China aspires to become a centre of art to rival New York

Pamela Kember in conversation with Sylvain Levy in the Asia House Library

Pamela Kember in conversation with Sylvain Levy inside the Asia House Library

China aspires to become a centre of art to rival New York

11 July 2014

By Sue Lanzon

Sylvain Levy was at Asia House to talk about his online collection of contemporary Chinese art, the dslcollection, and the role of the collector in today’s society.

He began with an overview of the current art market in China, which now has a 33 per cent global share. He said the country recognises art as a useful ‘soft power’ tool and finances many exhibitions outside China, with the goal of China becoming a centre of art to rival London, Paris and New York.

The government-owned auction house, Poly International Auction, for example, has $40 billion in assets. Contemporary Chinese artists’ works are selling for serious money. For example, Zheng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper recently fetched $23.3 million at Sotheby’s. There is a new museum opening in China practically every three days, according to Levy. Ninety-five per cent of Chinese artists have been to art school, though there are approximately 30,000 applications for only 700 places.

He said the use of the Internet in China was much higher than even in the US. One of the most popular Chinese social media platforms WeChat (a communication platform similar to Twitter) has enabled Chinese artists previously working as copyists of major artworks to create original work and share it, now they have a free tool for promotion to get their artwork seen.

According to Levy, the rapid rise in the status of contemporary Chinese art, which only came into existence in 1979, mirrors China’s economic growth. “History teaches us that art follows money and power,” Levy said. The first art gallery was established in China in 1990.

Levy founded the dslcollection with his wife Dominque in 2006. He said that from the beginning they had a clear strategy: to use new communication technologies to move beyond established boundaries and to create a brand. He believes that establishing a collection in a changing world requires constant reinvention.

The dslcollection aims to promote Chinese contemporary art and culture, be it paintings, sculpture, video art, installations or new media art.

The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable identity for the collection within the international art world, a persona that is truly distinctive and not tied to its founding members.

It comprises artwork of 200 artists from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia and the entire collection is online. The Internet and iPad are considered interesting additions to traditional art spaces.

“To collect contemporary art we should use contemporary methods,” he said. “As China, the superpower, is changing the face of the world, so digital technology is changing the face of the human. We are obliged to create ‘liquid content’ that can be easily disseminated.”

Levy described the collection as a dialogue, wanting first and foremost to share it with the Chinese. This has been made possible through the Internet and social media.

Branding the collection and creating a strong personality increases its reach, influence and value, he said.

The Levys’ acquisition strategy, which focuses not on the reputation or fame of particular artists, but on the artworks themselves, restricts the collection to 250 extra-large works, many of them installations.

When commissioning new works, they ask the artist to document the process through notebooks and videos that then appear alongside the work. The virtual presence of the collection means that, despite its size and location, the works can be seen by millions. “People consume art very differently today. You can now be an institution without having a building,” he said.

The collection is in a constant process of change and regeneration – 15 per cent of the works change yearly through galleries or private sales.

Asked about politics and censorship in China, Levy said that contemporary Chinese artists, though strongly rooted to their culture, don’t want to be considered as Chinese artists but rather as artists who come from China. They are not focused on politics but on personal and social issues. He compared censorship in China to an anaconda snake: “It occasionally eats someone, but is not eating everyone.”

He said that the Chinese people don’t want the system to collapse as it did in the USSR. Artists can express themselves now – what’s changing are the tools.

“We don’t collect objects. We are making connections and experiences. Curators haven’t yet undergone their own cultural revolution. They put exhibits together, not thinking about the audience. Our role is not just to give the audience what it wants but to challenge them, to make the familiar unfamiliar.

“If you don’t think about how you communicate, you will become obsolete – not just in art but in everything. A collection is an adventure, the quest for an impossible dream – which is the meaning of our life,” he added.

Sue Lanzon was a volunteer at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. Her first collection of short stories, Something In The Water & Other Tales Of Homeopathy, is published by Winter Press.