The Swiss art collector who helped bring contemporary Chinese art to the world

Swiss art collector Uli Sigg in Zeng Fanzhi’s house while filming Michael Schindhelm’s film About His Life. Mr. Sigg stands in front of his portrait of artist Zeng Fanzhi. (image courtesy of Icarus Films)

In 2019, after a three-year delay, M +, the Hong Kong museum dedicated to Chinese visual culture, will open to the public. It will contain an impressive art collection with works of Ai Weiwei, Cao Fei, Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Wei, Wang Guangle, Wang Guangyi, Song Dong, Hai Bo, and more. Former CEO Lars Nittve sees M + as the equivalent of MoMA in New York or the Center Pompidou in Paris, in terms of depth and cultural significance.

M + would not have been possible without Swiss businessman and art collector Uli Sigg, who in 2012 donated and sold 1,510 works of contemporary Chinese art (part of his collection) to the museum. The 2016 documentary portrait of Michael Schindhelm, The Chinese life of Uli Sigg (available July 17 on Icarus Films), recaps Sigg’s life and how he accumulated his collection – from social realism to cynical realism and political pop art – to preserve contemporary Chinese art for three decades. In interviews and reiterated in the film, Sigg prefers to think of himself as “a researcher of China and contemporary Chinese art who has just purchased some of the results of his research”.

Zhang Huan’s “Family Tree”, a detail of which can be seen in the work of Michael Schindhelm The Chinese life of Uli Sigg (2016) (image courtesy of Public Delivery)

Segmented into parts, Chinese lives follows Sigg’s life in chronological order, starting in 1979, the year he first visited China as a representative of the Swiss elevator manufacturer, the Schindler Group, which ultimately led to the first joint venture between a western company and China. Sigg is temporarily leaving the documentary as Schindhelm focuses on several artists – Ai Weiwei and Wang Guangyi, among others – living in the days of Communist China. In this section, Schindhelm reviews the death of Chairman Mao, the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the growth of a reformed economy. Up to this point, the film moves at a steady pace, perhaps too fast and making the periods covered in the 1970s and 80s seem like just a backstory. In the 90s, the doc slows down at a steady pace, and this is where Sigg’s presence in the film returns, as this is the decade he feverishly begins to acquire art.

In 1995, Sigg became Swiss Ambassador to China, which lasted until 1999. He bought art with an objective eye, concerned with the preservation of culture, and he often owned pieces that went to art. against his personal tastes. At the dawn of the 21st century, Chinese art has gained international attention in large part thanks to the efforts of Sigg. He created the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA), an award that aimed to get artists noticed by prominent Western curators and gallery owners. At the same time, pieces by Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, and others were selling for millions of dollars. And even Chinese lives ignores the link between commerce and art which leads to these astronomical prices, and confines himself to noting that these artists were increasingly influenced by western culture. Voiced by Cao Fei, one of the film’s many talking heads, the downside is that this globalization threatens to erase the uniqueness of Chinese culture.

Wang Guangyi “Chanel No. 5” (2001) as seen in The Chinese life of Uli Sigg (image courtesy of Icarus Films)

Following Sigg’s announcement that he will donate a significant part of his collection to the M + museum which will soon open its doors, Chinese lives ends on a note of hope for the ever-growing art scene in China. And yet, we leave the film with a simplified representation of Sigg. Chinese lives is a standard and conventional documentary filled with interviews with Sigg himself, his wife, fellow Schindler group, Wang Guangyi, Cao Chong’en, among others – all of those who talk about Sigg with enthusiasm. That is to say, with the exception of Ai Weiwei, who does not criticize him per se, but one of his decisions. To prevent the film from expressing a single point of view, the director includes Ai’s dissenting opinion on Sigg’s gift. Fiercely anti-authoritarian, he believes he shouldn’t have returned art to China because they don’t care. (Sigg decided to donate to M + and Hong Kong, as he believed the mainland would censor such plays from Ai and others.) And that’s it for Sigg’s critics; there is no mention of the reviews coming from the mainland around the donation itself (why didn’t he donate all of his art? Why were some pieces donated while others were sold at the museum? What gems does it hide?).

In addition, a little misleading, Chinese lives fails to recognize that the majority of the artwork seen in the film is not actually part of Sigg’s collection but often pieces located in the studios of artists Schindhelm interviewed (something Sigg himself mentions during of a discussion after the screening at the Asia Society in New York). A powerful taste maker and guardian, Sigg is portrayed as a great man. It appears to be a one-man movement that brought contemporary Chinese art to the West, as well as to China.

Can a single person change the perception of Chinese art? By smoothing the rough edges, Chinese lives seems to think so. Either way, the documentary is a good starting point, albeit biased, to familiarize yourself with contemporary Chinese art and the man who helped expose it to the world.

that of Michael Schindhelm The Chinese life of Uli Sigg will be released on video via Icarus Films on July 17th.

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Norma D. Ross