Swiss entrepreneur and diplomat Uli Sigg has assembled the most comprehensive collection of contemporary Chinese art worldwide. He began his collection in the 1990s and will donate a large part of it (almost 1,500 works) to the Museum of Visual Culture of Hong Kong. He first travelled to China in 1979 on behalf of Swiss firm Schindler to establish the first joint-venture between China and a foreign company. In the second half of the 1990s he was Swiss ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia. He is Vice Chairman of Ringier and a Member of the Advisory Boards of the China Development Bank, of the International Council of MoMA (NY), and of the International Advisory Council of the Tate Gallery (London).
The M+ museum of contemporary art and visual culture in Hong Kong, currently under construction, is getting ready to inherit 1,463 works from Uli Sigg’s private collection. From 2017 onwards, the 40 million Chinese citizens who come to the special administrative region every year will have the opportunity to discover an aspect of their modern history through works produced by home-grown artists since the 1970s. A guest speaker at the last Forum de la Haute Horlogerie, Uli Sigg shared his thoughts about the evolution of the Chinese artistic scene and some of the issues that matter in China today.
The story of Uli Sigg and modern art describes a great love affair. Once settled in the ‘Middle Kingdom’, he pursued his interests as a collector, amassing works by local artists. ‘I was convinced that art would open up another way for me to understand and experience Chinese reality,’ he explained. ‘When I arrived, at the end of the 1990s, art reflected a political resistance against the regime. Artists worked with concepts that came from abroad, making them their own. The government’s demonstrations of force, notably in Tiananmen Square in 1989, had the effect of sending this form of protest underground. Today, art does not have the same role. Artists seem to have adopted a more formal attitude to their approach, in line with the market. At the same time, they have reclaimed themes that originate from their own traditions. There has been a resurgence of interest in Chinese culture from the past.’
More generally, Uli Sigg notes that China is obeying the laws of the market to a greater degree these days. The private sector is better represented within the one ruling party. Not that this should inspire much hope, however, in the sense that he who profits from the system is not going to be inclined to change the rules. A move towards greater democracy is not, therefore, on the agenda. ‘For the moment, there is no alternative to the party. The only chink of light comes from the regional elections where we’re finally seeing debate among members of the same party vying for first place. But according to the new government’s priorities, the question of democracy is not a matter of current concern and won’t be for the next 10 years.’
Recent initiatives taken by the new Premier Li Keqiang to combat corruption will also need time to become properly effective. Transition periods in China tend be a lengthy process. In other words, as Uli Sigg points out, democratisation, which is far from being a priority for the country’s current government, remains a utopian alternative.
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