What ideas and traditions have shaped Chinese art?

[Dec. 2017] Uli Sigg - The Wanderer in the Middle Kingdom 乌里 · 西克 - 行走 中国

Uli Sigg - The wanderer in the Middle Kingdom
Friday December 08, 2017
Cultural House Helferei (Breitinger-Saal), Kirchgasse 13, 8001 Zurich
Moderation: Mulan Sun (President SCAA)
Chinese report: Qingchuan Yang
German report: Tian Chiang
Photography: Ruizhe Liang
Poster: Tao Wang


The SCAA met on December 8th, 2017 for the eighth and last event of the year in Zurich's Kulturhaus Helferei. The hall was filled to the last seat and the audience experienced a rousing discussion between Mr. Sigg and the SCAA President Mulan Sun. On the basis of works of art from the last four decades, a conversation developed not only about the history of Chinese contemporary art, but also about the history of Uli Sigg, China and Switzerland.

Mulan Sun:When I discovered a book “China Art Book” (中国 当代 艺术) at the Kunsthaus Zürich 10 years ago, it was a confusing feeling for me. The main theme of Chinese art for me was calligraphy, ink painting and stamp art. In Chinese traditional art, beauty and harmony are always in the foreground. In contemporary art, the rule doesn't work here. Mr. Sigg, why are you interested in Chinese contemporary art and not Chinese traditional art?

Uli Sigg: I wouldn't have understood her when I came to China, I was totally ignorant. But I knew western contemporary art. This has the advantage that it is flesh and blood - it is alive. For me, that was essential for Western art, and so I initially did with Chinese contemporary art. Traditional art is a whole universe that is difficult to empathize with. I tried it later - to my own benefit - but that's a completely different effort. So: contemporary art for lack of knowledge of the Chinese tradition - at the beginning.

1979 – 1989

After the Cultural Revolution of China under Mao Zedong, the country experienced an economic opening. At the time (1979) Uli Sigg was working for the Schindler elevator company. He took over the development of the Chinese market and was thus significantly involved in the first joint venture of a western group with China. The Swiss experienced a culture shock mainly from relics from the Cultural Revolution. For example, the Chinese businessmen at the time were very hesitant to make decisions and expanded simple conversations into large negotiation debates. Still, Sigg always saw China as an adventure to be discovered.

Art during the Cultural Revolution was shaped by social realism and aimed to educate the masses. It was subject to a certain code and mostly showed people with enthusiastic flushed faces at work. Autonomous art could only develop after the end of the cultural revolution. There was a time window of several years during which the artists were able to show and discuss their work in public. Various artist groups emerged, such as Xiamen Dada or the Stars Group. The latter openly protested against an exhibition ban and put on an open-air show along the fence of the National Art Museum (from which they had been excluded). With the party's campaign against “intellectual pollution” in 1983 this window closed again and all western liberal ideas were banned. So art was driven underground and continued to develop there.

The artists from this first decade astonished and confused the population with abstract paintings and first art objects. Wang Guangyi caused with his picture “Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2 ”a scandal when he painted the grid used for official Mao portraits over the chairman's face.

Mulan Sun: During your stay in China in the 1970s and 1980s, you had not yet started collecting contemporary Chinese art. Does the European style not show a Chinese identity for you or did you not get to know the Chinese culture well enough and therefore no “Chinese sensitivity” to collect?

Uli Sigg:No, I was too immodest for that. I thought I could judge that, but I looked with a western eye. I myself was familiar with the forefront of contemporary western art when I came to China in the late 1970s. And I was very curious what the Chinese artists were doing at that point in time. For example, the abstract figures of Huang Rui: If you look at it from the west, you would say: “it's okay, but painted maybe 80 years too late”. And that was the problem with Chinese contemporary art at the time: the artists came out of this socialist realism, they weren't really informed about what had been achieved in Western art and suddenly they found - only fragmentary - information on Western art and then they found it very motivated. You then practically did finger exercises, first painting freely, first painting abstractly, first painting expressively. These were experiments with which they caught up on what an art student has to do with us. And that's why I was actually disappointed - with the western eye, I was disappointed. Because I've always looked for art that can make a contribution to the global art discourse. This art couldn't. What I didn't realize - but didn't look for either - is that this art is still very important, as a contribution to Chinese art history. I was interested in the global discourse, that's why I didn't buy.

1990 – 1999

In the mid-1990s, Uli Sigg became Switzerland's ambassador in Beijing. He describes himself as a “human attempt” of the term of the career changer. In the eyes of the Chinese, it made perfect sense to turn a businessman familiar with China into a diplomat. Sigg knew important personalities from his time as an entrepreneur at Schindler, including the future President Jiang Zemin. He associated not only with the top of society, but also with underground artists. This enabled him to combine contemporary Chinese art with the cadre - a Western model for investment that couldn't fail.

It would have been the job of a public institution to document the art of a country. Since this was not the case in China, Sigg had made it his mission to depict the storyline of contemporary Chinese art since the Cultural Revolution.

After the events on Tiananmen Square (1989), art was shaped by a cynical political realism and deep resignation. Zhang Xiaogang was the first artist whose works found access to the West. The understanding of the works is always in the eye of the beholder. For someone less familiar with China, the painting “Bloodline Series - Big Family No. 17 ”the image of a family of four. A China connoisseur sees the picture against the background of the one-child policy, the preference of the son or even the 400 gender names, which make all Chinese into one big family.

Mulan Sun:In 1995 you became the Swiss ambassador in Beijing - not just any career diplomat, of course. After all, you knew President Jiang Zemin from the old Schindler days and you also knew the underground of the art scene. They began to collect systematically. How could you combine the two very different dimensions (up and down)?

Uli Sigg:That's a tricky question. It happened that this joint venture that I set up at the time was the first and it was clear to me that it had to become a model for Western investments. Then it cannot fail either. Nobody will let this experiment fail. And so I met a number of Chinese cadres who later rose to very high positions, for example Jiang Zemin. He was then President of the Foreign Investment Commission, which was formed to deal first with my joint venture and then with others. And so I conducted various negotiations with him and that helped me a lot 15 years later because he was then President of China. For example, the General Manager of the Foreign Investment Commission, which put all of my contractual clauses through their paces, became vice premier. So I knew a lot of functionaries who then rose. I then met her again as an ambassador. From a Swiss point of view, I was to a certain extent the human experimentation for what they later called lateral entrants. But the Chinese actually gave Switzerland very good marks. They said: "Ah, that's a good idea to make someone who knows China an ambassador." My network has helped me a lot as an ambassador.

Mulan Sun:What do you think is the biggest difference between the Chinese and Western art paradigms? How did you cross the border so that you observe and appreciate the works of art from a Chinese sensitivity and perspective, even if you are Swiss?

Uli Sigg:This is perhaps less necessary in contemporary art than in traditional art. When I was collecting, I had already spent 15 years in China and I also had the privilege: I had to and I could go anywhere in the People's Republic. That was not the case for a Chinese. I had to go everywhere for work, there are elevators everywhere, even in the most remote regions. As ambassadors: We had various development projects in the poorest areas. As Swiss, we had the privilege of being able to work in places where others couldn't and cannot. And so I've seen more of China than most Chinese can. And the task of building a joint venture, so to speak, first in the Chinese planned economy, then the transition to the market economy, on the factory floor, but also with the government, that gave me a lot of insight. I have already acquired a lot of what you might call Chinese sensitivity. In that sense, I was lucky enough to notice a lot.

2000 – 2012

Sigg is considered to be the discoverer of Ai Wei Wei. The artist, who is now widely known outside of China, dedicated a life-size sculpture to Sigg showing the Swiss reading the newspaper - a personal image: Sigg was not only a business journalist, but also President of the Ringier Group. Even today he reads the newspaper from cover to cover every day, as he emphasizes, especially the things that do not interest him. For him, “everything important is in the newspaper first”. For the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, Sigg brought Ai Wei Wei together with the Basel architects Herzog & de Meuron. The stadium shouldn't become a foreign body to the West. Working with the Chinese artist, the team came up with a design that was inspired by the shape and surface of a traditional Chinese cup (known today as the “bird's nest”).

As early as 2005, a move towards the traditional arts could be observed among Chinese artists. After slowly becoming disillusioned with Western art, they looked for inspiration in their own history. Here, in Sigg's opinion, there is a big difference between the Western and Chinese art paradigms. He describes Western art as a kind of tabula rasa that can go in all directions. Chinese art, however, is based on the transmission of traditions and learning from the master, where beauty and harmony play a major role. In 2011 Sigg's exhibition “Shan Shui” (term for traditional landscape representations) was launched, which showed contemporary interpretations of the ancient arts, from landscape painting to calligraphy.

Mulan Sun:You are doing research and a systematic collection of contemporary Chinese art. I believe that every cultural area that is not identical to the national border has its own distinctive works of art. Did you collect the works of art in China because they represent “Chinese-ness” for you?

Uli Sigg:I chose differently. I actually set myself the goal of depicting Chinese art in its breadth. So it wasn't up to me to say: “This is Chinese-ness and not here”, but whatever preoccupied the artist - at a certain point in time - that has found its way into the collection. The idea was to depict the storyline of contemporary Chinese art since the Cultural Revolution until today - because nobody did that. Actually, that would be the job of a national institution, but there was no such thing in China. So I set the mission on myself and that was how I chose the work, not according to my personal taste, it has to take a back seat.

Mulan Sun:The experiments in contemporary Chinese art (or contemporary Chinese architecture) are about building a dialogue between modernity and tradition - or have you just borrowed the symbols from tradition and just want to attract the attention of the West?

Uli Sigg:Of course there is of everything. The fact is that the first generation of Chinese artists who went to the West - and the Chinese artists who stayed at home accuse them of this - they played the Chinese card to a certain extent. The art then dealt with a lot of Chinese symbols and then also looks very Chinese. But that was a successful strategy in the West in the 1990s. I have often spoken to these artists as well. They argued like this: “I spent my first 25-30 years in China, I went through this training, this is my visual world. Do you want to expect me to drop all of this in the west? I carry that with me, it is clear that it will show up in my work. " There are good reasons to do so, and for some it is true and for others it is not. The dilemma is similar in architecture. The Chinese artist or architect is faced with this question that you have outlined. On the one hand there is this global mainstream, which carries everything along, which impresses us very much, and then there is the specifically Chinese art that begins in a completely different place. In the 90s, when the artists already had knowledge and found their own language, at some point these two streams unite: the global mainstream and the Chinese development of art. Then the difficulties for artists and architects begin. "How do I find my own expression?" I think as a Chinese I would say that my roots are a great resource that the West doesn't have. Searching there (not with a copy, but with appropriations or your own language) and dealing with this resource well, that is probably the course. And some do it consciously, others maybe unconsciously and the third not at all, because they want to be part of this global mainstream and do not want to be identified as Chinese, so that they are not only shown because of their Chinese passport (that's more in art as in architecture).

2012 – 2019

From the beginning, Uli Sigg aimed to return the works of art that he had collected to China. Over time, an exhibition space had to be found for this. After unsuccessful negotiations with mainland China, Hong Kong finally appeared on the scene. The city announced a competition for an art museum, which was won by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. However, she had no concept for the content and was about to open the building in 2019 with 17,000 square meters of empty exhibition space. So it is fortunate that Sigg is able to hand over 2,300 works to the Museum M +, the most important collection of Chinese contemporary art, and that the museum is thus given a core.

By founding the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards and an independent art critic award, Sigg is striving to establish the art operating system in China. This gives Chinese contemporary art a platform and its place in the global art discourse.

Chinese contemporary art as we know it from Sigg's collection is a unique witness to China's transformation. How Chinese society has reformed, deformed, and transformed over the past 40 years, this reality has been relentlessly reflected in contemporary Chinese art.

And what is good art for Uli Sigg?

A work of art should have the ability to surprise the viewer and bring him to a place where he cannot go himself. As Sigg once said: “for me, art is like vacationing in my own head”.

Uli Sigg, a tireless hiker and constant pioneer.


Down the report as pdf for free (German): http://scaa.ch/doc/report/ulisigg.pdf

下载 中文 版 活动 报道: http://scaa.ch/doc/report/ulisiggcn.pdf



Conversations with Dr. Uli SIgg, moderated by Ms. Mulan Sun (President SCAA). Photos: Ruizhe…

Posted by Swiss-Chinese Chamber of Architects and Artists on Sunday, December 10, 2017