Interview with Sylvain Levy, founder of the DSL Collection
24 may 2014 by Ashton Chandler
art:i:curate's Ashton Chandler speaks with French collector Sylvain Levy, creator of the DSL Collection, a private collection representing over 90 Chinese contemporary avant-garde artists whose works range from painting to sculpture, installation, photography, and video.
AC: Let’s start off with your art collection - what was the first artwork (Western or non-Western) you bought?
SL: The first piece was bought in 1999 and it was an impressionist painting, a very decorated work.
AC: What was the first piece of Chinese art you acquired?
SL: We began the collection of work with Ding Yi, we bought it in 2006 when we went to China.
AC: And the most recent piece added to your collection, as the collection is constantly changing?
SL: It was a Gao Weigang work.
AC: When collecting art, do you look for anything in particular, such as certain artists or style, provenance, era, or do you buy what you connect with personally?
SL: I think collecting work is about two things. First, it is about the encounter. Second, it is about strategy in choosing the works to make the collection come about. You are always balancing this and at times [collecting] can be unpredictable; therefore you also need the will to commit to the development of the collection.
AC: What do most of the works in your collection have in common or share? I understand there is a special focus on the young artists of the Cantonese art scene. Can you discuss this focus further and your views on China’s younger post-Mao generation of artists?
SL: If I had to sum up the spirit of what we are doing in one or two sentences it would be:
Developing a collection is about taking risks. A collection at first should be an adventure.
AC: Noah Horowitz, executive director of The Armory Show, said discussing their Focus exhibition on China, that: "China is not just a site for great new art, but a place where current art world models are being made and remade, and where serious collecting is happening at an even larger scale." Can you comment on this and what changes have you seen occur in China’s art world in the past couple of years?
SL: Chinese contemporary art began in 1980, only around thirty years ago, so it is something in progress. Museums in Europe and in the States, especially in Europe, have a certain number of centuries behind them. In China there is not a contemporary museum that shows the history. The first Chinese auction house was established in the 1990s, so everything is being developed. The thing which makes the difference between what has happened here (in Europe) versus what has happened in China is in terms of scale and speed. And in terms of scale and speed, I can tell you that it is unpredictable.
AC: Are there other collections of Chinese art that you admire?
SL: Yes, I was very inspired by the collection of Yang Li, who was the first one to collect big installations. His was the first I looked to as a model. But what I believe to be most important is to make your own model.
AC: Expanding upon that, the DSL Collection is a serious collection and it presents itself with a museum model approach by making it accessible to the public. Where is your collection located at the moment?
SL: The collection is located in several different places at the moment. It is in Europe and also in Asia, in China, in different locations. It depends on where we want to use the work, and for some works it is better to leave these works in Asia with the information surrounding it, rather than to take them back to Europe.
AC: The DSL Collection also has an internet platform and works in collaboration with its artists on projects. How else can the collection be accessed? And can you talk a bit about the importance of utilizing the internet and technology to showcase art?
SL: The first thing that is really important is that whatever we collect, it is always available, such as some works that are already in museums. The idea is that we strive to be a “brick and click” collection - brick meaning that the works need to be shown in the flesh and to the public, but also to be shared to the public through new tools which can reach people everywhere and reach everybody.
AC: Can you talk a bit about the importance of utilizing the internet and technology to showcase art?
SL: The Internet came in when we wanted to share the collection with the public, and we especially wanted to share with the Chinese people and the best way to share with them was through the Internet. Then with the website in Chinese and English, we noticed that particularly through the improving technology, that we were capable of bringing different types of experiences to the people through this digital world. And so we began with accessing the art through the museum, with the iPad application, and eBooks. Now, with the new generation we are in it is almost the post-Internet age because the Internet is already a part of our daily life. What is interesting is that now that we are in the age of social networking, the age of the smart-phone, the age of variety, so we have to adapt ourselves to this new world, which is the world of the post-Internet age.
AC: As you are based in Paris, do you work or have plans to work with Parisian galleries or museums showing Chinese contemporary art? For example, were you involved with Zeng Fanzhi’s exhibition at the Musee d’ Art Moderne? Or perhaps do you have plans to work with institutions on a global scale?
SL: We weren’t directly involved with the Fanzhi exhibition in Paris, but we know the curator very well and the people who were supporting the show. Yes, we are constantly working with institutions, not only by loaning works, but also by working from time to time on joint projects or supporting exhibitions. We have also supported exhibitions in London at the Hayward Gallery.
AC: What is it that most excites you about Chinese art?
SL: There is so much happening in China that I find interesting, but what is especially interesting to me is that in China, art is a mirror of society. China has changed a lot in the last 30 years, in 1980 there were no skyscrapers in Shanghai, now there are twice more than in New York. With this kind of transformation happening in a country with over a billion people, you can imagine the energy it can bring. What is also special to China is its 5,000 years old culture and the artists are very influenced by their tradition and heritage, and they are also very open to the new world. China, to give an example for learning about art, compared to the United States where there are 300 million connected to the Internet, in China there are 800 million people. This kind of nature makes for a very interesting environment for creating. As usual in China, the level is in the details, you need to find the right works and the right artist, and this is much more complicated, especially when you don’t speak the language and live on the other side of the world. So it is very fascinating, but it is also very challenging. If I had to choose between collecting work in Europe (since it would be easier to do) or China, I would choose China as it is definitely an adventure.
AC: What are your thoughts about the Ai Wei Wei’s most recent challenges - and in general struggles faced by Chinese artists? Do you as a collector feel you are an advocate for Chinese artists?
SL: There is a censorship in China and then there is the idea of the censorship, which I don’t think is the real situation in China. Someone once described it as something that everyone knows is there, so everyone takes care not to move too fast or too quick or do something too risky. There’s a censorship from all the artists, so they try to do things that will detract from going to the limit, but they also know they have to be careful when trying to push the limit.
I think Ai Wei Wei is a very good example, as he has a very strong voice and in some ways he is more of a political activist than an artist. When he was first put in jail, it wasn’t because of censorship, but because of his strong bloodline. This was during the Jasmine Revolution, and he was released because he was a part of the huge political sphere involved in the war. In China, things are never clearly understood by Western people. From my point of view, especially with issues such as this, it is not so simple to know exactly what is going on.
AC: Which exhibitions of Chinese art will you be sure to visit this year, and which cities do you think are most embracing Chinese contemporary art? Is it Hong Kong or Shanghai or international cities such as New York or Berlin?
SL: I don’t think that American people have embraced Chinese art, and perhaps they will not in a large way as it is a very different culture; in the same way I don’t think the Chinese will embrace American art and their culture fully - it is two different worlds. You will have Chinese/American artists which embody the global artist - every artist is striving to become a global artist and be recognized as a personality as well as an artist.
On the other hand, if you look at history, art has always followed money and power. Always where a nation was very strong, its culture was very strong. China is becoming very strong, so therefore its culture will follow. But for today, Chinese art is mostly being embraced in China. It’s funny though, as one Chinese artist told me that if his market is only in China, it already concerns over a billion people, so he is already very happy.
As for exhibitions, I’m definitely checking into what’s happening, but that doesn’t mean I make it to see every exhibition. It’s very interesting to see how things are moving, and how the artist are becoming global, and especially to read people’s comments and reactions to these exhibitions, particularly from the ones from the Western world.
AC: If you were told to make a list of the top 3 contemporary Chinese artists to keep an eye out for in 2014, which ones would you name?
SL: In China today, we have a certain number of very good artists that are diversified in terms of the way they create, the medium, the maturity of their career. You can look at them through many Western galleries who are presenting them through galleries and fairs, so there is a way to connect to these artists and find which artists you particularly like, rather than the ones I particularly like.
Featured artist: Zhao Zhao
Featured artist: Li Sa
Featured artist: Ma Quisha
All Images courtesy of DSL Collection