A still from the documentary film The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg.

Film festival brings Uli Sigg and Chinese contemporary art to Beirut screens

Documentary explains why the Swiss diplomat and businessman started his collection and how he has donated most of it to Hong Kong’s M+ Museum for Visual Culture

When Uli Sigg began looking for contemporary art in China nearly three decades ago, he was surprised nobody was collecting it systematically. So he decided to do it himself.

The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg, a documentary to be screened alongside 44 others at this month’s Beirut Art Film Festival tells how Sigg became the world’s largest collector of Chinese contemporary art, gathering more than 2,000 pieces. In 2012, he donated around 1,400 of them to the M+ Museum for Visual Culture, set to open in Hong Kong in 2019.

“I thought it’s very weird, the biggest culture space in the world and nobody’s paying attention to the contemporary artists,” said the Swiss diplomat and businessman during a visit to Lebanon last month.

He described the film festival, which is run in partnership with the Lebanese ministry of culture, and the British, Swiss and other embassies, as “an interesting initiative to cover documentaries about art so extensively”.

Sigg began visiting China in the late 1970s, as former leader Deng Xiaoping ushered in the economic reforms that eventually opened up the country to the outside world.

Working for Swiss manufacturer Schindler, he helped negotiate the first industrial joint venture between China and Europe. “Nobody was willing to do it at the time,” Sigg recalls. “People thought we were crazy.”

A still from the documentary The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg.
In the turbulent period following the death of Mao Zedong, Sigg – Swiss ambassador to Beijing in the late 1990s – says he looked for art that could give insights into the country’s transformations.

“I hoped the artists would be another source of information. But there was nothing to see, because they had been totally isolated,” Sigg says.

“When they found their language, it became much more interesting,” he adds. “I thought I would collect the way a national institution should but didn’t.”

In 1997, Sigg created the Chinese Contemporary Art Award to encourage artists who then worked largely underground.

Now in its second year, the Beirut Art Film Festival will showcase films from around the world, including a selection dedicated to Lebanese producers.

Screening locations will take the festival outside the capital, to a cafe on a former frontline in the northern city of Tripoli, and a theatre in the south that is reopening after a two-decade shutdown.

“We started with a small festival for amateurs. We weren’t expecting people to respond so well,” said Alice Mogabgab, one of the founders. “This year, it has become national.”