When Dr. Uli Sigg donated his collection of Chinese contemporary art to Hong Kong’s future M+ in 2012, the news generated mixed speculations from both Mainland China and Hong Kong, each from their own perspectives. The polemic came from the fact that the Sigg Collection is not just the biggest but also the most coherent and comprehensive Chinese art collection in the world. There is a historical as well as sociopolitical significance as to where the collection should permanently stay.
TEXT : Selina Ting
IMAGES : Courtesy of the artists and WKCDA
In the interview, Dr. Sigg shared with us his ideas on collecting and the future of the Sigg Collection in his usual lucidity and intelligence. When asked to comment on the dangers of a personal interpretation entering the realm of public discourse, Dr. Sigg countered by suggesting, “Why don’t we start with the question: what are the dangers for a public museum if there was no such core collection?” Such is a question that the Hong Kong public who holds a negative attitude towards the donation has been trying to avoid during the years. The renowned Belgian collector, Herman Daled, who is a close personal friend of mine, donated his collection to MoMA in 2011, in a similar deal as the Sigg Collection to M+ in combining donation and acquisition. Such donation is considered instrumental in the sense that the Daled Collection fills in the blank of the root of Conceptual Art in the MoMA collection. The Sigg Collection is equally instrumental to M+ in the sense that it lays the cornerstone upon which the museum could continue to build its collection, to reference to for direction, and to activate for educational purposes.
To give a fuller picture of Dr. Sigg’s collecting methodology and his observations as a collector, we are very honoured to have Dr. Sigg’s consent to publish his article A Typology of Collecting.
In the Foreword to the online M+ Sigg Collection database, you wrote that you wanted to create a very focused encyclopaedic collection, and that you were doing this as a researcher trying to make sense of the cultural contexts in which the artists create their work. The first question is: at which point did you become conscious of the need to be systematic in your collection and what is the difference before and after in the way you collect?
I started out as probably every collector does. It’s what I call the ‘I like art’ style. You collect what you like and this may or may not make much sense to other people, it reflects your taste at a certain moment, or what is considered taste and that may change all the time. Most people remain at this stage. I think if you want to go into another stage, you must find a focus and only then, in my personal view, does a collection start to emerge rather than an accumulation of things. To define this focus is a very difficult decision, maybe the most difficult one in collecting. You can sense in a collection if there is a focus, and it doesn’t matter what this focus is, it just gives the soul to a collection. Now, in my case, I was looking at Chinese contemporary art. When I realized that nobody was collecting Chinese contemporary art in any way, neither individuals or institutions, then I changed my approach to collecting. I thought, if nobody does it this way then I will collect like an institution should but did not. That means to put my personal taste in the background and try to mirror the art creation in its width and depth. So, that was maybe in the mid 90’s.
You pointed out the importance of being focused so as to give the collection a soul. At the same time, it makes collecting a very disciplined behaviour because you have to refrain yourself from buying works that you personally do like. What experience can you conclude after collecting in this way for over 30 years? Has it actually given you a clearer mind on what you want to do, or is it sometimes frustrations that you might have? What is the experience to be focused and to be well disciplined?
You mentioned discipline. That is maybe the most difficult thing to acquire because, yes, there is a lot of very interesting art and you may be very tempted, but that’s exactly when you need that discipline in order to remain focused. Of course, nobody will manage all the time. What helps is that my means are finite, so that puts a natural limit on what I can do. The people who have unlimited resources, they are normally not disciplined and we have examples, like the famous Peter Ludwig in western Germany. He was a very wealthy individual and he had this shotgun approach. He just bought everything. If you buy everything, you also have the good works, but it may not be a very resourceful approach.
So the focus that you have defined for your collection is Chinese contemporary art. I think one legitimate question to ask is : what is “Chinese” for you? How do you define “Chinese-ness” for your collection? Given your own experience and cultural background, is it an interpretation from a personal stance?
The question has lost its importance as to 10-15 years ago, when the Chinese contemporary art really came to the international fore. I did the Mahjong [Mahjong Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection, May 2005, Kunstmuseum Bern] exhibition in 2005, at that time, I asked about 100 participating artists about “Chinese-ness”. I asked them, “Is there something like ‘Chinese-ness’ and if yes, do you purposely make use of it or do you purposely avoid it? Is it relevant or is it just a stupid question?” There was absolutely no consensus on whether there is something like that. Some artists responded with irony, “Do you purposely make use of Swiss-ness etc.?” So, in my view there is something like that, but today of course that question is more difficult to answer because on one hand you have this global mainstream that we all know, and then you have what in the past has been this distinctly different Chinese contemporary art stream and now they are merging actually in front of our eyes. The question is then for each and every artist how to cope with this. Do you want to be an artist in this global mainstream or do you want to do art by conscientious difference to this global mainstream? Actually, you may have to do this even while working within this global mainstream. That is what every artist has to do, being different, finding a position of his or her own, even if your decision is to remain in Chinese traditional art creation.. So, these are the difficult decisions which artists now have to take. Right now, I am doing an exhibition in Bern. It’s a large exhibition dealing with this issue. How about art really being global? How about this global mainstream? How about this difference I just referred to? I remain deeply convinced that there is Chinese contemporary art meaning art that comes out of debating within or about the Chinese cultural space – just as there is Swiss or American contemporary art. It’s a very intriguing subject right now.
You are also very interested in the younger generation artists born after the 80’s. Their experience of China is very different from the previous generations and we can see a strong rejection of familiar cultural signifiers in their work. What do you think of this rejection? And the significance nowadays to put up an international exhibition under one category called “Chinese contemporary art”?
For me, these differences exist and I am very interested in bringing these out . If an artist doesn’t want to participate in a Chinese exhibition, so be it. But it signals an insecurity in my view. If you are a good artist you should want your work to be seen whenever the context is professional and of quality. you do not need to resort to any of these Chinese signifiers in this particular context. So, I think it’s an insecurity if an artist refuses to be in a Chinese group exhibition – except if it is a justified quality concern. My current exhibition Chinese Whispers in Bern draws more viewers than any other contemporary art exhibition ever done in this institution which has more than a century of history. What does this tell you about the significance or non-significance of exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art? That’s what I have to say to this.
You have been following the Chinese Avant-garde generation since the 1990s, how do you see their work created today in a sociopolitical context which is very different from that of the 90s? Would art lose its strength once the core subject-matter no longer exists? Is there a need for them to reinvent themselves?
They deal very differently with the situation. The situation mainly being that they have produced art against something – rubbing against the resistance of a repressive system. This produces a certain type of art. Now, the enemy in a way has died away. So, they must redefine themselves. Some can do this with ease. They find new ideas and move onto new territories; but some do have a problem because once this friction disappears, then what is it that can trigger their creativity and new ideas, new impulses? Of course, we are very demanding these days. In the past, Morandi painted 50 years the same ten bottles, nobody demanded him to reinvent himself every few years. But now we feel that artists should change the medium and have a new idea every few years and do something totally different. Not every artist has to fulfil this expectation and I think if you have a true artist’s personality, one day you may find a second strong idea, but it can take 10 years. This is very demanding on an artist, to stay the course and just work hard and wait for this new impulse. I have great respect for an artist who developed one strong idea in his or her life. It’s already a big achievement, but today we want to see two, three or four ideas.
Back to your collection. A private collection is built on an individual’s decision-making in the selection process. Now, what are the dangers of having a personal interpretation of that part of history entering into a public museum to become the collective narration? And how can we avoid the traps if there are any?
Why don’t we start with the question: what are the dangers for a public museum if there was no such core collection? Then, you would have this huge empty shell – but what are you going to collect, from green field? Are you going to collect Hong Kong art – this you should anyhow. Are you going to build an international collection? You buy two or three mediocre Picassos and your acquisition budget has already evaporated. So, it is a very, very difficult issue how you start from zero. I have done it. Now, my collection provides a very good core to build from there. It is of course built by one individual. I didn’t want to build a private museum for various reasons, one being that one wouldn’t want to be held hostage to the taste of one single person. So, this collection now can be scrutinised, it can be commented on , it will be added to, built further as we go forward. I see it as material. So, with this material you can do a lot. Now, there is an exhibition here in Hong Kong, and there is also a very large exhibition in Switzerland at the same time, both sourced from M+ Sigg collection. One will have to discuss what is missing and what were this one individual’s blind spots, as it is reflected there. So, it’s all up for a good discussion.
One last question. Given the recent political situation and the changes in Hong Kong, are there any worries that things might change and would affect the presentation and the nature of the collection?
Well, I have a hope that there won’t be an impact on the degree of freedom of speech, freedom of art that will change the situation for my collection, or will restrict what can be shown. I had a number of negotiations with the previous Hong Kong government and they made this a strong point that I should be giving the collection to Hong Kong because there is a very different degree of freedom of speech in Hong Kong than in the Mainland, and that has been quite material for my decision. So, my hope really is that there won’t be an impact. We will see by 2019, when the museum opens… no use now to speculate on what is going to be by then, but it is really my hope.
Thank you very much.
Recent Art from the Sigg & M+ Sigg Collections
19.02 – 19.06. 2016
About Dr. Uli Sigg
Dr. Uli Sigg is a Swiss media executive, art patron, China expert, founder of the first joint venture between China and the outside world and created the most substantial collection of Chinese Contemporary Art world- wide. He was ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia in the mid-1990s. He is currently a board member of several international companies and a member of the advisory board of China Development Bank.
Uli Sigg is well-known as an art collector to a wide circle of people. He began to collect Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s. As a result, he accumulated the world’s largest and most significant collection in this field within a few decades. Sigg personally knows many of the artists, whose works form part of the collection. In 2012, he donated 1,500 Chinese contemporary artworks to M+, Hong Kong’s future museum for visual arts. He is a member of the International Council of MoMA, New York and of the International Advisory Council of Tate Gallery, London.
Selina TING (Editor-in-Chief of CoBo)
With a unique cultural background equally immersed in both Eastern and Western traditions, Selina is a curator and a specialist in contemporary art with over 10 years of professional experiences both in Asia and Europe. Stationed in Paris and Brussels between 2004 – 2014, she has a network traversing the Chinese, Asian and Western art world. In the last 5 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of initiArt Magazine, Whitewall Magazine (China Version). Selina has published extensively on her research projects as well as on general issues regarding art and culture. Selina is currently Editor-in-Chief of CoBo, the first Asia community platform for collectors.