Food For Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past. For this installment, we invited Uli Sigg, who formed the most substantial collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world, to talk about collecting.
The softer the science, the more advisable it is to open a subject with an enlightening quote of an authority in the field. Yet in contrast with what Duchamp’s name is commonly associated with, this essay does not attempt to limit or de-limit what art and artist may mean. It also does not analyze whether the roots of collecting may be phylogenetic, whether they originate in human instinct, in greed, in a gaping void, in a desire for refinement and self-cultivation, in the brain stem or from emissions of endorphins. Such subjects are left to ethnologists, psychoanalysts, art historians, neuroscientists and others. This essay simply uses the term collecting to denote accumulating things with a logic, so as to create meaning beyond what the single collection item does contain in itself. The author defines a simple typology of collecting, drawn from comparative viewings of numerous collections, publicly or privately owned, lavishly displayed or under poor conditions, accessible to everyone or presented in secrecy, located all over the planet.
The “I like art” accumulating style
The “Investor” collecting style
The “Status” collecting style
The “Focused” collecting style
The “Web“ collecting style
Web collecting again – and how I got there
I arrived in China in 1979 and followed from then on the beginnings and subsequent development of Chinese contemporary art as best I could. Yet I did not collect any work then, for I was looking for the forefront of contemporary art as I had studied it in the West, and for long I could not find art of this kind. When again analyzing the state of contemporary art in the 1990s I discovered that no one – individual or institution – had been collecting Chinese contemporary art in any but a purely random manner. Consequently, I changed my focus from that of a private collector searching for works according to his personal taste to one I imagined a national institution ought to have: attempting to mirror the art production of the experimental artists living in the PRC, along the time line and across all media, intended as an encyclopedic documentation referencing Chinese experimental art production in this specific period. The Sigg Collection should invite a critical reflection on the short history of contemporary art in China and cultivate lucid insights into Chinese society in a historical period that in retrospect will be considered very important. While collecting around 2600 works by some 500 artists mostly from the artists themselves I had to continuously hone my collecting style – defining and redefining subjective and objective criteria, identifying my blind spots, luckily being disciplined by limited financial resources.
In 2012 I gave 1510 works to the M+ Museum for Visual Culture in Hongkong – to create that one place where the story line of Chinese contemporary art can be read. It will open in 2021 and hopefully you all will join!
One more digression from collecting on the “web”
Since several years ago I have been making online acquisitions of artworks – even in the realm of 6-digit figures if I am familiar with an artists’ work. I feel quite safe in the two-dimensional space. For a large installation, I may require more visual information than a simple photo or computer rendering may provide. In fact, it has always been the case that for commissioned works one depends on the virtual – since the work at the time of decision does not yet exist. That is where the risk is – I have also been disappointed at times. An interesting example is the large painting by Zhao Bandi: we organized a performance of a piano player performing Chopin in a small pond – as a metaphor of where one could imagine China to be – with the intention of producing a painting thereof. Here you see the final result after many online interactions: China Party, 2017 (290 x 390cm). ❖
Uli Sigg has worked as journalist and editor for various Swiss newspapers and magazines. From 1977 to 1990, he was part of an industrial group. In 1980, he established the first Joint Venture between China and the West. In 1995, the Swiss federal government appointed him ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia. Upon his return to Switzerland, he again assumed the chairmanship or board membership of several multinational companies. As an art collector, Uli Sigg has formed the most substantial collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world, with more than 2’500 works. In 2012, he donated 1450 of these works and sold 50 of them to M+ Museum for Visual Arts in Hong Kong. He also established 1997 the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA) for Chinese contemporary artists living in Greater China, and the CCAA Art Critic Award, with the former having been transformed into the SIGG PRIZE, hosted by the M+ Museum. He is a member of the M+ Museum Board, the International Council of New York Modern Art Museum MOMA and International Advisory Council of Tate Gallery, London.