Deconsecrating Art (dslcollection Manifesto series)

Written By Gabriela Anco for fontaine b.

In 2005 Sylvain and Dominique Levy have decided to start a new collection dedicated to Chinese contemporary art — a choice seemingly personal, based on individual taste and resonances with the culture of a booming economy. It was also a choice seemingly unrelated to any conscious decision concerning any purposeful desire to change the art scene the way it was presented at that particular moment. It was an intuitive decision.

Yet, a collector is an artist of some sort. As the artist senses visions of a future, intending to visualize that which has not yet happened and to foresee the direction of what lays ahead, likewise the collector, by supporting the relevant artists, groups, movements, gives them a voice and a space to express these visions.
dslcollection is precisely this kind of a supporter. An intuitive supporter. Following an inherent trend of the mind and of the heart, they seek to act on a much larger scale than the acquisition and admiration of particular artworks.

Despite that, as Sylvain Levy likes to put it himself: “We are first a collection of ideas, and second a collection of objects”.

Dominique and Sylvain Levy

Dominique and Sylvain Levy

In this frame of reference, an artwork can at times be admired on its own or perhaps as part of a series, but also — on the background of a context, which can be that of the history of art, or history of the world. From this perspective, the collection which the artwork is part of is responsible for providing a two-way context. Often a collection is characterized by the kind of artworks it gathers, however, the artworks are themselves characterized by the belonging to that particular collection. This symbiosis of the artwork and the collection, of the artist and the collector and the multitude of constellations the former pair, is creating a grid of connections and visible and invisible networks. The symbolism which is further shared throughout these connections and the language which is hence being formed is further expanding itself into the present art world: that of production, exhibition, valuation and ultimately — sharing of ideas.


SACRALITY


Deconsecration - transfer (a building, an object) from sacred to secular use: the church was deconsecrated in the early nineteenth century. [1]

In order to begin a discussion on the topic of the deconsecration of art, one should should go about questioning its sacrality. Humanity, independently from its cultural origins, has always been more keen on a visual, rather than the auditory or palpable dimension. A great deal can be explained through its inherent need to leave a trace, to create memories, which future generations are to derive and learn from. Knowledge was transmitted through drawings, as a picture is worth one thousand words. Universal truths, suppositions, beliefs found their way in visual rendering throughout various ages up to today — truths that for the longest time of existence of man have been related to the questions of who we are and why we are here. Until today, no answer exists to them with the exceptions of certain religious or spiritual explanations that are gladly accepted by some.

Visual arts are hence the direct descendant of the iconographic symbolism which has traveled from ancient times, morphing on its way to our current contemporary images. In the context of humanity, it has really not been that long that images predominantly represented holy figures, and even though today we do not logically associate contemporary art pictures to a religious entity, it is our ancestral instinct that creates unconscious links in our minds.

In a similar way to artistic works, books have also been bearers of universal beliefs. In his essay Dematerialization and deconsecration: the book as a symbolic object [2] Régis Debray explains the development of writing and of books themselves, passing from supports such as erasable wax tablets used in ancient times to permanent supports such as the volumenrotulus and later the codex. In a way, this transition from the impermanent to the permanent support of the book is reminding us of the objectified status the works of art have acquired through the move from the first drawings, passing from temporary surfaces of sand and ground into the permanence of the cave walls, which then became objects on their own. With the change of the millennia and specifically the destruction of the Second Temple (in Jerusalem) in the year 70 CE, writing obtained a fully sacred status. By year 135 CE the Jewish communities were banned from Jerusalem, scattered around the world, bringing nothing along, except for their belief. Debray compares the opposition of the erasable wax writing tablets, the backbone of the Greek and Roman pride of their land, their polis, their gods that are the incarnation of nature and space, to the new faith in the One Almighty. In the absence of geographical borders to be associated with, the Jewish people turned their full trust to the Torah, which was written on scrolls, and kept in a special case reminding of the lost Temple. Primitive Christianity was itself also u-topical and a-spatial, the first Christians being traveling pilgrims, holding on to their writings as their homes. These opposite, yet constant relation in between the Latin pagus and pagina [3], the new base of the codex which was to take over the literate world in the future, is leading us to another essential question, that of space. Material writing needs space, its existence depends on it, as the existence of any physical object such as an artwork.

Museums — temples of the artifacts — can therefore not be disregarded in this frame.
In the context of dslcollection, the sacrality of the museum is questioned on its own. Notwithstanding the sacrality of a work of art, the idea itself of gathering artifacts, displaying them in a particular contextual relationship, which until very recently was bound to respecting consensual taxonomic requirements of the scholar community, is bound to holding an enormous responsibility. Not long passed since museums had as the main role the enrichment of the population not only with scientific knowledge, but also with cultural values, acquired by previous generations, in order to create a national identification to those artifacts holding certain truths. The determinations of what and how to display would belong to imminent curators, who would decide upon the inheritance of educational values. More recently, museums turned from static bearers of knowledge to fluctuating entities offering permanently evolving food for thought in the form of temporary exhibitions and ever-changing cultural activities [4]. These sacral institutions have however been partially desacralized with the development of computers and the digital revolution, which became responsible for the indexing and rotation of artifacts. Man was no longer the key holder to the door of the big Wunderkammer, and the objects on display became an index number, chosen by an algorithm [5].


DECONSECRATION


The evolution of the printing press in the 15th century has shaken up the sacrality of the writing in the same way as centuries later photography would do with the works of art. In the first case, the ceasing of manuscripts, which coincides with the age of discoveries, frees the codex from its main sacral role and opens secular literature to the public. In the second case, unlimited reproduction through images separates the intellectual essence of the artwork from the material it was made in, or as otherwise Walter Benjamin famously puts it, the mechanical reproduction of an artwork strips it of its aura.
The deconsecration of the artworks was persevered by certain artistic movements such as the Dadaists and later Fluxus. Marcel Duchamp invented the ready-mades cutting the umbilical cord in between the creation and the creator, at the same period as Hugo Ball created his famous Gadji beri bimba no-language poem. Later, Joseph Beuys promoted the full democratization of art, through the use of cheap material or no material at all, the creation of limited editions in thousands of copies, but most importantly, turning art into lectures. The actual object of the work of art became secondary.

Joseph Beuys on his lecture "Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler – Auf dem Weg zur Freiheitsgestalt des sozialen Organismus" photographed by Rainer Rappmann [de] in Achberg, Germany, 1978

Joseph Beuys on his lecture "Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler – Auf dem Weg zur Freiheitsgestalt des sozialen Organismus" photographed by Rainer Rappmann [de] in Achberg, Germany, 1978

Nonetheless, despite the visionary ideas, such as Le Musée imaginaire of André Malraux as early as 1947, which proposed the creation of special museums displaying photographs of any artifact in the world, thus cutting through space, proportions, and the singularity of the work of art itself, the many copies humanity had the possibility to produce were in need of a place to be stored, and the question of belonging to a space — and hence identification to an object — was still valid.
Today, with the development of the cyberspace, the topic of the physical limits has disappeared. We have unrestricted storage for all possible cyber interpretations of any text or physical object.

Dennis Adams  , (video still) Malraux’s Shoes, 2012,    Courtesy: Kent Fine Art, New York.

Dennis Adams, (video still) Malraux’s Shoes, 2012,

Courtesy: Kent Fine Art, New York.

What is left is nonetheless a meta-dependance that humanity still has on the objects themselves, prompting the phenomenological position that reality is to be interpreted at first through the physical sensations of our own singular bodies. The object of the physical book, as the object of the work of art, is nowadays still a taboo. Though the essence of it might have been transmitted otherwise, the disposal of the actual object continues to feel barbaric in our materialistic society even now. And it is precisely out of these needs that the collections, the Wunderkammer and the museums have evolved.

DIGITIZATION

Yet today, some museums, as the dslcollection, are becoming entirely virtual, questioning the above compulsion for the physical object, and bringing Malraux' ideas further. In the age when digital image has completely imposed itself, major museums create their own sort of versions of their virtual exhibitions, at first on CDs and DVDs, online today. This trend has provoked fears and doubts from the opponents of the de-materialization of the exhibitions, nonetheless, the physical museums did not suffer at all from the digitization of their collections, with museums like the Louvre breaking records of attendance (10.8 mill visitors in 2018). This proves to us that the new technologies are in reality contributing to the promotion of the traditional type of establishments, and not at all competing with them.

Photo by Alicia Steels

Photo by Alicia Steels

Dominique and Sylvain Levy have hence aimed to open the collection, open the thoughts, share and spread the ideas. The technology development from the beginning of the 2000’s played a vital role in the reasoning which was on the basis of the collection, which adopted early on various social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, gathering thousands of followers. In 2013, the collection took the crucial decision that a virtual reality designed museum is to be preferred in favor of a permanent physical space for its own pieces. Pioneering players in the industry of the arts and culture, dslcollection is a great supporter of the development of virtual and augmented reality overall and embraces it alongside the usual settings of museums, art centers, galleries. In a way, creating a space for a collection of 250 pieces which one is to see through a virtual reality headset we are inevitably reminded of the Marcel Duchamp’s La Boîte-en-valise.

Believing that artworks are in the first place sources of knowledge, dslcollection thrives to make it public to all those who desire to see it, regardless of physical, financial and geographical restraints. Even if this means that the work is to be dematerialized.

dsl collection, The portable museum

dslcollection, The portable museum

Thus the dematerialization of an artwork or a museum is not to be seen solely from the perspective of deconsecration, instead gain the position that they acquire this different status as a response to the changes in the society. The inevitable development of the digital space is altering the consciousness and demands of the people, social media is shaping the minds of future generations. The democratization of art, a term much discussed presently, is itself dividing into different aspects. There exist of course the open sources such as the virtual museums explained above. However, one can also address it as Germano Celant in relation to the huge popularity of artists like KAWS who lead to “the democratization, industrial and commercial, of a contemporary aesthetic, which is supported by the digital network” [6]. Yet we can not ignore that the virtual world has taught us to think virtually. Conceptualization of space and objects is learned earlier in our development and at very intuitive levels, thus the question of the existence, or reality of an entity is not going to be addressed, to begin with, by the future generations. If an idea exists, virtually or not, it is real. Most importantly, the democratization of art brings about the essence of the etymology of its own word, demos = the people, kratia = rule, which implies the essential existence of the people, of the community, who have a say in the handling of the object, its truths, ideas, questions and theories. dslcollection thus thrives to see art not as a sacred entity, but rather as a tool generating a dialogue.

[1] Source : Oxford Dictionary.

[2] Régis Debray, Dématérialisation et désacralisation : Le livre comme objet symbolique, in “Le Débat” 1995/4 (n° 86), pages 14 to 21

[3] Pagus - In the later Western Roman Empire, following the reorganization of Diocletian, a pagus (compare French pays, Spanish pago, "a region, terroir") became the smallest administrative district of a province.
Pagina - a written page, leaf, sheet

[4] See more about this topic in Daniel Jacobi, “Exposition temporaire et accélération : la fin d’un paradigme ?”, La Lettre de l’OCIM [online], 150 | 2013, posted on Novembre 29th, 2015, consulted on May 30th, 2019. URL : http:// journals.openedition.org/ocim/1295 ; DOI : 10.4000/ocim.1295

[5] Bernard Deloche explains the process of the French National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, where in the 1980s 14000 files were catalogued digitally and what changes that brought to the organization of the museum.

Bernard Deloche, “L’irruption du numérique au musée : de la muséologie à la noologie” in inNouvelles tendances de la muséologie, dir. François Mairesse, Paris : La Documentation française, 2016, pages 145 to 157.

[6] Anny Sham, “KAWS célèbre: street artist's first survey—and huge inflatable—make waves in Hong Kong”published in “The Arts Newspaper” on the 25th March 2019