Annette De Keyser, 20 years a gallery-owner
‘I WANT TO CREATE A PLACE OF CALM AND PEACE’
Annette De Keyser is one of the most individual and radical gallery-owners I have ever met. She has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of her gallery with a group exhibition entitled ‘20 years for a better world’, which powerfully expresses what the gallery stands for: art as a catalyst for a better world.
Isabelle De Baets
We are at the exhibition; the room is animated by art charged with energy, in which the accent is on the ‘indefinable’, the spiritual and the mystical, which here seem to assume all sorts of forms. How would you describe your artistic vision?
Annette De Keyser: ‘I make intuitive choices, and the spiritual and mystical play an important part in that, because it has to do with my own essence. My choice of collaborating with a particular artist is determined by the degree to which I am touched by their work. It has to resonate with me.’
You choices have evolved over the 20 years you have had the gallery. In the first few years you were involved with such artists as Guy van Bossche and Danny De Vos.
De Keyser: ‘In the past I did indeed see the notion of mysticism more broadly. There was also a place for the work of Danny De Vos, with his perpetrators of deaths, or for Guy van Bossche’s paintings. But the more the gallery evolved, the more focused I became. Some artists have fallen away, others have been added. The gallery has grown very organically.
All the artists now linked to the gallery are people who are translating and transmitting higher frequencies. They create art that is positive and harmonious. It is art that can make people happy or console them, that can calm nervous people, activate depressive people. Which is also why I cooperate with very different artists, because all the artists work at very different levels. Any visitor who is willing to be open to the artworks will find at least one artist whose works resonates with them.
The common denominator among the artists who are now linked to the gallery is that they are all very radical in their art. I give them a platform to be completely themselves. I give them all the room they need for their growth process, in the way that is necessary for them. This process is never influenced by people who may or may not be in tune with their work or by what sells or doesn’t. There are artists who do entirely different things once they have pared it right down.
One important motto I give my artists is ‘don’t try to please the market’; otherwise they become like everyone else. They have to remain true to themselves so they can give the market that unique thing that only they have to offer.
I also think it’s important that they don’t exhibit too often, so they have sufficient time for reflection and experimentation and can work on their development without the pressure of an imminent exhibition. The artist sets his tempo himself, because sometimes you simply need time for reflection. Marielle Soons, for example, sometimes needs a year’s rest. That’s what she needs to be able to start from a blank sheet again. After each exhibition she returns to zero and builds up from there. Like that you can’t do five shows a year, otherwise you have to repeat yourself or work in series, and that’s not what her work is about at all. No one is explicitly concerned with a strategy or plotting out the important places where they want to exhibit. It’s nice if it happens, but that is not the artists’ principle. The most important thing is that they can express what they have to say.’
Do the artists come to you or do you go out looking for them?
De Keyser: ‘We come across each other. I go to a lot of exhibitions because I want to see what’s going on and whether there is more art I have an affinity with. For example, this summer I was very pleased to see Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition ‘Il Palazzo Enciclopedico’ at the Venice Biennale. I saw in it a reflection of what I was engaged in at the gallery and had the feeling that something was changing in the art world.
In fact I always commit myself to an artist’s potential. It’s often the case that I keep track of people for years because I know that one day they will create the work that I will have to speak out for. It’s been like that with a lot of people here at the gallery. I visit them regularly in their studio and just wait until they create the work that will signal the start of our collaboration.’
It’s a slow process.
De Keyser: ‘Yes, it’s a very slow way of working and I always advise them not to exhibit too often. They should devote all their attention to their growth process, to creating their art. I feel like the guardian of the soul of art. Their work should never become a product. If they are under too much pressure, it undoubtedly has repercussions on the quality of their work. This also means that most of the artists at the gallery are not dependent on sales of their work. Most of them teach and have sufficient time left to spend on their artistic work.’
As a gallery-owner how do you relate to the art market? Isn’t your slow approach at odds with the financial aspect of the business?
De Keyser: ‘No, not really. My work is low-budget. My business is an ‘FWS’, a firm without staff (smiles). Apart from that, I have had my own premises from the very beginning, so that’s a big advantage. You have to sell works, of course, but it’s not so that I absolutely ‘have to’ because I have major costs to pay. Fortunately I have very loyal collectors who believe in the art I present and fully understand it.’
On the other hand you do show saleable work. You stick to object-based work. You mainly show paintings, sculptures and installations that are timeless.
De Keyser: ‘Yes, it has always been the gallery’s principle to present visionary, progressive, but also timeless work.’
The rooms in your gallery space are reminiscent of an Egyptian temple; you have been here for 20 years now, so is this the perfect place for you?
De Keyser: ‘I wanted to create a warm, timeless space where people feel welcome and which envelops them. So I looked for something like a large living room. Not a sharply-defined space like an austere loft or a white cube, but a space that feels very natural and that does not force itself on the work.
I have put a lot of thought into the lighting – a firm calculated how the fluorescent lights should hang so that the walls would receive a very even light all over – but apart from that I have kept the walls and floor as intact as possible. I just fill the holes after every exhibition so that the traces of previous exhibitions remain palpable.’
Most of the galleries in Antwerp are in the South district; why did you choose the North?
De Keyser: ‘I wanted to be in the North district. You will always have more visitors if you are near the South, but I have noticed that the interested visitor nevertheless finds his way to the gallery. People from Tokyo, Los Angeles and London don’t come here any less than elsewhere.’
After years of taking part in lots of international art fairs, some time ago you decided to stop doing so. What was behind that decision?
De Keyser: ‘I have shown what the gallery stands for 13 times at international fairs without selling much, so I thought that was more than enough. I present art that has a positive message and I have observed that there is currently no worthwhile commercial platform for that sort of art. I have noted on several occasions that galleries which present art involving cynicism, negativity and alienation simply sell all they have. A few years ago I was talking to a Spanish gallery-owner who had asked his artists to ‘fabriquer des caramels pour la foire’. He had polyester turds lying on the floor and he was getting more insane with pride every day because he was constantly raking it in. That is the madness of the materialist world.’
But then how do you build up your networks of curators, museum directors and private collectors?
De Keyser: ‘My experience is that on the basis of a common mission new networks are taking shape.’
You are currently looking back at 20 years in your gallery. What is your feeling about its future?
De Keyser: ‘I see the current exhibition as a celebration, because I am proud to have kept going for 20 years and because it’s also a new beginning, with new contacts and new forms of collaboration. So I see it more as 20 years of preparation so that I can now do in full what I once started all those years ago. One thing that has changed is that I no longer have a fixed programme. In the past my programme for the following two years was already settled. Now I don’t plan so much because I want to be able to react quickly. I want something dynamic, something better suited to these rapidly changing times.’
In the dominant art discourse, art is often concerned with alienation and misrepresentation, and the conceptual is very much to the fore.
De Keyser: ‘Yes, conceptual art is safe. It’s reassuring. It allows you to stay rational and make all sorts of mental constructions, but it leaves your heart untouched. That is why conceptual art is still so popular and saleable. It rarely appeals to the emotions and lots of people are dead scared of emotion.
My gallery is all about art that cares. Negative and cynical art sucks you dry, but on the other side you have positive, activating art that is in harmony and re-energises you.
My artists want to put something forward that runs counter to cynicism, gratuitousness, emptiness and materialism. They don’t do it by reacting against ‘the system’; their form of expression is positive and appeals to life; the gallery is actually ‘a space for breathing’, a revitalising place. You come inside and you feel ‘an uplifting energy’. I want to create an uplifting environment through the power of art. I also think it’s important to be at the gallery myself so I can meet visitors. The art on show here is open to many possible interpretations. The works are mirrors for the viewer. I find it quite fascinating to hear what people derive from them and why. And I have had many enthralling conversations in the gallery. I don’t get hundreds of people coming in, but I have profound and honest communication with each one.’
Some art has the power to heal, both for the artist who created it and the viewer who is exposed to it. I think this is a realistic fact among the artists you have at your gallery.
De Keyser: ‘I call the artworks shown in the gallery ‘tools for transformation’. They are works that have the capacity to transform people; the artworks will have their effect depending on how prepared one is to be open to them, but you can also see them simply as objects, something you like looking at. Because it is art with several layers, you can relate to it at many different levels. The collectors who come here are people who are touched profoundly by a work and buy it because they want it in their lives. In the first place it’s a question of the love for a work.’
Twenty years ago, in 1993, Louwrien Wijers wrote that we shall be evolving from a competitive to a compassionate society. Do you too believe this evolution will take place?
De Keyser: ‘Yes, it’s becoming increasingly palpable. We have to evolve in that direction. If we do not depart from the current materialist lifestyle it will be our downfall. The world is in a bad state because everything has been done too rationally, too little with the heart, and because there has been too little focus on the feminine, the gentle, on quiet communication.
The world is currently changing and everyone should be helping to create the new world, one that must be based on justice, love and equality. This is what I am trying to do with the gallery: to create a place of calmness and peace in the chaotic materialist world, where people can come and be energised. From alienation to contact with your deepest self, from cynicism to respect, that’s what the gallery is all about. The more people take a positive attitude, the more we shall move from a negative to a positive vibration. It is a truly enthralling time of change and renewal, and I am very happy that so many marvellous young people come to the gallery. And that I am able to launch into a new adventure with an exciting team of artists, and that we can make our own unique contribution to the co-creation of a better world that abandons duality, fragmentation and alienation.’
Published in Hart #120, 19 December 2013, p. 13
Translation from the Dutch by Gregory Ball