M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art

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Feb 23-Apr 5

Ambrose Li speaks to M+ curator Dr Pi Li ahead of a retrospective of Chinese modern art in M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art. Images courtesy of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

M+ curator Dr Pi Li

A former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg has been collecting Chinese contemporary art for more than 20 years. Being one of the first private collectors who collected with the aim of preserving a part of art history, the Sigg Collection is one of the most comprehensive collections of modern Chinese art in the world. In 2012, Sigg donated 1,463 works of art in his collection to M+ Museum, and sold an additional 47 pieces. Using many of these works, M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art, on display at Artis Tree in Taikoo, tells the fascinating stories behind the emergence and development of China’s contemporary art scene. Here we talk to senior curator Dr Pi Li about the long-awaited exhibition. Separately – but also not to be missed – make sure to keep an eye on M+ Screenings: Forty Years, a series of films curated by Yung Ma, for a controversial record of the Cultural Revolution seen through the eyes of director Michelangelo Antonioni and documentaries on avant-garde Chinese artists.

Dr Pi, can you tell us about your approach to this exhibition?
The show is divided into three chapters. The first (1974-1989) focuses on underground artistic experiments of self-expression and autonomous thinking as a reaction to the Cultural Revolution and Cold War. The second chapter (1990-1999) is about the post-Cold War era during which the government promoted urbanisation and consumerism, which led artists to reposition themselves in an international context. Last but not least, the final chapter (2000-present) focuses on China’s unprecedented acceleration of globalisation and how artists deal with it.

To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain by Zhang Huan

The Sigg Collection aims to function as a historical document, but since choices are made in acquisition, can any collection really be considered as objective?
This is not only a historical document, but also a visual culture document. Being a historical document may be their function in this exhibition, but a piece of art has many functions.

There’s something that makes the Sigg Collection very interesting. At the time when Sigg began collecting Chinese art, he was very aware how there weren’t many institutions or even individual collectors who paid enough attention to Chinese contemporary art. He wanted to be the person to preserve this part of art history.  Based on that, he collected in an institutional way, as opposed to most collectors who buy artworks for fun or for investment. Sigg tried to be objective and this is what gives this collection its feature. No collection can be purely objective, so we have included some non-Sigg pieces into the exhibition in order to provide more depth. We want to show how we are developing the collection and to build up the discourse based on it. M+ may not have the most objective collection, but we have probably the most comprehensive one at the moment. 

Bloodline Series – Big Family No.17 by Zhang Xiao-gang

Which pieces of works have left the biggest impression on you in this show?
All the works that appear in this collection are highlights! They mark milestones in Chinese art history. For example, Zhang Wei painted Fusujing Building in an Impressionist style, which was normal anywhere else in the world but was a very special and brave move in China in 1975 following the Cultural Revolution. When everyone was painting political propaganda, Zhang Pei-li painted two gloves – we can trace the influences of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, keeping himself as far away from propaganda and figurative art as possible.  

Untitled by Fang Li-jun

You once said that you used to support local collectors buying international art, but have now changed your mind. In a country that lacks freedom of speech, museums and local collectors might need to take more responsibility. Can you talk more about the responsibility of collectors?
The reason I supported local collectors buying international art was because China should be the place to have more of it, so it could be a treasure for the next generation and for artists creating art. But I feel that the whole collecting culture has changed a lot. Compared to the 80s and 90s, collectors themselves have become superstars now, presenting themselves as powerful people. This is so bad for Chinese artists – when young artists are struggling, the ‘famed collectors’, who spend big bucks to buy international art, buy the young artists’ works for low prices. For me that’s too greedy, too bloody. We really should think about what this collecting culture means. The Guggenheim built up an entire collection of American abstract art when nobody cared for it. That’s what we are talking about, responsibility. I really miss the old school style of collecting. The only way for artists to survive is to sell their work, and sometimes very cheaply.  Collectors ask for a 20 percent discount, which could be an artist’s rent for the month, when it’s probably just a meal for a collector. 

Calligraphy Peach Blossom Garden by Yangjiang Group

What are some differences curating in China and in Hong Kong?
Having worked in China for 20 years and Hong Kong for four, I think the major difference is that in China, curating a show is to help artists produce their works. Once the exhibition opens, your work is done. The whole environment in China is quite bad as there aren’t many institutions for contemporary art, while the market is very strong in auctions and galleries. In Hong Kong, opening the exhibition is only the beginning. The show is for the public. There are many education programmes and considerations – a curatorial concept that would be a real challenge in China.

M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art Feb 23-Apr 5
, Artis Tree, 1F, Cornwall House, Taikoo Place.

M+ Screenings: Forty Years Mar 11-13, Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei, various times.


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