05 March 2016 Geert Verbeke is the driving force behind the Verbeke Foundation, one of the largest private initiatives for modern and contemporary art throughout Europe. His collection includes over five thousand works by Belgian and international artists and covers more than 100 years of art history. Parts of the collection have been exhibited at Centre Pompidou, the Louvre, Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp, National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, among many others. In 2007 Geert Verbeke’s private museum opened its doors to the general public and since then the foundation has collaborated with dozens of artists, including Philippe Vandenberg, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Jan Fabre, Eduardo Kac, Peter Buggenhout, Luc Tuymans, to name a few. His extraordinary approach towards collecting art and running a museum has already gained him international recognition in the art world.
Marek Wolynski: You created one of the most exceptional collection of collages and assemblages in the world. How did you begin?
Geert Verbeke: I started collecting in the early 1990s. At that time, I had a transport company and was in charge of international and transatlantic shipments. One day I saw a strange sight. In front of a factory there were 25 trucks parked and between them somebody put huge abstract steel sculptures. I asked local people to whom the sculptures had belonged, and they had mentioned Herman van Nazareth. The artist struggled with a problem because he couldn’t move those 4 meter high sculptures. However, I had cranes, forklifts and all the necessary materials so I could easily do it myself. I helped him to move the sculptures and then one thing just led to another. I began to visit more and more exhibitions and see what else was on display. Then I started to buy art books, albums and collect more and more.
Although steel sculptures grabbed your attention, you decided to collect collages and assemblages.
Collages and assemblages caught my eye because their surrealistic character really appealed to me. Surrealism is a typically Belgian feature. I absolutely love Surrealism! For me it is an attitude towards life, it is a lifestyle. I am a Surrealist, a Dadaist, and an anarchist: if you mix those three together, you get me. In my view, collage as a medium of artistic expression is highly underrated. It seems like people just overlook how important and meaningful this medium is. Initially, the focus of the collection was placed on Belgian artists. My first purchase was a Jean-Jacques Gaillard’s collage from 1953. I am particularly proud to have E.L.T Mesens, Marcel Mariën, Gilbert Senecaut, Paul Joostens, and Marcel-Louis Baugniet in my collection. I started with collages but over the years the collection has expanded to include assemblages, installations, sculptures as well as bio art.
You are not only a collector but also a director of one of the biggest private museums of contemporary art in Europe. Why did you decide to build your own museum?
You know, it is always a big dilemma for a collector what to do with their collection. You can decide to collect, to buy and then just put the artworks on racks where nobody can see them. On the other hand, you can exhibit your collection, share it with others, make the artworks accessible to the public. Artists didn’t make the works just for me and that fact has consequences. The idea to establish a museum emerged already in 1995 or 1996. When I sold my company, I decided to build my own museum because I was looking for a place which would really excite me. I didn’t find a museum that would fully satisfy me with what it presented and how the art was exhibited, so I decided to create my own place. I travelled to many places in search of inspiration. Three most exciting institutions that I visited are Museo Vostell Malpartida in Spain, Château d’Oiron in France, and Museum Insel Hombroich in Germany. There are also good examples in the Netherlands such as De Pont Museum in Tilburg, to which I went many times before opening my own museum.
I can imagine that doing everything yourself was not an easy process.
It took years to convert the warehouses into exhibition halls. And then I worked even more! When you run a museum, you always have to be on the spot and take care of your collection and the space. I think about this process in the same way as I perceive collecting. It is a learning process: discovering art and at the same time discovering yourself. You do not know everything from the very beginning. You buy a lot and you make good purchases but you also make mistakes and buy bad things. This is inevitable. The same is with creating exhibition space. I was sure from the very beginning that I did not want to have a typical white cube. Interiors of galleries and museums that look exactly the same in London, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, or Hong Kong do not interest me. There is nothing special about them! It is important to live with the building. My museum is contradictory, untidy, complex, and constantly in motion. While my collection expands and changes, the building undergoes similar processes and also alters its appearance. I need to feel the space in the same way I feel the artworks that I collect.
Doing everything with your own hands means that you need to take time and do it step by step. The collage museum was the first building that was fully adapted to house the exhibition space as well as the storage. The next step was to convert former warehouse of my transport agency into the main exhibition hall. We also constructed three huge greenhouses which now house a cafeteria, a bookshop, a workshop as well as exhibition spaces full of natural light. Since 2013 we also have a huge structure created with 13 forty-foot containers designed to permanently host Jacobus Kloppenburg’s oeuvre. The museum itself is surrounded by the sculpture park which undergoes constant expansion. Altogether we have 20 000 square meters of covered space and 12 hectares of sculpture park.
The foundation is by no means a typical exhibition space. I have heard that you even held a funeral at the museum.
The foundation is a unique place and people know it! In 2009 we organized a retrospective of Phillipe Vandenberg. I paid many visits to his studio and selected around sixty works for display. I decided to exhibit different works from those that you can usually see at Philippe’s exhibitions at Hauser & Wirth or other top galleries. All of the paintings and assemblages that we exhibited at the museum were made with Philippe’s own blood. Sadly, a few weeks after the opening the artist committed suicide. At that time the exhibition was still on view so the family decided to hold the funeral with us, at the foundation. The museum is known for hosting many additional events. Recently it has been a printing industry trade fair presenting the latest technological developments such as 3D printers, which artists happen to use more and more. The foundation also boasts CasAnus, a B&B designed to resemble a part of the large intestine. People often come only for a couple of hours, but once they are here many visitors decide to stay overnight and continue discovering the museum the following day.
The Verbeke Foundation is a place where nature goes hand in hand with art. You always emphasize that the exhibitions are sponsored by nature.
Not only the exhibitions! The entire place is sponsored by nature! The foundation does not receive any subsidies or financial support neither from the province, Flemish government, federal government nor the European Union. The museum is totally independent and nature is the biggest sponsor of my art endeavors. The exhibition spaces and the sculpture park outside resemble a living organism and as such it looks different from one day to the next.
The sculpture park that you mentioned is often compared to Inhotim in Brazil.
It is definitely much more dynamic but smaller and less picturesque than Inhotim! I believe in nature, not in aestheticisation of nature. The sculpture park is raw, full of natural surprises, there are also animals living on site. You know, when I was young I studied landscape and garden design. Even though I didn’t work as a gardener, I can still call all the tree species growing at the foundation’s grounds by their Latin names. As far as art is concerned, we have over 60 sculptures and installations in the park including works by Alan Sonfist, Joep van Lieshout, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Maarten Vanden Eynde, and Koen Vanmechelen. I proud to have Marcin Dudek‘s 'The Cathedral of human Labour' in the collection. It is an underground site-specific installation, a hidden tunnel leading from the museum park to a motorway. The Cathedral was created from approximately 60 tons of wood that was initially used as temporary support for a concrete construction of a railway tunnel. While the rough interior gives claustrophobic feeling and bring images of trenches, narco-tunnels, and passages of flight, each carefully composed fragment of the walls varies a lot, and can be perceived as a collage itself! There are more installations to come in the near future like trains by Wolf Vostell, a church by Marinus Boezem, or over 60 meter high electricity pylons by the German artist Pablo Wendel. Some of the works are still in progress, some of them are overtaken by nature and decay as time goes by, what I consider a completely natural process.
Part of the museum is solely dedicated to bio art. What sparked your interest in this kind of art?
The bio art section of the museum is particularly important to me. Nature plays a major role in my life and artists working at the intersection of biology and science always attracted my attention. What lies at the centre of the bio art section of the museum is my favorite work: Martin uit den Bogaard’s 'Archieflab'. Martin created one of the most compelling art installations I have ever seen. He is fully dedicated to investigating the difference between life and death. Since late 1980s he has been encasing dead birds, mammals, reptiles, food, bones as well as blood samples in airtight glass cubes so the process of decay is slowed down considerably. In the 1990s he was nicknamed a Flemish Damien Hirst, although he started his experiments earlier than the British artist. What’s particularly interesting is the fact that unlike Hirst, Martin does not care about aesthetics and deals with raw materials. In some objects the alternating current remaining in the carcasses is measured by voltmeters connected to computers. Specially designed program registers and transposes the voltage alternations into audiovisual representations. Therefore, every time the voltmeter measures a different voltage, the computer generates new graphs and sounds of various frequencies. Even though the carcasses produce low levels of energy, it is still a powerful symbol suggesting the idea that life and death are not opposite states, but they actually interact in a very complex way. It is a fantastic artwork! When I die, I would love to have my body encased in a glass coffin and compose music in my museum!
How do you acquire artworks?
I buy on auctions as well as directly from artists. I choose everything myself and avoid services offered by art advisors. What I like the most is working closely with artists and commissioning their projects. One of my first major commissions was Jan Fabre’s I spit on my grave (hommage to Boris Vian). The work comprises over 360 granite tombstones with names of insects engraved on some of them. The dates on the stones refer to birth and death dates of artists, academics and philosophers whom Jan Fabre admires. In 2005 we produced three different works. The first one is on permanent display at the foundation, the second was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2007, the third at the Louvre in 2008 and was later bought by Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. Since then I have commissioned many different works, varying in size and material used, like Jason van der Woude’s house-like structure made out of hundreds of old windows, or Aeneas Wilder’s 'Dome'. In 2011 it was Mateusz Herczka’s 'Puddle Drive-Through Simulation', the biggest artificial killifish habitat ever made. It is a puddle that you may usually find in the middle of a road in Guyana or other South American countries, with a truck wheel rolling through it. You can even see killifish that to survive normally jump from one shallow pothole to another ephemeral pool. Recently, I have commissioned herman de vries’ installation created with thousands bones and flowers which is already on view at the sculpture park. Recently I have commissioned a project by Ryan Mendoza. We moved an abandoned house from Detroit to Europe and rebuilt it onsite. The house was shown at Art Rotterdam in February and soon it will be rebuilt again at the sculpture park surrounding the museum.
You also search for those objects that other museums want to throw away.
Saving good artworks from oblivion is crucial! Nowadays the art world faces a peculiar problem. Many museums are more willing to acquire new works rather than restore the ones that they already have in their collections. I do not understand why! Recently, I have saved Andrea Branzi’s Grande Vaso, which has been exhibited in the courtyard of Design Museum Gent for over 25 years. The museum didn’t have enough funds to restore it so they just wanted to get rid of it. I contacted them, moved this 9 meter high vase to the foundation, restored it and now it is placed on the hill nearby the highway. I also rescue art that is forgotten or lost. That happens more often than you would guess! One day, quite by accident, I found out about 12 meter long Channel Surf Club mural by Keith Haring, which was considered lost. It turned out that the container on which the mural was painted stayed in somebody’s warehouse for about 20 years and was completely forgotten! After doing some research and with a pinch of luck, I managed to find it and exhibit in the museum.
In November you opened a huge show that includes several exhibitions and features Daniel Spoerri, Jan Goossen, Albert Szukalski, Jean-Pierre Temmerman and many, many others.
My collection closely intertwines with works presented during temporary exhibitions. This winter the spotlight is directed on the retrospective of Daniel Spoerri. The way that his assemblages bring together different materials and form surprising unities always caught my attention. I decided to confront Spoerri’s oeuvre with works of lesser known, even forgotten Belgian artists who I really admire such as Albert Szukalski. His works from the early 1970s gains even more strength when exhibited together with assemblages created by the avant-garde artist. On the occasion of the exhibition, we also redesigned the bio art section of the museum and published three books dedicated to modern and contemporary artists.
How does a usual day in the foundation look like after opening such a huge exhibition?
You ask if I slow down the pace of work? I never slow down! My house is located on the museum premises. I get up really early every morning and spend nearly every day at the museum, from Monday till Sunday. I take care of the foundation and the sculpture park with the help of my wife and a small team. The foundation also runs a residence program and artists have a possibility to live and work here. I strongly believe in supporting both emerging and established artists. We work together, we eat meals together, discuss future projects together and in this way change how the museum and the sculpture park look like. The museum is constantly in motion, it is an inharmonious, living space, like the world outside of the exhibition halls. It is an open house and when you come here it is not only me who you meet but also artists from all around the world are present.
Could you tell me more about the plans for 2016?
The next exhibition is going to bring together kinetic installations of Theo Jansen and Zoro Feigl. We are going to have new works by Herman de Vries, too. Three books will accompany the exhibition: one dedicated to Zoro’s installations, the other to Herman’s project and one more about Roger van de Wouwer’s extraordinary collages that will also find their place on display. Recently, the foundation has also began collaboration with Château d’Oiron. Stan Wannet, with whom I’ve been working since 2007, will open his solo show there in June this year. We are also preparing for the 10th anniversary of the foundation in 2017. Apart from organizing exhibitions, we are also going to publish a book summarizing the last ten years to give insight into previous shows and the transformation that the museum underwent since the opening. Another publication will provide a comprehensive overview of my collection of collages and assemblages. It seems that 2016 will be a really busy year!
Interviewed by Marek Wołyński
Edited by Aleksander Cellmer