100 years. And if I don’t take correct care of them, they would be dead.
ST: When you have a huge collection, can your sentence still be coherent? Is there a limit?
AS: The sky is the limit! No, I should say the budget is the limit! So, why so many? At one point, I could say that you may realize what the core of the collection is (I don’t believe in collections consciously built from the beginning). Then you would have to have the courage to tidy it up. The big problem of many collectors, and sometimes myself, is the excessive drive of looking forward. You always look for the next piece and you forget a little bit about the past pieces. Then you have challenges concerning the storage, conservation, exhibiting, documentation, etc. This is the impulse and the weakness of a collector: What’s the next one I want to have?
ST: What about the coherence? When a collection expands to several hundred or several thousand pieces, can it still be coherent?
AS: More and more! There is more and more consistency as it gets bigger and more mature. But let me be careful about this word “consistency”. You can build collections in different ways. The hottest talk today, particularly in “courses” about collecting, [Winks] is to focus. But as I said, the collection is the sentence of the collector. It can be concerned by sports, sex, politics, death, love, etc. If you just want to talk about one of the chosen issues, then you are creating a much focused collection. But for me, there is diversity in each personality. There are people who are much more focused or disciplined, but I want to cultivate my diversity. There are many different elements in life that are interesting to me, and I don’t want to limit myself to one subject only. I know people who only collect black and white work. It’s a joke! [Laughs]
What you are looking at is inside you
ST: So your collection is more based on the subject-matter rather than a certain artistic movement?
AS: Yes, but someone’s history is where one is coming from and what one is. In my case, there are two sources of influence: first of all, I have been raised by Jesuits. The caricature of Jesuits is that they always answer questions with another question, and that they are always questioning perceived reality or conventions. They are a little bit manipulative [Winks] but they are attempting to examine things from different points of views and they teach you to look at your surroundings, physical and mental, from different perspectives. So, you come out of a Jesuit school either as a strong believer or as a strong disbeliever, and I came out as a very strong disbeliever in religion. They offer you a model of thinking about the world, but they give you the tools to destroy the model. So their views are very critical but very open-minded. They influenced my way of thinking in that if something looks to be white, I am going to ask myself where is the black of this white? [Smiles] So when you said my collection is very strong on messages, and you are not the only one saying so, then I will purposely add a work that speaks about the opposite, which is not at all about the message or the intellectual but perhaps the poetry. There is a very deep and obvious contradiction in the collection in that there are things that don’t seem to bear being together except that it is my intention – that they are contrary to one another.
ST: When you decided to destroy, when you become a disbeliever, I imagine you found yourself in the bewilderment with nothing to hold on to…
AS: Yes, I find it a difficult but exciting challenge to manage living with uncertainty. And that’s the other side in my history – Socrates. Socrates said, “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing”. [Smiles] This is the basis of philosophy and the basis of my philosophy and my life. It’s true that human beings usually do whatever they can to avoid uncertainty but I try to live with this uncertainty, this permanent questioning. And it is not easy, particularly also for the ones living with me. [Winks] Sometimes we want to hold on to something solid but in reality everything is moving around. It definitely translates into the collection.
What’s interesting is that despite this impulse to keep changing, there are only very few works that I “reject” even though I bought them 10 years ago or more. Because each of them is a part of my history and very often their meaning is still alive. I can still feel the life coming out of them. [Smiles]
But this very intellectual and philosophical aspect is only one side of my philosophy, my personality and my collecting. Then there is another part which is the animal instinct and which is just as important. You think that we, humans, are superior, the creatures at the top of the evolution, but no, we are just another animal among other animals, the smartest animal, nothing else. Sometimes I like to cut off from all the rubbish, the illusion about human “intelligence”. Just look at what’s going on in the world. That’s just animals fighting each other. The way we behave when we want to have power, love, sex or drugs, is the same as for other animals most of the time. So let’s try not to make the human being what he’s not. So this other major theme express itself through the collection is, “Watch out for your animal instinct”. That’s why there are some very “crude” elements in the collection which disturb a lot of people. There is animal instinct behind the higher level of consciousness, and at one point the animal instinct would take over, be it for love, sex, politics, religions, races, power, etc., and that can be very violent and terrible.
ST: When you use the word “Watch out”, it’s also about intellectual control on the animal instinct.
AS: Yes, I try to control it and again I try to say: 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.
ST: What about the artists who created them? How do they get there?
AS: If you look at sociology… Where do you see the inner workings of a society? It’s at the edges. It’s where the problems, the dark sides, the failures of a society lay. When you see what the problems are and the “solutions” applied to them, then you understand the way the society is. It’s fascinating to me the way our society treats minorities. This is another very central in the collection. What codes, perceptions, treatment a society has for the homosexual, the immigrant, the prostitute, the lower-class, etc.? What are these telling us about our so-called “smart”, “wealthy”, “democratic” society? That’s why it’s very interesting to see and understand how things are working together, not just at the individual level of an artist or an individual, but the society as a whole.
ST: If we believe that art has the power to speak for the subaltern or revealing the messages to us, then, are we really giving voices to them or just another interpretation / manipulation? As a white, wealthy, upper-class male, are you not patronizing them? Where is your position in all these?
AS: One of my “model collector” is Herman Daled .He once wrote that “art should disturb me”. Art should ask me questions if it cannot provide me withanswers. It should teach me something that I don’t know about myself or my environment. This is what art is for me. As I can stand the questioning, as I accept to be put into question, I can live with those voices of the art which are raising very difficult questions. A lot of my friends say, “oh, I like your art but I could never live with it”. It’s just because I am “different” in some ways that I can cope with that questioning. And let us be clear this difference is not a source of glory or pride. It is more often a burden. [Smiles]
The second part of your question: if I am patronizing? … It’s a very good question because it touches something in my core. The answer is: maybe I am a “minority” myself. Despite being a member of the so-defined “dominating elite class”, maybe I am still in my own way a minority. [Smiles]
ST: Because you don’t conform to the values of your own social class?
AS: You know the answer. [Winks]
ST: Do you identify with the labels of white, male, wealthy, social status, etc. etc.?
AS: It’s objective. It’s a fact. I can’t go against that.
ST: Now you have many pieces in your collection and you change the hanging once a year.
AS: Yes, about 80% of the work is changed out. It’s a lot of effort, but if you don’t want to change the hanging, what’s the point of buying more? It’s a pleasure because it transforms the house completely. It’s also paying respect to the artists, and it’s a worthy effort for my guests as well. [Smiles]
ST: What is it like to live with the same work for 365 days? Do you still see them on the 300th day?
AS: A year is not long. [Smiles] Do I still see them? Yes, and I am doing the necessary to look at them again and again such as having group visits two to three times a month, and I guide the tour myself. Yes, I love art, it’s more than a passion; it’s a way of living, as I tried to explain. But outside this “intellectual” environment of art, I am as happy to live with my animal side [Winks] by watching football games and playing with my kids. There are two lighting systems in the house, the artwork lighting system and the living lighting system. This is my way of living. I love things with two or more sides. [Smiles]
ST: How do you decide and design the hanging?
AS: I make a list of works that I want to take out of storage. Then I see how they “work” with the physical environment of the house. The interesting thing is that, once they are there, suddenly you see the intrinsic link between them. I don’t work like a curator who starts with a theme, a theory then research into the work.
ST: What do you look at and what do you look for when you visit a private collection?
AS: I want to know who the hosts are. I want to meet the person, whether they are physically present or not. Visiting the private house of a person is to get to know that person for real. There is little he or she can hide. [Smiles]
ST: What about your own feelings of opening your own private, intimate living space for visitors, some of them are strangers?
AS: I am probably an exhibitionist. [Laughs] I don’t care. I have nothing to hide. You like me or you don’t like me, you judge me or you don’t judge me, good for you. There is nothing I can do about it.
ST: And when you visit a private collection, do you feel yourself a voyeur?
AS: A little bit. I am a voyeur as well. I am an exhibitionist and I am voyeur. [Laughs] So, there’s no problem…
ST: According to you, what’s the role of a collector in the making of art history?
AS: They realize that the very good artists cannot be understood today, that’s a bit caricature though…
ST: …Because the artists are ahead of their time.
AS: Most of the time for the good ones. A very good artist is a very good artist by nature; a very good collector is a also good collector by nature. Again, let me give you another metaphor: the artist is the “broken” or “twisted” transmitter, he’s gathering information from the world, good feelings and bad feelings about the world, and he’s expressing them in the work of art, he’s creating a sign. Most of the normal people can’t decipher it, can’t pick up the message immediately. But the collectors understand it because they are the receptors, often as “broken” or “twisted” as the transmitter is. [Winks] Look at Gertrude Stein, Peggy Guggenheim and many other collectors. They are very important because they support new movements and they are the ones taking the risks. Today, the galleries are promoting the living artists but how many galleries are still buying from their own artists? Who’s putting up their own money, taking risks and supporting the artists today? Collectors! Again, that’s simplifying the scenario, but the way to make a complex idea clearer is often to simplify it and exaggerate the point. [Winks] Of course, in reality and nuances there are different categories of artists, galleries, collectors, etc.
ST: Thank you very much.