The Entrepreneur Who Helped Put Chinese Contemporary Art on The Map
It's one of the foremost collections of Chinese contemporary art in the world, documenting the transformation of a society from emerging economy to global powerhouse. Now, works from the Sigg collection are being displayed in the first exhibition of its kind to chronologically chart the development of China's artistic heritage over the past four decades.
Dr. Uli Sigg – business journalist, entrepreneur and former Swiss ambassador to China – spent years amassing some 2,000 works by more than 350 Chinese artists.
In 2012 he donated a significant proportion of these to M+, a museum currently being built in West Kowloon, Hong Kong, which will be one of the world's largest cultural institutions when it opens in 2019.
"The Sigg collection is unrivalled not only in terms of its size and scale, but in its sheer ambition," says Dr. Lars Nittve, former Executive Director and now external advisor to M+, which is lending the works to a selection of other venues while it is still under construction. "It represents the entire period from the end of the Cultural Revolution to the present day, with all the key works, by all the key artists. It's a collection a national museum should have built, if only it had been able to." The new exhibition, 'M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art', is taking place at the Artistree venue in Hong Kong and is sponsored by Credit Suisse. Organized into three chapters: 1974 to 1989, 1990 to 1999 and 2000 to date, it covers the most culturally dynamic period in the history of modern China. "We wanted to present the collection chronologically so that people could understand the context to the distinct artistic developments over this time frame, and help them to connect the fragments," says Dr. Pi Li, Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Arts, M+.
In the 1970s, Chinese contemporary artists were working underground – challenging a mainstream discourse that dictated all art should serve the state. Their work was deemed subversive by the government, making it almost impossible for public institutions in China to actively collect it. This is where Sigg stepped in. "Uli Sigg put this collection together not from the viewpoint of a private individual, but that of a museum," says Dr. Nittve. "He set aside his own personal taste to tell the story of an artistic period that wasn't being represented anywhere else." Some of the first works in the exhibition are by the No Name Collective. The group produced paintings that to Western eyes hardly seem radical, but their subtle renderings of interiors and landscapes should not be underestimated. "What you have to realize is that to produce what they produced during the Cultural Revolution, when you were only supposed to create propaganda, was extremely risky," explains Dr. Nittve. "The hunger for freedom and self-expression that lies behind these works makes them incredibly moving."
The main driver for Chinese art from the '90s onwards has been the growing acknowledgment of China's rapidly rising status, economically and culturally
When Uli Sigg first began collecting, no one else was particularly interested in Chinese art. It was only from the late '90s onwards that people began to sit up and take notice. It's a far cry from today, when Chinese contemporary art can fetch millions at auction and many artists, from Ai Weiwei to Zhang Xiaogang, have become huge international stars. "The main driver for Chinese art from the '90s onwards has been the growing acknowledgment of China's rapidly rising status, economically and culturally," says Dr. Nittve. "Artists from low-income, developing countries simply do not receive this kind of recognition." According to Credit Suisse research, in the past 15 years alone the number of middle-class adults in China grew by 38 million and their wealth rose by 5.6 trillion US dollars. There are now more members of the middle-class in China than in the United States. The enormous social shifts that have taken place in China as a result of this spectacular acceleration of wealth creation are reflected in the later part of the exhibition, with artists examining the move from rural to urban, and the gap between rich and poor.
Dr. Pi cites the work of Cao Fei as one example. In her video installation "Whose Utopia?" Fei speaks to migrant workers in China's Pearl River Delta region – an area that over the past 20 years has become highly industrialized and drawn people from poor rural areas to work in manufacturing. She interviews them about their dreams and ambitions for the future, while contrasting this with the monotony of factory life. "Many Chinese artists are asking what their country's role is in globalization, and questioning the idea of China as the 'world's factory'," says Dr. Pi. "They're trying to retrace the influence of culture and tradition in their identity." Their work often does this from a very personal perspective, looking at what it means to be Chinese in this new concept of society. "Take Ai Weiwei," says Dr. Nittve. "We know him as an activist, but he often explores the connection between consumerism and heritage, and the monetary value put on that heritage."
The notion of value is something that occupies the mind of many an international art collector. "The value of an artwork is essentially whatever someone is prepared to pay," says Dr. Nittve. "It's about supply and demand." When it comes to Chinese contemporary art, prices may not yet have reached their peak. "Many Chinese artists' work is not necessarily as highly valued as their influence might suggest," observes Dr. Nittve. "It's hard to predict whether prices will rise or fall, but as more people develop their knowledge of this extraordinary cultural period, valuations could go up. I think the investment aspect of buying art has increased over the years," he adds. "Fifty years ago, collecting was more about passion, rather than balancing your portfolio. Either way, it's usually an individualistic pursuit. What Uli Sigg did was quite different. He has made a huge contribution to putting Chinese contemporary art on the map. He always said he would return the works to China one day, and he has. That is pretty special."
The 'M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art', is on now at ArtisTree in Taikoo Place, Hong Kong, until 5 April 2016. It features more than 80 works by Chinese artists in a variety of formats and mediums, including painting, ink art, sculpture, photography and video. A second exhibition comprised of works from both the Sigg and the M+ Sigg collections, also sponsored by Credit Suisse, is on now in Bern, Switzerland until 19 June. "Chinese Whispers: Recent Art from the Sigg & M+ Sigg Collections" features 150 works in a joint exhibition between the Kunstmuseum Bern and Zentrum Paul Klee. Many of the political, economic and cultural themes presented by these two shows will be discussed at this year's 19th Annual Asian Investment Conference, organized by Credit Suisse in Hong Kong. Taking place from 5-8 April, the event features speakers including current and former heads of state, economists, authors and academics to discuss the global economy in relation to China and the wider Asia Pacific region.