In the first of two articles centred on private art collections and virtual initiatives, we speak to Sylvain Lévy of dslcollection about the importance of technology in bringing art to a wider audience, and how he affirms that virtual and physical experiences should not be seen mutually exclusive.
TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy dslcollection
Sylvain Lévy has been collecting for four decades, but his instincts are forward thinking, restless and evolving.
The legendary French collector of Chinese art presides over the dslcollection, with his wife Dominique, and daughter Karen. Inspired by Peggy Guggenheim and raised with the Castelli Method of collecting, he has been buying art since the 1980s, and exclusively collecting contemporary Chinese art since 2005. For him, the art industry needs to change. He compares the art market of today to the luxury goods industry, with a tight group of global art galleries and auction houses analogous to LVMH and Kering. Technology is a disruptor, and a major force for change in all our lives, but he believes the art world has been slow to adapt. “Human beings are being transformed, and inevitably art will be transformed too.”
What tangible change is in store? For one, replicas of art works by 3D printers may become far more common, allowing the possibility of millions of people to own a version of van Gogh that is nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. In Lévy’s words “you don’t need the original manuscript to read a book.”
The slow response of public collections to this shift alarms him. Lévy points out that all art museums are dependent on physical visitors. Worse than the financial damage, he argues, is the fact that many museums do not yet have people that “understand digital.” “Boring,” is a word he uses to describe much of the output from commercial galleries when forced online by the lockdowns.
There is a mindset difference between Lévy and many other collectors. For him, COVID-19 was not a catalyst to digital reinvention, and barely an accelerant. As he says, the dslcollection has gone through many stages of digital growth already, shedding its skin to reinvent each time.
“People go to an art museum not only to be educated, but to be entertained,” says Lévy. This principle is a guiding light. Working with digital tools since its founding in 2005, dslcollection was the first art collection to have an app on the Apple Store in 2011. He is an enthusiastic regular communicator with his army of LinkedIn followers, the collection’s 90,000 email subscribers, and the dslmagazine and eBook readers.
With its focus on entertainment, the dslcollection has powered towards virtual reality (VR) and gaming. Since 2005, it has graduated from a simple website to a 2D and then 3D museum. In 2012, a 3D virtual exhibition curated by Martina Koppel Yang in a virtual Grand Palais was posted on YouTube. With special glasses it was possible to move around the works and see them in virtual space; later iterations allowed visitors to walk or fly around art works.
The most advanced VR project is at the new Pingshan Museum in Shenzhen where Lévy holds a position on the museum board. The museum has created a room dedicated to the dslcollection, a space where visitors can walk through the collection, visiting art works and perceiving their fellow visitors around them as avatars—all in virtual reality. VR, for Lévy, is about immersion and interactivity, and is “the only medium to separate the brain from the body.”
Gaming is the next frontier. This brings excitement and tensions. Lévy is quick to praise the collective spirit of co-operation and openness within the gaming community. However, he also notes the antagonistic nature of many video games, which are based on “addiction, reward and violence.” Much as when he commissions any artwork, Lévy deliberately shies away from any involvement in the creative process. He is therefore waiting with excitement and trepidation for two video games harnessing his collection, which are to be released this year. The first is by a Hong Kong-based team, where the player destroys artistic memories to recycle them for the next generation and is being released in March (entitled Forgetter). The second game is by a French and Romanian team which is based around the artistic community of Beijing’s East Village, slated to be launched in May (entitled Jun). The only request he has made of the team is to be cautious of China’s socio-politics—the aim is to bring people together, rather than alienate.
Lévy admires the ability of artists to cross genres, highlighting KAWS and Virgil Abloh as two people who are emblematic of a multi-faceted approach to creativity and artistic output. He sees the future of technology in the same way: flexibility is key. When asked if the public will swing back to real life experiences once COVID-19 is behind us, Lévy points out that pitting the physical against the virtual is a “false debate.” Much as the Kindle co-exists with books, and live music concerts do with Spotify, Lévy believe the virtual and the physical in art can work in tandem.
Lévy is an early adopter: he trials and experiments, continually evolving and refining his approach to reach an audience. In doing so, his style is a natural fit for the technology he embraces. His philosophy may be understood as one of a combination—a symbiosis of the personal and the technological; the physical and the virtual; the contemporary and the future.
Sylvain Lévy and his wife Dominique Lévy established the dslcollection in Paris in 2005 to focus on contemporary Chinese art. It now represents 200 leading Chinese avant-garde artists, and is widely considered one of the premier Western collections of Chinese contemporary art. There are 350 works in the collection at any time, and it embraces the discovery, study and promotion of Chinese contemporary artistic and cultural production, be it paintings, sculpture, video art, installations or new media art. The collection embraces technology, with the principle in mind that “You do not wait for people to come to you, you go where people are.” 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.
One thought on “Private Art Collections and the Virtual Space: Sylvain Lévy on Physical vs Virtual as a False Debate”
Great read, thanks Nick!