Only the BeginningAxel Vervoordt’s Kanaal Project
“Accident is embraced as a beautiful singularity. Many things in this project just happened – there was no masterplan to begin with, and the site still has the potential to change radically.”
In 1998, celebrated designer, collector, and art dealer Axel Vervoordt, and his sons Boris and Dick, saw the glimmer of potential in a derelict, polluted, 19th century malting distillery on the banks of the Albert Canal just outside Antwerp. It eventually became the Kanaal Project. In November 2017, its long awaited opening was marked with contemporary exhibitions by El Anatsui, Lucia Bru, and Saburo Murakami, as well as Henro I, a show curated from the Axel and May Vervoordt Foundation’s collection, featuring ZERO and the art of the Gutai group.
The Axel Vervoordt Company was founded in the late 1960s. Boris now leads art and antiques, the contemporary art gallery, and interior design, while Dick directs the real estate division. Under the family’s combined stewardship, the 55,000 m2 site has blossomed into a cleansed ‘cultural and residential complex, surrounded by nature.’ New buildings rise alongside converted red brick warehouses and towering grain silos. With longevity and community in mind, the Vervoordts have planted the seeds of a self contained village, with apartments, offices, and businesses, including artisanal French bakery Poilâne, an organic, fresh market by CRU, a restaurant, and a multi-use auditorium, as well as the Vervoordt company’s offices and exhibition spaces.
Throughout his career, Axel has applied the Japanese principle of wabi – the beauty in natural imperfection and the transformational effect of time. The gradual unfolding of the Kanaal Project is a wonderful example. “The site was already steeped in this quality; that’s why the Vervoordts were drawn to it,” says architect Tatsuro Miki. He has collaborated with Axel on numerous projects, including designing Kanaal’s new art spaces. For the Vervoordts, wabi is far from a mere motif or an aesthetic style. It is rather a flexible attitude that has allowed their utopian vision to mature and, according to Miki, exceed their expectations. “Wabi, like Gutai, is the art of making the happening the quality,” he explains. “Accident is embraced as a beautiful singularity. Many things in this project just happened – there was no masterplan to begin with, and the site still has the potential to change radically.” Stressing the team’s long term outlook, he continues: “We value proportions and materials. If something is made with great materials, in a thousand years, it will be remarkable! I strive for less and less functional thinking. If you confine a space to one function, it’s dead. Generic forms, like car parks or supermarkets, are liberating places to show art, because they give no orders.” In this spirit, the art at Kanaal finds its way into relatively untouched industrial spaces. Pieces by the likes of Tatsuo Miyajima, Marina Abramović, and Otto Boll are permanently installed on the ground floors of eight original concrete silos.
Axel Vervoordt, affable and visibly happy as he shares this fruition of his life’s work, introduces the sombre space that shelters his collection of seventh and eighth century Buddha sculptures from the Mon Kingdom of Dvaravati between its supporting columns. “It was full of old engines when we found it,” he says. “But to me, it was like an Egyptian temple. Gutai art teaches us that things are what they are, and industrial architecture is interesting for that very reason. It’s not made to be beautiful, it’s there to serve. I find that so touching; there is a religious quality to it.” In parts of the complex, a devotional atmosphere is tangible. The site was planned around At the Edge of the World (1998), Anish Kapoor’s monumental, low hanging dome, made from red pigment and fibreglass. Housed in a coal black building, it “serves as a symbolic beating heart”. Its counterpart, James Turrell’s Red Shift (1995), is a glowing light work which slowly transitions from red to blue in the pitch black of the distillery’s former chapel. Both these vibratory, intensely immersive installations encourage a contemplative approach to all the art and architecture the site has to offer.
Axel describes collecting as a lifelong pilgrimage – some pieces have been in the collection for over 40 years. He observes that the privilege of acquiring them only makes sense if he can share them with others. “As I was creating the Henro I show, another was already forming in my mind,” he says. “But I don’t want to follow any rules, other than just purely what I feel. Curating is a very personal and intimate thing for me.” His thinking reflects the project as a whole: it is a humble and generous endeavour, albeit an incredibly ambitious one. It has been conceived and executed not as an investment, but rather as a gift, or a legacy, which, as it nears completion, is clearly only a first step. At the centre of the new exhibition spaces, Gutai master Kazuo Shiraga’s room is a dramatic high point. Natural light falls into the dark, grey space, illuminating three action paintings, each named after a Chinese warrior. “Shiraga wanted his paintings to be strokes of cosmic power, free of ego,” Axel says. “Out of emptiness comes the Big Bang, and, for me, these paintings are the Big Bang; they are a real beginning.”