Uli Sigg, the Chinese contemporary art inventor (an interview)

Stefano Pirovano

CFA sat down with Uli Sigg, the visionary collector who is shaping Chinese contemporary art and its future in the international art ecosystem.

A few days after Basel based architects Herzog&DeMeuron have been appointed to design the M+ building, here our interview with one of the pillars of the project, and one of the advisers for the museum’s future purchasing. The former Swiss ambassador in China comments on what is going to be the main Eastern contemporary art institution and sets the basics of his approach to collecting.

How is the M+ project getting along?

We have now reached the phase in which the building is as important as the concept itself.

The mission statement of the museum claims: “from a Hong Kong perspective and with a global vision”. On the one side there is the local scenery, on the other we find the international one. Is this the key for success?

Hong Kong is a relatively small city if compared with the Chinese standard. However, it has a potential public between 8 and 9 million people, an enormous inflow of tourism, both from mainland China but also from abroad. You are of course a Hong Kong museum, that means you have to pay attention to your local art scene. This art scene may not necessarily be large or world class, nevertheless it has to be sufficient to justify such a project. Now what should you add? Should you build what we may call today a global collection? Should you spend your resources on buying two mediocre Picasso just because we are talking of a museum of modern and contemporary art? So I think when you build a collection – now we talk about building a collection because all the other activities are much easier to define – it must be the world as seen from a Hong Kong prospective. How do you fill it in the end with works? I think, in this case, you have to apply a concentric pattern. You start as I mentioned with the Hong Kong art scene and then it makes more sense to build it around the Chinese art scene…

And it is where your collection comes about, isn’t it?

Exactly. Moving beyond China, we take into account Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia, which pops up as maybe the strongest art in there. I think just to cover the above in some authorial way will absorb all your resources. You also have to focus your attention beyond Asia, in a reasonably manner. How to do that, however, is still to be decided in the case of M+.

Will M+ exhibit also some Western art?

I am not authorized to talk for M+ but I assume there will be some Western art too.

Will you be a member of the board and of the acquisition committee?

Yes, I will but we haven’t had any meetings yet to discuss the strategy to adopt in this regards.

How has Chinese art changed since you bought your first Chinese art work?

I started to collect in the ’90s only, but I had been observing the art scene from the late ’70s. The early ‘90s have mainly been characterized by a cynical realism which was very much a reaction of ’89 Tiananmen events. The artists, who before had a period of relative freedom, became very discouraged and pessimistic. Approaching the art with cynical realism as it has been called, somehow pop at the same time, was just another language to express their feelings. That dominated much of the ’90s, until the end of the decade, when the Chinese society started to open up to the outside world. This meant that the artists, who in the past had only very random information about their peers in the Western world, all of a sudden, were projected to an international scene: internet, travel, global culture. We could see, as a consequence, the Chinese contemporary art scene rising from its isolation and merging with the global mainstream. In the ’80s and ’90s Chinese artists had absolute no interest in their own tradition and they were all fascinated by the Western concepts. Nowadays however, a new phenomenon is taking place, that is a turn to the tradition. I did an exhibition on that. I think that many artists came to the conclusion that these Western concepts don’t provide answers to everything either. They became disillusioned and so you see them turning back to their own tradition, which they want to bring into the future.

Could you give me the name of some artists who are working in this way?

Feng Mengbo. He believes in the tradition with an eye to the future. He feels the need to push it forward. We worked together and developed a software able to reproduce the prospective used in ancient Chinese painting, which differs from Western, three-dimensional prospective.

Then we also have artists, like Zhou Tiehai, who initially revisited the past tradition, but subsequently gave it up, claiming that tradition is just a beautiful dream that, however, doesn’t provide answers. Then there are others who mock the tradition in their paintings, making fun of it and then there are others who just leave it, as it’s not relevant to them.

What is the role played by the market?

For some artists the market was a force of resistance, for others it became a source of motivation. In the past, we just talked about cynical realism, the art was very much about politics and the artist against this repressive government. Then, at the end of the ‘70s, when China started its process of development, being business and economy at its core, art had to quickly absorb this too. However, the artworks produced during those decades were really beyond in comparison to the international art scene, and provided little contribution to the global discourse… that is why I wasn’t interested in collecting art from that period. But I don’t deny that those years are extremely important for Chinese art history.

Which are the similarities between Chinese contemporary artists and American contemporary artists?

I think one similarity is that they both have their own cultural space. I think that good artists ought to have interaction with their own culture, being this Americans or Chinese. Moreover, they now deal very cleverly with all media. It certainly took longer to Chinese artists to develop such a technological culture, but by now, there is no difference in handling the technical means. Another similarity is size. Both American and Chinese art is all about size. But I think that too much weight is put on size, maybe scale would be different.

Why have you decided to collect Chinese art?

I had always been some kind of collector of art but not a significant one. When I first arrived in China, I realized that nobody was collecting and that seemed very odd to me; this is the biggest cultural space in the world and nobody paid attention in a more than purely a random way. There just was no interest in contemporary and experimental art. It felt as you go to Paris and you can’t find an impressionist painting. One day I thought that if nobody does it, maybe I should create this document. So I completely changed my focus of collecting and started to collect as I thought an institution would do and not according to my own personal taste, conscious that one day I would give it back to China, because it only makes sense there.

Do you think that contemporary art still has masterpieces or is this latter merely a category from the past?

This is a question I have thought about while making the selection. Actually, I have just written an article about “typology of collecting” for the German pavilion by Ai Wei Wei, which has been published in a book for the Venice Biennial on the German pavilion. In China, art collectors have a very conventional understanding. They do indeed think of masterpieces. For them, collecting is lining up, like a string of pearls, the masterpieces. In my view, this is not an interesting way of collecting. Personally, when I collect, I think of creating a web. Of course you must have few pieces people may call masterpieces but they don’t make a good collection yet because you also need the context. And to create this context, you must have works that today are maybe considered from second – third tiers artists. For instance, I have works in the collection of artists who I know don’t have potential as artists but they have done this very good work, which illustrates something very well, particular situations or specific contexts. It belongs to my collection even though I don’t believe in the artist. If I were like a private collector, I wouldn’t collect following this pattern. On the contrary, I would just select people I know, or I think I know, who in one hundred years will be in the canon of contemporary art. Nowadays you have this type of status collecting, which is just about lining up the so called masterpieces of the maybe 150 artists we all know, those who make the auction catalogues and the big museums shows. I see a lot of collections all over the world and they look more and more alike. I must say they are becoming very boring. I don’t see many collectors with a concept in mind. I believe that first and foremost there should be the focus. Most collections however don’t have such a focus. It’s the most difficult decision and you don’t have to have it. I mean it’s a free world and everybody can do whatever they like but if you want to be outstanding as a collector I think that first thing comes the focus.

You have a very good strategy and a very well-defined geographical area to work on, but which is your critic approach? Is there any cultural idea that you use to select your works?

My strategy has been to mirror the Chinese art production. That of course it’s quite ambitious. And that also means I have to detach myself from my own personal taste but of course there are certain criteria that remain. But basically if I think there is something that is of importance at a certain moment in time, then I would collect it so that in the end, if you see the whole collection, you can grasp a coherent story line from late ‘70s to today. That’s how I tried to collect and that’s how I selected the works I gave to M+. Of course there are many gaps, but it still by far better than anything else that exists.

Which is your relationship with antiques?

I love to look at antiques but I don’t have enough understanding to collect it. When it comes to Chinese antiques, for examples, you find yourself facing an immense field. Let’s look at porcelain, it’s such an infinite scenery that, until you understand something about it, half of your life has passed and maybe you haven’t investigated anything else!

If not Chinese art, which kind of art would you collect?

Certainly something that is outside the global main stream.

What is your view on the contemporary art system?

There are many systems. What I call the art operating system of China is very different from the art operating system of the United States. Sometimes we have to look at the nation, sometimes we have to take into consideration the cultural space.

July 5, 2018