Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Museum Watching: The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg

Uli Sigg was like the Herb & Dorothy of contemporary Chinese art, but he was always a highly respected member of the economic and political establishment. Thanks to his special access, he was one of the first westerners to collect artists like Ai Weiwei during his early years in China as a businessman and diplomat. It turns out he also had a good eye for collecting. The reigning superstars of the international art world pay tribute to their Swiss friend and patron in Michael Schindhelm’s The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg (trailer here), which has several upcoming screenings around the country.

Ironically, when China first opened in the early 1980s, it was more open then than it is now. Sigg was one of handful of western businessmen allowed into the country to form joint-ventures. Frankly, as the representative of the Schindler Group (they manufacture elevators and escalators), Sigg wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing in Mainland China, but he managed to acquire and renovate an abandoned factory that became quite a profitable concern in its day.

Sigg also kept his eyes open and made plenty of contacts, so he was a logical choice to become Switzerland’s ambassador to China, Mongolia, and North Korea (interestingly, Hong Kong and Taiwan were not part of his remit). Having good diplomatic instincts, Sigg thought it would be a nice gesture if the Swiss embassy displayed the work of contemporary Chinese artists.

Sigg was a quick study and confident in his judgement, so he soon became a regular visitor to the studios of Ai Weiwei, Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Cao Chong’en, and his daughter Cao Fei (also an interesting filmmaker), all of whom talk to Schindhelm at length. Today, we can barely afford to drop their names in a review, but Sigg was able to acquire important formative works from them. Yet, Sigg always planned to return a good portion of his collection to a museum that would keep it on view for the Chinese people. He found the right partner in M+, an innovative contemporary art museum currently under construction in Hong Kong. Hey, HK is totally part of China, right? Oh, sweet irony.

Ever the diplomat, Sigg is generally circumspect when it comes to addressing current or even historical controversies on camera. However, it seems telling how many artists he championed were profoundly influenced by traumatic experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Of course, that makes perfect sense, considering most of them were born in the early to mid-1960s, usually to middle class families. Indeed, the mere fact Sigg is one of Teacher Ai’s confidants says plenty.

The bald-pated, hawk-nosed Sigg also happens to be a heck of an attention-grabbing screen presence. The seventy-one-year-old is still razor-sharp and can remember with crystal clarity meetings with Deng Xiaoping and just about every other subsequently important government official.

If only more ambassadors were as engaged and far-sighted as Sigg (although the late, great Hon. Smith Hempstone’s tenure in Kenya remains the gold standard). Sigg amassed a remarkable collection, lived an accomplished life, and now finds himself the subject of a pretty strong documentary. Schindhelm keeps it moving along at a good clip and uncovers some fascinating and telling details. Recommended for China watchers and fine arts patrons, The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg screens tonight (10/10) in New York at the Asia Society and next Wednesday (10/18) at the Sloan Lake Denver Drafthouse, as part of their film/STILL series, presented in conjunction with the Clyfford Still Museum.