“Being a collector is the other side of the coin of being an artist”

Agnese Čivle

An interview with Belgian art collector Alain Servais in Brussels


Even though it's inevitable that each art collection reflects its creator's personality, Belgian art collector Alain Servais avoids “collecting himself”. He chooses to find out about others and the world around him by developing a story through his collection, a story written in the language of contemporary art. The story of Servais' collection tells about the victories and vices of the new century: globalisation, information technologies, religion, minority issues.

His collection is partially public, and the platform for the exhibition is a former warehouse in the Schaerbeek industrial district of Brussels. And right there – next to the works of Gilbert & George, Barbara Kruger, Marcel Didier and a string of young artists – Servais lived for over ten years. Even now, a part of Servais' collection is exhibited at his home, a single-family house in the green Uccle district of Brussels. And the 900 m2 factory loft has now for a time become a home and studio to artists from nearby Czech Republic as well as faraway Mexico.

Servais began his collection in the 1990s with the photographs of Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano. Goldin's artwork is sexual and deviant, while Serrano's focuses on the theme of death. The themes currently running through the collection make the visitor step away from his or her comfort zone for a moment, and therefore it's intriguing to find out more about the challenge Servais sets up for himself.

Cooperative Work by Rokni Haerizadeh, Ramin Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian and Iman Raad. Joyous Treatise, 2011-14. Courtesy Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde and the artists

Quotation included in the work: Muzabbid said to his wife: “Do allow me to sow my seed in the back garden.” The wife: “The back garden is far too close to my flower bed for your seed to be sown!”

The artwork in Servais' home shows that the themes in his collection sometimes intertwine and sometimes conflict, as in work by Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian, Iman Raad, which, despite today's conservative Islamic doctrine, reveals the contradiction in the legacy of 14th-century Islamic culture. In the work, scenes from a book openly depict a salacious joke shared between a married couple, which the artist has interpreted in the style of a religious icon.

Some of the artworks keep their true messages hidden between the lines, such as the work by Egyptian artist Ghada Amer. From afar it looks like a beautiful abstract painting, but close up one sees that what seems to be colour is actually threads, and under the threads – like a watermark – women in sexually open poses have been sewn.

Other times the art's message is clear as day but causes the viewer to recoil in alarm. For example, the reddish diamond shapes arranged on a pedestal. Upon a closer look they reveal their true nature – they depict the texture of human skin and the hair growing on it. These are the diamonds of the future, the artist's interpretation of the original stem cell metaphor.

Speaking of artwork in his collection, Servais loves to quote American art collector Mera Rubell: “Art is a language that opens your heart to the Other.” The quote reminds me of the work of art by David Altmejd (1974) in Servais' collection. A retrospective of the American sculptor is on show until February 2015 at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, but it seems that his “not-yet-ironed-out” plaster sculpture on the top floor of Servais' house has just recently gained its wings. They are said to have cost a pretty penny.... The flesh of the sculpture screams and moans through its countless open mouths and dangling tongues; fists and sexual organs grow and break through at the most unimaginable spots on its body. It has had to break and tear at itself, through suffering meet the will and preset standards of others, and model itself through ache until it has obtained its wings – its sexual identity...

David Altmejd. Untitled 1 (The Watchers), 2009. Photo: Jessica Eckert. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery

Servais first came into contact with Altmejd's artwork at the Canada pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. He acquired this artwork years after a long researching. More recent artwork by Altmejd is no longer so easy to come by. The same was also the case with the currently well known interdisciplinary African-American artist Nick Cave (1959), whose wearable sculpture Soundsuit Servais bought straight away. Now that Cave is known worldwide, the conditions for buying his work have changed.

And that's why Servais is called a visionary, and the lost newcomers to the art world stand in line for his advice like lost souls waiting for an appointment with an esoteric medium. Being an aficionado of art with a firm grasp of banking and business, he is often invited to discuss the art market. He is likewise invited to respond to existential questions about what is art and whether art has nowadays become like a prostitute swimming in money behind whose garish makeup the so-called elite hides its inability to form genuine, deep relationships. Servais also regularly shares his thoughts about art and the market in which it now finds itself on Twitter.

Speaking about the art that is exhibited around you, is it an art that confronts you, challenges you...or makes you feel comfortable?

Of course, every piece of art in the collection needs to confront me, question me and surprise me.

When it comes to buying an artwork, do you consider how it will relate to other works in your collection?

No, never. It just happens, but never with intention.

I like what the biggest collector of Chinese art, Uli Sigg, once said: “You start buying art as something you like! You like it – you buy it!” Often the problem is to resist buying it because you hear about it. This is a fight between buying with the ears and buying with the heart. And to overcome that is, first of all, not that easy, and also it is not always so clear what you really like.

The second level, adds Sigg is to buy art according to the theme of the collection – visual art, video art, art from Central Europe, Chinese art…whatever.

The third level – and this is the most interesting part – is adding another dimension to the works in your collection by making them speak to each other. This is something that comes after you are a good collector. It just works like that!

That means there is no place for planned actions in the way you collect art?

Of course, sometimes it happens that you decide to buy something because it will be connected with something else, but that is an exception. I’ll give you an example. I have always adored the series with dolls by Cindy Sherman that she did in the 1990s. They are very hard, very sexual…. In fact, in that work she’s referring to another artist, which is Hans Bellmer. He was a German artist, best known for the life-sized pubescent female dolls he produced in the mid-1930s. When I bought the Sherman, I understood that I would like to bring the two together for once. And I brought them together!

That was an exception. Normally it is not like I buy this because of that or, say, because of this wall. Artworks just somehow speak to each other. Eventually, they work together and better together than alone. And if it is so, then that is proof that I have done my collector’s job well.

Do you change your collection as a whole by selling some artworks and buying new ones instead?

No, I am a more traditional collector. Yes, sometimes you can make a mistake and then you decide to sell something – that’s fine. But even if you're mistaken, that work is still a part of the collection, and it is important that it still stays in the collection.

Sometimes an artist tries something and then he stops and continues what he was doing before. But remembering that he was once trying another direction gives a better insight into the whole system. This is a way to see a work in progress, and it is worth keeping it as a work in progress.

I used to say to my ex-girlfriend, who is an artist, that building a collection is a creation. A collection is not about accumulation – it is about creation. When I am creating a collection, I am in a way an artist. People still think that the artist is not about money, that he cannot be wealthy and be an artist, and thus the collector cannot be an artist. But I believe that he can! As an artist, she was vehemently disagreeing with me.

You mentioned artists changing their direction. Do you follow artists’ development to make a whole scene of their work?

Not especially. For some collectors, their expression is to collect in depth – that means to buy many works from one artist. I don’t do this. Because I believe that most artists have got just one or two main ideas. In fact, they don’t have ten ideas; they have one or two ideas and they work around those ideas, develop, reduce and amplify them. What I am trying to do is to buy a very good piece that represents those one or two ideas. And when I've got one, I don’t need ten.

But again, there are exceptions. A collection is not a scientific system; a collection is something living and something personal.

That’s how a private collection differs from a museum collection….

A museum collection tries to be encyclopedic. Encyclopedic about something – about an artistic movement, a period of time and so on. A private collection is a snapshot. It is a snapshot of one period.

I have been collecting from 1997. My collection is a snapshot of what was going on in the world between those years. A museum collection is built up around 50 years or more, and one day they will want to fill the gaps in their collection. I don’t want to fill a gap; I want to make a snapshot.

And what does your collection tell about the time in which we live?

Mhh…you tell me!

Refering again to Mera Rubell's quote: “Art is a language that opens your heart to the Other”. It’s funny, but it’s a definition of art. “Art is a language”, because every work speaks to me, questions me, draws my attention to something. It “opens my heart”, because there is something in art that is emotional; it’s not only about the mind and intelligence. And “to the Other” – it is the Other with a capital “O” – because it is about something that is different than me.

In my collection, I’m looking for something that speaks to me about something that is not me.

Collectors often collect about themselves, not about others. In fact, collectors are collecting themselves. Whereas in my collection, there is a lot about others, because I’m very curious, I want to learn about the world, about other people, about another religion, about other sexual orientations.… Everything!

And I strongly believe that good art is always linked to something that is happening at that time. For example, when we look back at the Impressionist movement…. Monet painted about what he felt about the sun when he painted Impression, soleil levant, the first Impressionist painting that gave rise to the name of the Impressionist movement. What was happening in society at that time? It was the Industrial Revolution. What was the impact of the Industrial Revolution? The world became faster, and Impressionism is about being fast – you paint quickly, outside. Not in the studio anymore, but outside. And it is about doing what you want. And one day Mr. Monet said I will paint something about what I feel – what I feel about the sun. Before then, everybody had to do what society was saying to do; they had to paint according to what the academic rules were telling them to paint.

Dadaism was a direct reaction to the First World War, the biggest butchery of humans on the battlefield ever. Humanity said: “Is man crazy? Man can do that kind of things?” And some people said: “I don’t believe in the human anymore, I don’t believe in culture anymore, so I want to create art that is spitting on culture! Anti-art!”

Pop art comes from the society of consumption….

If you look at art history, all art that we remember now is always linked to the socio-economic context. I am trying to find art that is linked to today. To do that, I have to think about the world before I buy the art. What would people think about the year 2010 in the year 2100? What will be in the history books?

In no specific order of importance, the first thing is globalisation. I remember a time when going to Russia was impossible, going to China was impossible, going to Africa – impossible. Any kind of interchanging was impossible! Now, when you look at my collection, you see a lot of art from outside Western Europe. There is a Turkish artist here and an Indonesian artist there…. There are lots of different nationalities. I change the hanging every year at the factory; the hanging this year is non-Western art – non-European, non-American. I put up Central Europe, Latin America, Central America, the Far East, the Middle East…. There is a lot of good art in those parts of the world!

Another thing that we will remember about 2010 in 2100 is information technologies. Everything that is linked to digital art and to the Internet is very present in my collection as well.

Soundsuit by Nick Cave in Servais' house. Photo from personal archives 

The third theme in my collection is about minorities – how to live in a society as a minority. For example, people say that there is democracy in the USA. Is it a democracy or is it not? In Egypt, the election was held without the participation of the Egyptian Islamistpolitical party, who were democratically elected before. But democracy is not about electing the majority; the key to democracy is how we respect the minorities. Minorities can be religious, political, sexual, racial…. For me, the way to analyse society is seeing how people treat the minorities. And very often in my collection you can see the work of minorities; there are also a lot of works about prostitutes, drug addicts, transvestites and how society works for them.

We were talking about themes in my collection. But my collection is not built around one theme; it is built around themes that cross and meet. Sometimes they never meet, sometimes they are totally different. And you can find many subjects in one work of art; sometimes works of art are only about one subject.

My collection is also about religion. In my conviction, religion is the worst human invention ever. And, in my opinion, it is totally an invention, because the human was afraid of death and he tried to invent that there is an afterlife. By creating an afterlife, he also created priests, who could explain how one could get to the afterlife. And by giving power to those priests to tell how to get to the afterlife, the human also gave power to the church. And that church is abusing that power in one way or another.

Marx was right when he said that religion is the opium of the people. When sitting in a super difficult position without money, children or love, it is comfortable for society as a whole to believe in a better tomorrow.

You don’t believe in an afterlife….

Not for a second! I will die, rot and that's the end.

What kind of religious or anti-religious manifestations we can see in your collection?

One of my favourite works in the whole collection is a piece by American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger that says “God sends the meat and the devil cooks”. And you tell me – is it about religion or not?

Humanity…we are all angels, but suddenly we are turning into monsters. You can be a monster; I can be a monster.... In the human there is always a good side and a bad side. I strongly believe that every quality is a weakness, and every weakness is a quality. And what this work is saying is that religion is making you believe that everybody is God and evil does not exist. But, I’m sorry, there is evil in every human. And trying to forget that is stupid, because then you are going to make a wrong society. Everybody can make a mistake, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is going to hell because of it.

Is there something you avoid in your collection?

What is not in my collection is painting. Because if you understand art history, you will start wondering about what can be said with painting that nobody has said before? And they all did it better in the past. The medium carries too much historical weight to still be able to speak about today’s world.

Everything in the U.S. market at this moment is about abstract painting. Jacob Kassay, Oscar Murillo – they are super young kids who are selling for multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are abstract painters. And it’s because new buyers feel comfortable about abstract painting because it’s just about colour, it fits fine with the sofa at home…. And it will not disturb, it will give status and there is the option to speculate with it.

I don’t want that art!

You started collecting at the end of the 1990s. How has this practice changed over time?

It’s a long story. And I’m sorry to stop talking about collecting, but it’s interesting to tell this story.

First of all, you don’t decide to be a collector. Either you are one, or you’ll never be one. In my view, that means that being a collector is the other side of the coin of being an artist. Art is not just something for wealthy people to enjoy. Art has got something very important to do in society – to the wealthy people and to the people on the street as well. What is that? Art is about asking the right questions!

Why is art so violent in Russia today? Why is it so brutal? The Voina guys, Pussy Riot and so on…. Why is it about a guy who nails his balls to the Red Square cobblestones? Why it is like that? It's because the society is so violent, so brutal that you need to go back to it, to respond to it…. You need to respond to it super brutally! And if you just make a nice drawing, nobody will care. You could still be an artist in Russia by doing nice little paintings, but, I’m sorry, you’re not really an artist there because you don’t speak about what is going on there. Art is a medium; it is a power in society.

The press and television are dead media today. They are so dependent on advertising that they produce only what they think will sell advertising.

Television is dead because it is partisan – either you watch Fox News and get the right-wing politics of the United States, or you watch CBS and get the “left-wing” politics of the United States. In Russia it’s the same thing. Switch on state television and there Putin is a god, but in a tiny weblog they say that Putin is the worst guy on earth. And maybe both are wrong and there is a middle line, but nobody is talking about the middle line anymore. And the way we need media so much, it's not there anymore. So, what is the last creation that can open our minds? Cinema is almost dead because production costs are so high that people can’t make independent movies. So, what do we have left? Art. You know, art is about that. I strongly believe that art has got a position.

You asked me what has changed. Today some artists are producers of luxury goods, while an artist should actually be a creator of ideas. A long time ago, when nobody cared about art, most of the artists were idea creators. If they were only producers of luxury goods, people looked at them but no one took them to the Venice Biennale.

For me, what is a good artist? First of all, he is a broken machine; he is not a normal person. He is different. He sees the world differently than the thousands of people in the subway going to the office in the morning. What he sees is hurting him, because how is it that he sees but no one else sees? And he is very anxious to do something about it, so he creates a work that represents his feelings. And people will think: “This guy is “crazy”. Why is he speaking about ecology, why is he criticising good Putin?” Most people don’t realise what he does, except a few! Collectors. Because collectors, they’re also “crazy”. All of them! They are very strange.

Thomas Houseago. Minotaur I, 2009. Courtesy the artist and gallery Xavier Hufkens

I will buy the artist’s work when nobody else wants it, because I will believe I understand him. And I will allow the artist to keep on living. You see the big white sculpture here – it is by Thomas Houseago. He is English and now working in the USA. I met him again recently, and he once again appreciated Xavier Hufkens' gallery in Belgium, because at a time when no one believed in him, Hufkens brought collectors to him. Today he is a superstar! The collector helps to get the artist recognised, otherwise he will die unknown. That connection between artists and collectors – I call that the two sides of the same coin. They are super different, but they need each other.

So, and what has changed? We see the buyers on the scene. I call them “art buyers”, not “collectors”. They come because it’s cool to buy art. But they know nothing about art, nothing about what I just explained. Eventually, they buy in order to belong to a group. They are just status seekers.

We just saw the artnet News selection of the “20 most innovative collectors”. I believe we could find the “art buyers” among them…. But what would be your list of real collectors?

About that list…. I wrote the same on my Twitter. There are some good guys, and to put Baibakova there is kind of stupid. And Theo Danjuma at the top of the list….

Of course, I don’t know the whole world, but some people who are super visionaries are Charles Saatchi, Mera Rubell, Harald Falckenberg. In France… let me think… no one. In Germany, Ingvild Goetz. In Italy, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, even though there are some elements I’m not so sure about, but yes, I think she is a good collector. Then there is a very new one, but I’m not sure, I will keep my eye on her – Julia Stoschek. Who else? Pinault, for sure. A brilliant collector without doubt. They have all added something new to the system.

Within the first few minutes of the Frieze opening, White Cube sold Damien Hirst’s fish-in-formaldehyde diptych Because I Can't Have You I Want You (1993) for £4 million….

It was sold beforehand! Don’t trust all those noises. An art fair is a marketing machine. It's about giving an impression. Even if they don’t sell anything, they cannot leave by saying that. Whatever happens – whatever the fair is good or bad – all the noises will be “Super! Super!”

Every single gallery sends to collectors like me, everything in advance. So, I know the fair two weeks before I get to it. If I like something, I will ask the price of it and buy it before then. They will still show it, but it will be sold beforehand.

It’s just not like, “Oh, here is Damien Hirst and I’ll buy it for two million dollars!” No! That’s why I sometimes find journalists so naïve. Wake up – this is a marketing machine!

Doesn’t this whole circus going on lessen the value of the art?

Yes, the cultural value of the art.

I would like to note the difference between the cultural value of the art and its commercial value. The cultural value of the art defines whether that piece could be in the museum; the commercial value determines whether it might be sold for 200,000 dollars at the fair, but no museum in the world would want to show it. The cultural value of that 200,000-dollar piece is zero. The problem today is that people are focusing on the commercial value of the art, and they don’t think about whether it's something that is good art. That is what good collectors try to do – they try to buy something that they believe will be the art of tomorrow.

Where do you buy your art?

If you understand how the art world works – what happens when an artist gets into the museum? He is happy and takes his chance and makes the best pieces he can. When I go to the museum, I see good works of art and there it is written “courtesy of the artist” or “courtesy of the gallery”. I call them, tell them that I saw a wonderful piece, find out the price, and I buy it when it is in the museum. That's the way I usually buy, because I want the best pieces by the best artists. That’s it – I buy in museums.

What would be your opinion about buying on the Internet?

I don't believe I'd ever buy an artist that I don’t know on the Internet, but I could buy an artist I do know. If I recognise the work, if I have been in front of it.... In terms of buying, this is my answer. First of all, I need to get the physical emotion to it.

In terms of information, the Internet is fantastic! You can browse many, many things – from Indonesia to Latvia. And you can call a gallery, for example, and ask them to bring art work you are interested in to an art fair.

I would like to turn to art and social platforms (Pinterest, Facebook, Picasa, YouTube)….

You forgot one, the most important – Instagram! It’s a whole market by itself. Artists are selling on Instagram.

Alain Servais backed by the Gilbert & George photo work Tree Naked, 1991.  Photo: Patrick Messina 

What effects might social media have on art perception?

It is very important for the expansion of the consideration and recognition of art. Because the current system of art is based on galleries, but galleries are in a way kind of repelling to learning about art. There is nothing friendly in a contemporary art gallery. You have been in galleries, so you know – people are not nice there. They sit behind their desks and don’t even look at you. You would like to know more, but no one is there for you. So, social media is bringing it to everyone. You don’t need to go to galleries anymore.

But every advantage has its disadvantage. The advantage is the expansion; the disadvantage is that social media is for the masses. Remember what I said about the coin – the artist and collector? Unfortunately, normal people don’t want to be disturbed; they want art that is like they are. Comfortable. On Instagram they will go for comfortable art.

For example, when I went to the Venice Biennale for the first time, I thought what is this crazy place? Everything was strange! Strange, wild, disturbing.... What do I need to do to start enjoying this?! OK, now it’s my territory, now I feel comfortable there and buy in two seconds, because it only takes me a second to recognise – is it good art or not? Now it’s my world. But for normal people, it is not. And they decide to never return there again. Even though they still enjoy art....

This is why art is a wonderful school, an education of the mind – it pushes you in places where you are not naturally. If you hate that, you will hate art. But today, because it is a commercial market, art that you like will be delivered to you. The majority of the art that you see in social media is super comfortable, but it is not good art in terms of challenging and opening your heart. Social media is good, but it is not an education. Education happens when something teaches you more.

In your opinion, what is it that makes people become good collectors? Maybe you have noticed some common character traits or conditions?

It’s funny, but in a way I could tell that you could be a good collector. Because whatever I was explaining to you in front of the works of art, you were looking by yourself. You were looking at the work with attention and by yourself, not using my eyes. That means you are curious, you are an art person. But there are so many people who come and look for five seconds and then go towards something that they like. Give me two hours with someone and I can tell whether he or she could be a collector or not.