The Grand Palais as reconstructed in a DSL virtual museum

The DSL Collection, founded by Sylvain and Dominique Levy, ranks among the most comprehensive holdings of Chinese contemporary art in the world. Sylvain sat down with LEAP to discuss the art of collection and the digital channels through which they have chosen to display their findings.

LEAP How did you start collecting Chinese contemporary art?

SYLVAIN LEVY We have been collecting for 25 years now. We began with very established Western artists: Francis Bacon, Dubuffet, Rauschenberg, and so on. Then, to tell you the truth, we got a little bit bored. You know, there’s no excitement by just collecting big names. So we just decided to stop, because we discovered that one interesting thing in collection is the idea of adventure, of trying to discover new things, to make new acquaintances, to discover new culture, to discover new fields. And then we happened to go to China. I was shocked by what I saw on the street, the incredible transformation of the society, the scale, the speed. I always thought of art as a mirror of society, so we went to see Moganshan and we met Lorenz Helbling. He’s very quiet but you feel he has a very human approach to art. And by chance, Ding Yi was there, so we went to his studio, and we saw one of the works. When we came back, I said to Dominique, we should begin to create a new collection in China. And why? Because it is really an adventure.

LEAP We understand that the number of artworks in the DSL collection is fixed. When you wish to acquire a new piece, is it difficult to decide to let another go? And where do works go once out of the collection?

SL The number is now 160. To limit the collection to 160 works means, for us, a certain number of things. By limiting the collection, we can work on a very strong image. There are 100 artists and they are all on the same level; Zeng Fanzhi, whoever, there is no difference. But this doesn’t mean that we throw away the important artists, because I think a collection should walk on two legs, on important and emerging artists. We have to find a good balance between emerging and established, and between media, too: 40% of the collection is painting, 35% is installation, and the rest, video. We also try to keep a balance between different people, and to dig into the differences between art from Beijing and Shanghai, Shanghai and Guangzhou, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Taiwan, France.

LEAP When you let go of an artwork, do you consign it to auction, or…?

SL There is a turnover of about 10% every year. In 95% of the cases we go back to the galleries, since we have very long and established relationships with them— we give the works back to them and in exchange for something else, or let the gallery sell them. In some cases, it’s a private sale, or to the auction house. But we always go back to the galleries first— always.

LEAP How do you understand the act of collecting itself?

SL For many people, collecting is a secret garden. They don’t share the collections. I totally respect that you are not obliged to share it with anybody but your friends. This is the case with 90% of collectors. I understand and agree with their point of view. We have decided to take another point of view.

LEAP Yes— you have your virtual museums, which is really your focus. Could you tell us more about this program? How and why did it come to be?

SL When we decided to share our collection with other people, we considered the best ways to do it. One of these ways, we found, is through the Internet. You might say, “Ah, you are sharing your collection on the Internet!” But we have not discovered anything new. Guernica was shared with books. Images, digital images, books, the Internet: there is no difference. The only big difference is that with the Internet you can reach thousands of thousands of people. Now we have at least three or four different types of virtual museum. Our newest phase is a 3D museum, for which we recreated a section of the Grand Palais. We showed an exhibition curated by Martina Koeppel-Yang, a real, curated exhibition. We presented this in Germany on a three-by-four-meter screen, with 3D glasses. People were shocked, because most of them know the Grand Palais. We are trying to see what technology can bring us to experience art in another world. For many people today, when you speak of DSL, they will say “Ah, it is a Chinese collection.” But DSL is also the use of the virtual museum, and this is another point that is also important in the project. We want to build a very strong cultural identity.

LEAP Isn’t it a problem for the audience to not see the work in person?

SL First of all, I think that sharing is very important. But so is bringing people different things. You bring them the emotion of the art, the curiosity— you make them ask themselves all sorts of questions. What is important for us is for people to get interested in the art that we are showing, and generally speaking, in what’s happening in China in cultural terms. Naturally, you will never replace the act of seeing art in the flesh. Yet with different points of access, you bring them different types of experience. Each experience has its advantages and disadvantages. But it is not only about sharing. It is also very interesting to see people’s reactions. And the next step for us is to become very strongly represented, especially in China, to see the reactions to an artist or artwork, to see how we can have dialogue with the audience through blogs, Weibo, or whatever.

LEAP Or LinkedIn?

SL LinkedIn is a good example. We use LinkedIn to increase the visibility of the collection, and also to build its reputation. We select the people who we think are important players in the art world. We send them an invitation and after, we send them a certain number of links and documents explaining the collection. Now we have 3,300 people linked, which is not too bad: the average person only has 150. We also use Facebook to reach all these people. It is a very powerful tool today, social networking. It’s very easy, it costs nothing, and you can easily choose your audiences.

LEAP Do you think that you will ever open a real museum?

SL To open a space for your collection is important, but why do you do it? First, I think to have a museum is something very difficult. Opening a museum is simple, but in the long term, how are you going to manage a museum? What type of exhibitions are you going to do? What kind of projects? These are very important questions. It is not just about opening. It is about what will happen after. You’ll find yourself in competition with a normal museum. And to win the competition you have to have very nice exhibitions. So you need a lot of money to make important exhibitions. For me, I don’t think I have the ability, financial ability, and personnel ability to manage a space in a fixed and permanent way. Furthermore, to have a permanent space means to be linked to a place. If I open a museum in Hong Kong, I am in Hong Kong; if I open a museum in Paris, I am in Paris. And what is important today is to go where the people are, not to wait for the people to come. As soon as you open a museum, that’s that. Many museums today have noticed that being in just one place is very reductive.