Interview. Sylvain Levy, Collector

IB: How did you start collecting art?

SL: Dominique and I have now been collecting for thirty years, but we collected different things over the years. It first started with Western modern and contemporary artists. We shifted to furniture from the 1940s, and then to design. Finally, we decided to focus on Chinese contemporary art and this year marks the 10th year anniversary of the dslcollection. What’s next, I don’t know!

IB: How and why did you decide to focus on Chinese contemporary art?

SL: It all began in 2005 while visiting my brother-in-law who had just moved to Shanghai. During out trip, we met Lorenz Helbling, founder of ShanghArt Gallery, and abstract painter Ding Yi. We were also fascinated by the energy of the city. Coming from Paris, which has become a kind of sleeping beauty, one has a shock when confronting the speed and scale of a city like Shanghai. Dominique and I strongly believe that art is a mirror of society and we wanted to find in Chinese contemporary art the same energy that we experience in Shanghai. This is how the adventure of the dslcollection started, and it is not just about collecting artworks but also about discovering an incredible culture and meeting a dynamic generation of young artists.

IB: Bringing Chinese art back to Europe… opening the eyes of the western world to Chinese art?

SL: It is interesting, the collection works in two directions: we bring back to Europe what we have seen and discovered in China but we also bring to China a specific regard and approach to the current contemporary art scene. In China, people are interested to discover and learn about the collection since we have a different way to look at art, with a kind of French esprit critique. Close to the idea of the amateur d’art, this kind of intellectual approach to collecting differs from the way Chinese collect. It is almost like a filter through which we appreciate and understand what we see there, which we then want to share with the rest of the world, outside of China.

IB: In ten years, the collection has grown significantly and it is now one of the largest collections of Chinese contemporary art in the world. Do you feel a sense of responsibility towards your audience when building a collection of this scale?

SL: I believe that a collection is a personal adventure. Of course, you can share an adventure but the adventure should never become a lesson, or be presented like an absolute truth. This is one of the reasons why we didn’t want to open a museum. Because once you run a museum space, you become an institution and you start collecting according to certain rules, obligations and taste. Dominique and I believe that a collection should be a personal adventure. I want to be able to collect whatever I want at a given moment, to begin and stop whenever I want and to be proud of my mistakes. It is important for us not to become a model but rather to keep exploring and sharing our discoveries through the collection.

IB: Quite early on, you decided to share the collection online. It is innovative and in tune with today’s world, where almost everything is now connected to the Internet and social media. What does it mean to make a collection available online and what are the implications?

SL: When we decided to start collecting Chinese contemporary art, we had to take several factors into account. How do you build a collection of Chinese contemporary art when you live 12 000 kilometres away from China, when you don’t speak the language, when there is no institutional validation to rely on and the market is a little bit crazy? Very soon after our first visit to Shanghai, we met Martina and Yang Jiechang, as well as several other Chinese artists. When discussing our idea to build a collection of Chinese art, they suggested that we create a museum-type collection embracing everything from painting, to video, photography and installations, and that we open it to the public. The question is to which public? Opening a museum in France meant that it wouldn’t be available to a Chinese public. It was very important for us to find ways to share the collection but we didn’t want to restrict our audience and wanted to include the Chinese public. So we started with the Internet. Very quickly, we noticed that the digital world brings new types of layers and experiences to the way people consume art. In fact, people consume art in a totally different way than they used to ten, or five years ago. Today, our smartphones are the main tools we use on a daily basis, taking photos and sharing them on social media. It has had a huge impact on art too; it has become a new way to experience and view arts.  Early on, we wanted to create a platform through which we could make the collection available that would be connected to technology. We were interested to use Internet and current technological devices to add layers to the way we can disseminate and make the collection available to a wider public. The internet also enables the collection to reach younger generations. In a way, I feel that today we are in a position where we have to go to where people are, and to be very nimble.

IB: Do you also present works from the collection in ‘physical spaces’?

SL: Yes, we are very active outside of the online platform too. We loan works from the collection to exhibitions internationally and we always remain open to all types of dialogues with other museum institutions, both private and public.

IB: Is it the first time that you take part in an event like Going Public in Sheffield? What do you think about the questions raised by the show with regards to the relationships between public and private collections?

SL: I am very excited by this experience in Sheffield. The team behind the project is very enthusiastic and is doing a fantastic job. It is interesting to create conversations between different types of collections and especially within a varied range of public spaces. Having four different collections – each with their own respective collecting and curatorial practices – presented in a city of the scale of Sheffield is really exciting. The fact that the works will be displayed in key public spaces within the city of Sheffield – from the cathedral to the university, the library – will bring an interesting dimension to the way the public will experience the collections. Public museums and cultural institutions are key to the cultural landscape of our societies. I think that the roles of the public and private collections are very different.  Public collections have the mission to write a page of the history of art, and to expand the knowledge we have of, sometimes, overlooked areas of history. It is not the mission of museums to discover or bring attention to young artists. And this is where the private collection comes into play. When building a private collection, the stakes are different. To me, the dslcollection allows us to focus on what is happening right now. It is always a risk but the excitement comes from discovery. Of course, this will never substitute the institutional authority of the museum. There are two different collecting approaches. Public and private spheres are two sides of the same coin, and they need to work together.

Interview by: Ines de Bordas