The exhibition ‘Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art of the Sigg Collection’, which opened in Hong Kong on Feb. 23, provides a unique window in the soul and history of contemporary China.
Since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, China was sad, happy, angry, tormented, troubled, worried, ecstatic, shocked, pained, thrilled, disenchanted, enthusiastic, thrilled, appalled or what?
Usually, art provides a lasting complex reflection in times of gigantic changes, as was the generation in which this country moved from being a developing nation to be a challenging superpower. This artistic reflection then helps the country to think of itself for the future, its faults and its merits, and thus also to project its influence internally and abroad.
Yet Deng’s China has very little of this art. Literature and cinema were highly expurgated, possibly also with good reasons, given the power these art forms have to stir public emotions in troubled moments. Popular music was too few while classical music still did not find its dimension, wandering between western and eastern harmonies.
Painting was different. Without the reach of a mass market, often weird, hardly comprehensible to most, it was allowed unfettered freedom. It became the only uncensored record of the sentiments and artistic reflections of China in the past 30 years. Here only one can touch with great reality the soul of the Chinese people in the past decades. The collection of these artistic works is of unparalleled value for centuries to come both for the people who want to learn about the sufferance of the Chinese in this years and for the China to project its image abroad. Dreary prose of Politburo communiqués, propaganda-tainted movies and half-censored novels can hardly reach the same effect both internally and externally.
Here is the value of the art collection of Swiss collector Uli Sigg. In some 30 years, Sigg meticulously gathered the most representative art pieces of China in this time. His work in progress collection has become so famous in China that no real artist had a status until he was acquired by Sigg.
His collection is not complete, in the sense that Sigg did not acquire all the Chinese art he saw. He selected what he felt were the most innovative pieces, the ones that better spoke to the soul of not only Chinese but also of people of the world in general. The art of his collection is then international, it is Chinese, because Chinese are the artists, but it is projected to the world and does not consider simply the sense and sensibilities of the nouveau rich, the party officials or the farmers.
The collection is then the first real cultural bridge between China and the world, it is the first most authentic Chinese contribution to the global cultural world. These works of art talk to people in New York, Paris, New Delhi or Rio de Janeiro in a way that most of the Chinese cinema or literature of the time does not.
Sigg achieved this goal through sifting and picking the art according to his own sensitivity. He excluded, for instance, the ultra realist painters. These periodically became the darlings of party honchos able to recognize the ultra realist reproduction techniques but uncomfortable with anything else. His collection then is highly subjective, it is not a cold, systematic compendium of all Chinese figurative art of these 30 years. Sigg applied his sentiment to compile an artistic perspective of China through a careful choice of its figurative art and so he created a lens, a mirror through which one, Chinese or foreigner, can see at least a part of the Chinese soul.
Sigg makes then his art through other people’s art, just like during the Renaissance Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence chose to sponsor Michelangelo and not other artists; just like painter and art critic Vasari admired this and not that artist. Yet, during the Renaissance, painting and sculpture was just one art: there was music, modern harmony was born then; there was literature, Petrarca was the father of modern western poetry; there were philosophers, Machiavelli is still the most influential political writer of the west, et cetera. In China, the past thirty years have a much barren crop. As we said before, political leaders were, perhaps correctly, concerned that freedom of artistic expression would damage stability necessary for economic development.
This leaves the Sigg collection alone and unchallengeable, a unique free testament of the culture of the time.
Moreover, as China now tries to become part of the world and cast its shadow farther from its Asian shores, the Sigg collection is a unique instrument for China to present itself with something that the world can share, understand, respect and admire. The collection is not for the faint of heart. But many of the powerful, cultured and rich of the world have been for years intrigued and fascinated by the happy-dirty portrays of Liu Xiaodong or the moving sci-fi games and paintings of Feng Mengbo and all the other odd, baffling art pieces made to shock and pierce your spirit and brain.
In a time when some Chinese strategists try to concoct convoluted plans to win the hearts and minds of people of the world to win a possible future next clash with the west, they often miss something better and closer at hand, an instrument that both can move and win over the audience and build bridges. Sigg gave it to them for free, or actually by paying millions in the course of the years to artists who then became famous and made other millions for themselves and for China on their own.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Research Associate of China Renmin University. The author of Asia Times’ Sinograph column, he was also Asia Editor for the Italian daily La Stampa and Beijing correspondent for Il Sole di 24 Ore, and has written for numerous Italian and international publications. He was the first foreigner admitted to the graduate program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he is the author of eight books on China and a frequent commentator on CCTV.