A Sigg in time
When Uli Sigg announced last month that he would be donating close to 1,500 pieces from his collection of Chinese contemporary art to M+ (the museum planned for the West Kowloon Cultural District), the decision was applauded both locally and internationally.
Although the collection, with an estimated value of HK$1.3 billion, won't be going on show for another five years or so, the former Swiss ambassador to China says this is the right thing to do at the right time.
'I had the wish to do it while I'm alive, to have the chance to put it together and put it in the right home. It's a strange attitude to wait until you drop dead to find a solution, so I must do it now,' the 66-year-old says. 'Now there are museums being built in Hong Kong, Shanghai [and] Beijing. This is a moment to be involved. This is a moment to make a decision.'
The Sigg Collection, which contains more than 2,000 pieces including contemporary artworks dating back to 1979, is significant in that it charts the development of the genre - and the mainland - around the time when late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping initiated his reform-and-opening programme.
The collection, which is reportedly being housed in Sigg's Swiss home, the Mauensee Castle near Lucerne, has been a way for the former diplomat to understand modern China. Sigg first arrived in Beijing in 1979 as a representative of a Swiss engineering company in charge of setting up the mainland's first joint venture with a western firm. When he began building his collection in the early 1990s he was surprised that no one was already doing it.
'[It] felt like going to Paris and I [couldn't] see Impressionist works,' he says. 'In hindsight, this was a very important period in Chinese history, and therefore the works produced by contemporary and experimental artists during that period will be very important ... Here's a wealth of art being produced but [it was] being ignored. I thought this very odd.'
It might have been a lack of confidence or purchasing power on the mainland that made its people overlook its own avant garde artworks that were known only to a small circle of artists, academics and intellectuals, Sigg says.
But the law PhD graduate and former journalist took a leap of faith. 'The outside world thought I was crazy. But I did it. Probably I'm irrational,' Sigg says with a smile.
His intuition proved to be right: today, China is the world's second biggest economy, and Chinese contemporary art has the world's attention. Therefore, the right to the narrative of Chinese contemporary art should rest with the Chinese, Sigg says, but it has largely been ignored in its place of origin.
'At some point, 'official' China discovered this phenomenon was taking place without their participation. [But] by the time they realised people like me [have] the authority to decide what is meaningful, it was very late. Maybe that's why foreigners have more influence in this canon,' he says.
Sigg's donation includes 1,463 works from the 1990s to 2000s by 310 artists such as Zeng Fanzhi, Xu Bing, Wang Guangyi, Gu Wenda and Zhang Xiaogang. Zhang says he is glad the collection is returning to Chinese soil. He calls Sigg's donation a noble act, telling The Beijing News that 'by keeping the collection within China, it can help mainland museums to learn about Chinese contemporary art'.
As part of the deal, M+ will collaborate with Sigg on the Chinese Contemporary Art Award and the CCAA Art Critic Award, both founded by the collector. 'I always had in mind that I wanted to bring [the collection] back to China, [to] a public space in China,' Sigg says.
One and a half years of talks with M+ and the Hong Kong government gave him confidence in the city, he says, and demonstrated the aspiration to build a world-class institution, although the museum is still in the planning stage. But why did he turn down mainland institutions?
'I had some discussions with mainland [museums], but in the end, I felt that [they] were not willing to accept that kind of art,' he says.
'That kind of art' can be interpreted as works that are somewhat critical of the mainland's rapid economic development or works by artists who make the authorities feel uncomfortable. Among the works are 26 pieces by artist-activist Ai Weiwei, created between the mid-1980s and 2010.
As part of the donation deal, M+ paid HK$177 million to Sigg, to acquire another 47 historically significant works from the late 1970s to the late '80s, including works by avant garde artists group The Stars, which staged two exhibitions in 1979 and 1980, calling for democracy and artistic freedom after Mao Zedong's death in 1976.
The donation also features works by conceptual artists such as Pak Sheung-chuen, who represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale in 2009, and Lee Kit, who will feature in next year's edition. 'I was impressed by the art ... in Hong Kong so I started to collect a few works. Hong Kong is part of China ... [so] I started to close this gap. But it's in no way representing Hong Kong art, in no way similar to the concept that I have for the mainland,' Sigg says.
'My focus is art produced on the mainland, not Chinese art produced outside China. It's the energy. It's not about the yellow face of the art.'
However, he has high hopes for the city's art scene. 'Hong Kong ... is almost as big as Switzerland [which has a population of about 7.8 million]. Why doesn't it have an art scene as lively as Switzerland? I don't see why it shouldn't.'
Sigg says he has about 600 pieces left after the donation, but he declines to elaborate further. He says that what he has offered to M+ documents a storyline of Chinese contemporary art to date, and the ones he's keeping have more personal meaning. 'The collection [for M+] is about Chinese art history, not building a myth about my personal history.'
The only reservation Sigg has about Chinese contemporary art returning to its place of origin is that foreigners who have helped document its history will be forgotten. 'I have some fears that the role of foreigners might not be reflected adequately, probably rather diminished,' he says.
Is it like Hong Kong, whose colonial past is being gradually eradicated? 'That could be a comparison,' he says. 'This is a very interesting ongoing debate: who will be forgotten, who will be remembered, who is reading and who has the authority to define this canon?'
One thing is for sure: Uli Sigg won't be forgotten. His donation is to be called the M+ Sigg Collection, and the museum has promised to give the works at least 5,000 square metres in its first three years of its opening in 2017.