In an exclusive interview for Vantage Magazine, French power collectors Dominique and Sylvain Levy spoke of their extensive collection of Chinese contemporary art, which comprises over 350 works by some of China’s most celebrated and avant-garde artists.
As some of the world’s earliest advocates of the fascinating branch of contemporary art to come from China, Dominique and Sylvain Levy’s views on collecting, on publicising and sharing their collection with audiences of art lovers around the world is in line with the spirit of the Aqua Arts Foundation. We met up with the Levy’s to hear about their methods for living with China’s contemporary arts in the 21st Century.
While much commotion has been made over the apparent maturation of the Chinese contemporary art market, French couple Dominique and Sylvain Levy have for the last eight years quietly amassed a fortune of contemporary cultural treasures from some of China’s most prolific contemporary painters, sculptors and photographers. More than a personal collection, The DSL Collection owned by the Levys has been curated to constitute something of a brand – a deliberate attempt to historicize their collection in its youth by applying thematic concepts and digital technology.
An Adventure and a Journey
Having collected art for 30 years, the Levys began their journey into Chinese contemporary after experimenting with collecting Western pieces: “We began collecting people like Francis Bacon, Basquiat, Dubuffet- but to tell you the truth, we got a little bored”, Sylvain explains. Improbable as it sounds, for the Levys the allure of collecting ‘trophy works’ wore thin; “to us, a collection should be a personal adventure”. Speaking no Chinese and having limited knowledge of the art scene was for the Levys part of China’s intrigue, recognizing here a situation that was special in the country’s history. “It’s unique within humanity: 1.7 billion people moving so fast, a kind of industrial revolution over 20 years”, says Sylvain. “Art is one of the measures of society and in China today it’s the speed and scale of social, economic transformations that make for a fascinating period for artists to work in.”
Beginning with their first trip to Shanghai in 2006, the Levys met with Lorenz Helbling (founder of Shanghai’s most prestigious contemporary gallery, ShanghART) who helped formulate the idea of a collection made up of contemporary Chinese artworks. Having come a long way since then, the DSL Collection now contains over 350 artworks from around 200 of China’s most respected artists, and is regarded as one of the most important collections of Chinese art anywhere in the world. While many Western collectors, institutions and galleries have devoted similar attention to contemporary art in China, there are few who have pursued it as pedantically and methodically as the Levys, whose focus on large-format and installation pieces hasseen many of their pieces loaned to prestigious museums and institutions around the world. To Sylvain, China’s current climate will in future be a moment of particular historical importance: “It’s my conviction that in 30 years this period of art will be considered very important. It’s the mirror of what’s happening today; Chinese artists are becoming very global, increasingly online, and travelling internationally. This blending of tradition, combined with a very intense present and also a ‘head in the future’ makes Chinese contemporary art interesting, and indeed unique”. Gifted with foresight into history’s potential, the Levys envision their collection as an ongoing project accessible to cultures observing China’s arts from both outside and within, and have published the entirety of the collection online. Not shy of publicity, an important aspect of disseminating their collection comes from commissioning curators and writers to publish thematic papers, articles – even magazines concerning art in China. Above all however, the Levys are keen to see their collection, termed ‘DSL’ (Dominique and Sylvain Levy) transcend traditional confines of the term to become a kind of brand both timely and timeless. “For us its no more about objects,’ explains Sylvain, ‘our aim is to build a new type of model for collecting in the 21st century”.
Art is a mirror of society; in 30 years it will be the cultural inheritance of the next generation. My conclusion was this: art follows money, which follows power.
Branding a Collection
While the notion of branding and collectivizing both art and artist has existed since Andy Warhol’s endeavours in the 1960s, present too in some of China’s more prolific artists like Xu Zhen’s ‘Made In Company’, the question of whether the same can be applied to an art collection ignites furtive discussion from Sylvain. “The way people consume art today is radically different from five years ago; it’s a domesticized cultural good. In today’s post-internet age, social media has revolutionized the sharing of art. People go to museums, appreciate and consume art by taking pictures and sharing on WeChat, Facebook; they make comments”. According to Sylvain, it’s not just museums affected by the advent of society’s digitalization and its abetment of globalization: “Commoditization of art has seen both artists and middlemen become branded” he says, “shared and discussed art finds itself considered a ‘luxury’ brand, further propagated by the work of auction houses and galleries; Gagosian acts like a Louis Vuitton store.” It is this ‘luxury’ aspect that helps build buyer confidence, with works that are reassuringly expensive.
Value of a Collection
The monetary aspect of art has since the dawn of the 20th century obviously escalated, with artworks commoditized like shares and artists viewed like stocks to be bought and traded. As such, the concept of an art collection is perhaps one intrinsically tied to a monetary value, even for those with curatorial intention. Entrepreneurial as they may be, the Levys’ collection clearly has both. “It is important for to think about the value of a collection, naturally when you put money into it you don’t want to lose everything, but the primary focus should be on the artistic value.” Sylvain continues, “When you focus on this, the monetary value follows automatically.” Similarly, the reverse is also true; “I feel if you focus solely on money you will very seldom create something of artistic value”. Aside from value and merit of the DSL Collection, Sylvain sees the accumulation of his collection as an existential endeavour, his continuing discovery of art in China’s new landscape an outlet for personal fulfilment. “For me, my money takes care of my body, and art takes care of my soul. It’s no more about objects, but about the human process behind each and every artwork”.
It’s important to think about the value of a collection, naturally when you put money into it you don’t want to lose everything, but the primary focus should be on the artistic value
The Importance of Posterity
At the core of DSL collection is the Levys’ desire to create a project connecting people with China’s unique moment in history, reflected through its art. Recounting an incident six months prior when invited by François Pinault to give a speech for Chinese executives and CEOs at a Christie’s cocktail party, Sylvain broached the topic of why they particularly should collect contemporary Chinese art. “Many people might not understand it – the French didn’t understand the Impressionists; Basquiat was considered a very bad painter while he was alive. I advised them to look not to things in the present but with a future perspective,” he recalls. “Art is a mirror of society; in 30 years it will be the cultural inheritance of the next generation. My conclusion was this: art follows money, which follows power. These works will in future represent the time when China emerged as a world super power, and reflect the changes that society underwent in this transformation. Support your artists, collect their works now, or regret it later.”