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Sylvain Levy on The dsl Collection

March 10, 2010 Point of View No Comments

The following is from Sylvain Levy, the founder of the dsl collection.  In one of my commentaries on Chinese Contemporary art, he sent me a particularly well thought out commentary that is worthy of publication.

Zeng Fanzhi's "We", Oil on canvas, Courtesy DSL Collection

The dsl Collection was created in 2005 and focuses on contemporary Chinese art since 2004. It is a private collection representing 90 of the leading Chinese avant-garde artists, artists having a major influence on the development of contemporary art in China today. Even though focusing on the contemporary production of a specific culture, the collection is nevertheless not guided by the search for otherness. It admits basic cultural similarities and dispositions, however, it goes beyond a simplistic approach that only looks for typical cultural signs and symbols.

The collection is limited to a specific number of art works – about 150 pieces – that as an entity is open to constant redefinition itself. Openness, movement and communication are basic qualities we want to promote

The collection is not only significant on a personal level, but also at a larger scale.  We start from a museum approach, which means that we are collecting a wide range of media including painting, sculpture, installation, video, and photography.

But the dsl collection is more than a collection, it is a project.

The major tools to achieve these goals are new technologies, such as the internet and interactive programs and supports, like, for example, electronic books.

Why we collect?

1) Art is  the mirror of a Society

Even if art is more and more global, art is also a product of language, geography and history. Chinese contemporary art reflects Chinese modern life from every aspect including politics, economics and culture.

When we first came to Shanghai in 2005, I felt that there was another logic here; something that speaks of a very schizophrenic attitude towards economic development, the city embodies a ceaseless pursuit of the “superhuman” that redefines traditional definitions of humanity, sustainability, scale, speed.  Somehow these feelings were very inspiring and we wanted to find art and artists that express the relationships between contemporary art production and society.

2) China has a long cultural history

Culture has existed in China for more than 5000 years.

3) Collecting is the best way to connect to people

Through this collection, we were able to meet a lot of people in China and to better understand Chinese culture

JIN Jiangbo's "God chatting", Courtesy dsl Collection

What type of artists we are interested in ?

I am always keen to find individuals who are interested to see where the prevailing boundaries lie, either in terms of content, of materials, of disciplines and how they can push them open. That doesn’t just mean young artists.

I learned that contemporary Chinese art is as varied as its Western counterpart and, like that more familiar model, has its highly-visible personalities, auction house favorites and celebrities. But also, like the Euro/American scene, there are many Chinese, Taiwanese and other Asian artists who are laboring quietly in the vineyards, producing credible and beautiful work. Below I will mention some of the categories of artists that we are interested in and the most outstanding ones.

First, artists who remains individuals, autonomous persons and who are nevertheless decisive factors within this general movement. For example, Gu dexin.

Beijing-based Gu Dexin, this most enigmatic and evasive figure within the contemporary Chinese art scene. His distrust in all systems and his objection to live his life according to conventions set by any social milieu made him choose retreat as a strategy, a retreat from obligations and mainstream that actually advances him in a position of relative freedom and autonomy.  He is one of the most respected artist by curators of all of the world

Second, artists who can implant and advance Chinese traditional painting, traditional Chinese aesthetics and thought into a contemporary context and thus reaching an ideal model of “cultural and individual autonomy”.  For example, Yang Jiechang whose large inks are based on the traditional Chinese principle of the sublimation of the self to put forth the spiritual qualities inherent in the work and the material, which, on the conceptual level, means advancing through retreat and non-doing.

Third, artists who approach contemporary discourse by promoting local and vernacular culture. For example Zheng Guogu with Yangjiang Group.

Zheng Guogu who is one of the most famous artist from the young generation who has decided to live at Yangjiang and not in Beijing.  By retreating to Yangjiang, he, on one hand, creates a space for non-mainstream, locally-imbedded artistic imagination and creation. On the other hand, by including those local outcomes in his projects he advances the local onto a global platform.

“Chinese contemporary art reflects Chinese modern life from every aspect including politics, economics and culture, which is quite valuable in recording the past 30 years since the reform and opening up policy,” Wang has said.

Ye Yongqing, the artistic director of the institute, explains that the organization will dedicate itself to academic research as well as education on contemporary art. A systematic project to analyze and promote the contemporary art industry will also be established.  “Chinese contemporary art’s success and development to a large extent has depended on independent artists and collectors, but from now on, there is a new platform to do all things related to contemporary art.”   He adds that unlike many art organizations that gather artists together and benefit from works created by them, the institute is more like a think tank, with the hope that experts will contribute their ideas and reflections on Chinese contemporary art’s development.  “Only with a formal institute is there hope that systematic research on contemporary art can be done.”

Famous artist Luo Zhongli, who is also the director of Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, has been appointed director of the new institute.

We are used to China’s growing influence on the world economy—but could it also reshape our ideas about culture and specially contemporary art?

Why you should collect Chinese contemporary art ?

The market for Chinese contemporary art pieces shows great potential, but at the same time, it faces many questions that had never arisen before.  It is constantly initiating contemplation and inquiry.
There has been a lot of money flowing around the Chinese art scene over the past few years that has had a dramatic effect on the art scene and the nature of the art being produced.

Ai Weiwei's "Portable Temple", Compressed bamboo, Courtesy dsl Collection

The market has come to occupy such a dominant position in the art world, often deciding “quality” and “importance”, most obviously in terms of Chinese art works and a local scene that does not enjoy the sobering influence of meaningful critical debate. Yet, at the same time, Chinese artists are often criticised for being overly commercial, while their understanding of how the art market functions is informed by their knowledge and experience of Western models.

Chinese artists, especially those in the so-called “millionaire’s club of painters”, have re-invented the art world for themselves and may or may not reap the windfall. They have played dealers and auction houses off against each other. They have dropped their own works into auction with relish and have manipulated their markets with a degree of savvy and bravado that has left many dealers stunned. This art is here to stay and, in my opinion, while European and American markets may plateau or even fall, the Asian markets will continue to climb. Why should not the best Asian artists be priced at the same levels as their western counterparts?

There has been a lot of money flowing around the Chinese art scene over the past few years that has had a dramatic effect on the art scene and the nature of the art being produced. This volume of funds is going to fluctuate in the coming year or so, which is not a bad thing. It might make artists reflect upon the quality of the work they are producing, and encourage some of the new galleries to formulate more productive strategies to deal with a slackening off in the market. So, hopefully, these recent events will have a positive impact.

Many people in China today are only just becoming aware of the contemporary art produced by local artists.  As two years ago, few could name even a single Chinese collector of contemporary art. It was a truism that the Chinese preferred to spend their money acquiring antiquities and classical works. Since then several well-known mainland collectors have emerged on the scene.

Looking at the continued innovations of the older generations of artists, as well as the growing number of young graduates from art academies around the country, I think we can safely say that Chinese contemporary art is far from an imminent demise. It might have been a bit under the weather in recent months given the mood of the international and the domestic art markets (and the media), but it is still young and vibrant.

What are the difficulties in collecting Chinese contemporary art?

The biggest  difficulty comes in how to benchmark a work.  Art is always about quality. The quality should be evaluated by experts, scholars, curators, and critics. The weakness of Chinese art scene is that critics and curators do not have much power. So their influence is very limited within the recent art market.

To conclude, I shall say that the market for Chinese contemporary art pieces shows great potential, but at the same time, it faces many questions that have never arisen before.  It is constantly initiating contemplation and inquiry.  So even as the market stumbles, and even as we hear rumors that almost a third of the galleries in China there are headed for extinction in the coming months as rents rise and sales drop, I can’t help but feel optimistic for the future.

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