There was a documentary on French TV a couple of days ago about the khlong canals that crisscross Bangkok. Not much seems to have changed since I went there 23 years ago, except for one thing: Running water has made its way to the nearby houses, so people no longer drink directly from the turbid waters.
Swiss businessman Uli Sigg is the most important collector of Chinese contemporary art. In 2012, he gave away most of his collection to the M+ in Hong Kong. Now the museum has opened as the Communist Party is cracking down hard on freedom of expression. So how do you run a museum in the face of widespread censorship from Beijing?
The first test has been passed, Uli Sigg thinks. So far, everything has gone well. His new exhibition has opened, visitors like to come, and — this is the most important thing for the Swiss businessman — everything is on display. He has not had to take an exhibit off the list of works.
The M+ in Hong Kong is a new museum that wants to compete with the established ones. It wants to surpass the MoMa in New York and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Sigg, a rather down-to-earth man, says: “There is no better museum in the whole world.” That is very much self-praise, since Sigg’s own collection is central to the museum.
The only problem is: great art is often political; it questions the rulers. Since the Chinese Communist Party has been cracking down on critics and freedom in Hong Kong, the metropolis is a bad place for politics and art. So how did the collection get there?
The 75-year-old businessman and art collector has led many lives. Sigg first worked as a business journalist, then took a lucrative job with the lift manufacturer Schindler. In this role, he set up the first joint venture between a Western industrial group and a Chinese state-owned enterprise. Later, in the 1990s, he was appointed Swiss ambassador to China. During his time as a diplomat, he was primarily active as a collector of Chinese contemporary art.
“There were years when I was the market,” he says. I am chatting to Sigg by video call. He's at home, in Mauensee Castle, located on a small halfway between Zurich and Bern. Sigg looks wiry. Instead of enjoying retirement, he is busy. He has just returned from Hong Kong. But on the same day, he will travel to Bern for a lecture.
He says that he has always taken an “encyclopedic” approach to art collection. What he means is that he didn’t collect what he liked, but what came his way. In other words, everything. In doing so, as some art experts see it, Sigg has amassed a collection that a Chinese national museum should have built.
The M+ Museum in Hong Kong opened in November 2021
Pushing the envelope in the face of state oppression
But Sigg says that China treats modern art poorly. “Contemporary art is critical compared to traditional Chinese art, it puts its finger on the wound.” In 2012, Sigg decided to give away the bulk of his collection, some 1,500 works. He chose Hong Kong — which seemed like a smart move at the time.
One thing was clear: no museum in Beijing or Shanghai would ever display this collection. It was too critical. On the other hand, the port city of Hong Kong, a former British colony, has only been part of China again since the 1990s. But a part where, at least until 2012, there was more freedom of expression and art than in the rest of the country. It was a cosmopolitan and cultural city, a melting pot between East and West.
We know what kind of China we will have in the coming years.
What Sigg did not know was that the Chinese Communist Party would start eradicating the autonomy of the Special Administrative Region shortly afterwards. It fought the principle of “one country, two systems,” which granted Hong Kong a special status. Today, critics speak only of “one country, one system.”
Compared to 2012, Hong Kong is unrecognizable. Last year, the People’s Republic passed “a security law” in the port metropolis, cracking down on democracy advocates in parliament and civil society. Since then, freedom of expression, art and the press have been subject to the arbitrary power of the Communist Party.
"Art and Politics" by Wang Guangyi
Bleak vision of art in China's future
A while ago, the online magazine Citizen News ceased operations due to increasing repression. This makes the magazine the third media outlet to shut down within a few months. Sigg says that the “security law” has also damaged Hong Kong’s reputation as an art metropolis. Critical artists are afraid of not being able to exhibit. There is a “silence in the city that is not conducive to creativity.” How can you run a museum here?
Sigg says that he had to hold talks with the authorities for about six weeks to get the list of works in his collection accepted. It’s not surprising. Last spring, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said in a public message that her authorities were “on full alert” and would ensure that the exhibition did not “undermine national security.”
It’s a minor miracle that Sigg got his list of works accepted. And so, there is currently art on display at M+ that cannot be seen in the rest of China. From the world-famous exiled artist and regime critic Ai Weiwei, for example, and from Wang Xingwei. It is unthinkable that a painting like Wang’s oil painting “New Beijing” would be exhibited in mainland China.
This is because it alludes to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 – and to the censorship of its memory. In the painting, a handful of men transport bleeding victims away on bicycles. But the victims are not human. Instead, penguins lie on the bikes – seabirds that don’t even exist in China. It’s a reference to the large-scale propaganda efforts to make them forget the dead.
As rewarding as it is for Sigg to have his list of works accepted, he knows that China’s authoritarian turn in recent years is attributable to President Xi Jinping. And that, in the style of a long-term ruler, he is likely to accept a third term in office soon – a departure from the conventions introduced as recently as the 1980s. “So we know what kind of China we will have in the coming years,” Sigg says gruffly.
Still, he would give his collection back to Hong Kong again. It’s part of China, he says, and one day it will be on display all over the country, “even though I may not live to see it.”
What would he do if the authorities in Hong Kong start censoring his collection? “Hold talks with the authorities again and try to convince them,” Sigg says. “And, as a last resort, take legal action.” There is a faint doubt in his voice at the last sentence.
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