On the tail of his recent gutai art exhibitions in Hong Kong, the legendary artist tells Tatler why art and spirituality are inseparable
"It’s important to be surrounded by what is real and honest, instead of fake things,” says Axel Vervoordt. “It’s that real thing we’re all looking for, especially now.” Pandemic-induced lockdowns and quarantines have relegated many of us to the domestic sphere, reviving an interest in sprucing up our homes and creating a soothing environment conducive to dealing with social and political upheaval. The Belgian has been engaged in this quest for the “real thing” throughout his career as an interior designer and arts and antiques dealer. In a world where visual culture is oversaturated with artificial, filtered and increasingly digitised imagery, and beauty is synonymous with flawlessness, Vervoordt’s signature rustic elegance offers tangible relief and a point for reflection.
“I’m looking for a universal,” says the designer on his end visual goal and creative approach, “something that belongs to the past and the future, something that’s just timeless.” That is a very accurate description of his speciality: the ability to create a harmonious blend between the contemporary and old, the result of which, beyond a striking visual impact, is also a feeling. “A lot of what I do is about finding positive energy, so I like art that makes us see and feel things differently.”
Vervoordt’s obsession with all things old began when he was young. At just 21 he started dealing antiques, and also bought his first Lucio Fontana painting. As both his business and collection grew, he developed an interest in design too, which led him to start two businesses: an art gallery with outposts in Antwerp and Hong Kong, and an interior design company.
Vervoordt’s vision has been highly sought after and appeared in many high-profile homes and interiors. His best-known work is perhaps designing Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s former Calabasas house, which West referred to as a “futuristic Buddhist monastery”.
This spiritual essence is captured in another well-known project. In 2014 he co-designed the Tribeca Penthouse Suite at the Greenwich Hotel—Robert De Niro is an investor—with Brussels-based Japanese architect Miki Tatsuro, who also co-authored Vervoordt’s book Wabi Interiors (2010). The suite incorporated industrial elements from the surrounding neighbourhood, as well as the traditional Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi, a philosophy of accepting and highlighting imperfections.
“Beauty lies in imperfection, because that is what is pure, natural and honest,” says Vervoordt of wabi-sabi, an ideal that resonates strongly with Vervoordt’s own, evident in his affinity for antiquities and all things old. “With age, things soften; they meld with the air and get a new skin, a new use.”
With no direct English equivalent, the term is derived from a respect for the impermanent and authentic, implying that things are more beautiful when they bear marks of age and evidence of a life well lived.
While there are many of us who live with art, Vervoordt is one of very few who live in art.
The visceral effect of art or a well-designed room can be powerful, and the designer has been able to produce this in his most notable project—his own home. It’s about “creating a feeling rather than the visual”, he says in a video chat from his home outside Antwerp, Belgium. “The visual is simply the result of the spirituality and vision.” Vervoordt’s distinct vision, combining a northern European aesthetic with wabi elements, is best manifested in his home. He and his wife May live in a 12th-century castle just northeast of Antwerp which they renovated, uniquely designing each of its 50 rooms.
The designer was first introduced to the concept in 2005, after encountering gutai—a Japanese art movement initiated in the 1950s—when Dusseldorf Museum Kunstpalast curator Mattijs Visser asked Vervoordt if he would loan some artworks for the museum’s Zero and gutai art exhibition. Vervoordt was already familiar with the Zero art movement, as he collected works by practitioners Fontana and Otto Piene, and describes learning of gutai as a “missing link”.
“I was sure people like Fontana and Rothko had this oriental philosophical outlook, feel and spirituality in their works,” he says of artists associated with the Zero art group. “But with gutai, it’s just pure abstract art; it was such a strong expression of material, earth, being and spiritual power as well.”
Both the Zero art movement and gutai were born out of a post-Second World War context, where new systems were needed to replace old, failed ones. Following war-induced trauma and a national identity crisis, Japan’s environment was ripe for healing, rebuilding and reinvention, much like the rest of the world at the time, and not dissimilar to our current climate.
The healing confluence between the movements is visualised in one of Vervoordt’s living spaces, where a Piene painting hangs on the same wall as one by Masatoshi Masanobu. Similarly, in his wabi room, used for meditation purposes or whenever the designer is feeling contemplative, a Fontana sculpture lies on an old raised wooden platform—part of the building’s original structure. On one of the walls hangs a large black-and-white painting by Kazuao Shiraga, Vervoordt’s favourite gutai artist. Among many performative methods, Shiraga used his feet to paint onto canvas laid out on the floor, creating bold, striking works infused with palpable movement.
On a trip to Japan, Vervoordt witnessed Shiraga painting. “It was a brush of cosmic power; he creates energy,” says the designer. “He meditated on the canvas until he became one with the emptiness. It’s totally free; no ego is present.” One of the goals after meditation is to become detached from one’s ego and thus liberated. “It’s all about that freedom,” says Vervoordt.
On the same trip, Vervoordt visited many other gutai artists, including Ryuji Tanaka and Yuko Nasaka. Tanaka fused traditional nihonga painting (a style developed in late 19th-century Japan, which used natural minerals to create pigments) with innovative methods, using feathers to create his ephemeral “light” paintings, one of which hangs above Vervoordt’s fireplace. For Vervoordt, “Tanaka’s process of painting, using slow repetitive motions with each stroke, became a meditation in itself”.
The void—essentially a circle—was a common motif present in many gutai artworks, and also served as meditative focal point. It was the center point of Yuko Nasaka’s hypnotic paintings, which the artist created in a meditative manner, by holding a knife on a wood panel that rotated on a mechanical turntable. This performative gesture at times resulted in marks that were unintentional, infusing the piece with wabi-sabi-esque beauty.
Voids are also the focal point of Norio Imai’s minimalistic white bulbous reliefs. Imai often used moulds of found objects to create protrusions out of the canvas, the appearance of which for Vervoordt resembles “a pregnant void”. His works were most recently on view in May, at Vervoordt’s gallery booth at Art Basel Hong Kong.
“It’s like it holds all possibilities for creation,” says Vervoordt. “The real void is the most powerful—it contains everything. Even the big bang came out of the void.” The gutai manifesto stated that the artists had to be innovative and original in their approach, and to “do what’s never been done”. In undertaking this, they would have to draw from a place that was pure and original; for Vervoordt, this makes it one of the most honest art forms.
“I don’t want to separate art from philosophy and religion; [art] is a universal religion,” says Vervoordt, who has been regularly staging gutai art exhibitions at the gallery; currently a show featuring tactile works composed of burlap and hemp by gutai artist Tsuyoshi Maekawa is on view in his Hong Kong gallery.
Vervoordt’s ethos and aesthetic spirit are very much present in his Hong Kong gallery: the high-ceilinged interiors combine with breathtaking mountain views to create a sense of serenity and infinite space—rare in the city. On the higher of the gallery’s two floors, the library holds a striking limestone table as its centrepiece. Surrounding it are shelves and surfaces holding sculptures, books and vases organically arranged. Although carefully considered, the arrangement comes across as effortless, natural and free. Whether it’s an artwork he selects, his style, his gallery, an interior he’s designed or his home, this natural sense of ease emanates from all of aspects of Vervoordt’s life. “There is no dogma, no rule—it’s all about feeling freedom, good energy and harmony.”