June 02, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] Uli Sigg: A Mirror to China's Art Scene

business week, june 1, 2006
A Mirror to China's Art Scene
By Frederik Balfour

Swiss businessman Uli Sigg talks about his collection and why he's not

With more than 1,400 works from 200 different Chinese contemporary
artists, Swiss businessman Uli Sigg has amassed the world's most
comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art. Sigg lived in
China in the 1980s while working for Schindler Lifts, a manufacturer of
escalators and elevators. Yet it wasn't until he returned to China as
Swiss ambassador in 1995 that he began collecting.

He spoke to BusinessWeek Correspondent Frederik Balfour on the sidelines
of the Christie's Art Auction in Hong Kong about the genesis of his
collection, motivations of contemporary artists, and the recent
skyrocketing prices of Chinese art (see BW Online, 5/25/06, "China:
Cultural Evolution").What follows are edited excerpts.

Why did you start collecting Chinese art?
In the first place, I looked at Chinese art according to my personal
tastes, but I didn't find much in the early 1980s. But in the 1990s I
realized nobody was systematically collecting Chinese contemporary art,
either in China or outside -- not institutions, not individuals. So I
decided to create a documentation to mirror Chinese art production.

What role do your personal tastes play here?
My personal tastes are not so important, rather, I try to have a
reasonable collection mirroring what Chinese artists are concerned with.
Some say something about China or China's art creation, but aren't
necessarily my favorites, still they belong. I have more of a museum
approach than a private-collector approach.

But you do make the works available to the public?
Yes, I feel it's an obligation as a collector. The Mahjong exhibition
[the first time his works were shown publicly] last year in Bern showed
about 320 works in two venues, and Mahjong will be shown in Hamburg in

Do you plan eventually to establish a permanent collection in a museum?
For now, mine is a self-imposed mission, and at this point I'm
responsible to myself, though it's my intention to show it to the
public, ideally to the Chinese public. But conditions there aren't
mature enough yet, and a certain number of my works could not be shown.

My main reason to collect was I thought here is the biggest cultural
space in the world, yet there is a gap of about 20 years. Normally a
museum or institution would document this period, but official China has
ignored contemporary art, but for a few exceptions with a small section
of academic paintings associated with the official artist associations.
But it does not cover media, photography, installations, or performance art.

Do you think commercial success has made Chinese contemporary painters
For some artists the temptation to copy themselves is just too big
because the rewards are so spectacular. But others continue their
research and continuously develop. But these temptations to artists are
comparable to Western art situations. They are not unique to China but
they are new to China.

Which artists are caught in the same mold, and which ones are breaking
new ground?
I do not mention names. I collect 200 artists, if I mention one or two I
tend to get into problems. They are my friends. I don't want to get into
that kind of discussion. There are many artists which fall into one
pattern, and many who fall into the other.

Why did you establish the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards [CCAA]?
My reasons were twofold: to encourage Chinese contemporary artists and
to expose Chinese art works to important international curators like
Harald Szeeman, Alanna Heiss, Hou Hanru (who have sat as jurors for the
competition established in 1998 and held every two years) and Roger Buergel.

What do you think of the prices here at the Christie's auction?
They are out of control for some works. Of course there is an explosion,
but I don't think it's that different from the global mainstream art in
terms of pricing. Comparatively speaking only a few Chinese are buying,
they buy the very famous artists, creating a demand beyond what the
artist can produce.

If you could only keep one work what would it be?
A big installation of 132 Neolithic vases by Ai Weiwei. A fourth of them
are covered with industrial white paint, even though they are 5,000
years old.

What advice do you have for collectors of Chinese art?
Look at a lot of works, good and bad, look at catalogues and books. And
look at international art so as to have more of a judgment which allows
you to position Chinese art in a broad context. This is what people
don't do, so they might overestimate an artist's accomplishment which
they wouldn't do if they were familiar with world art.

How do you keep up with new art?
I visit China six to eight times a year, though not exclusively to buy
art. I am the vice-chairman of a media group [Ringier of Switzerland],
on the advisory board of China Development Bank, and am involved in
other projects, such as bringing a group of Swiss architects to China to
design the Olympic national stadium. I visit many cities. Wherever I go
I try to see new artists and visit old ones. Also the CCAA allows me to
see new works.

Do you buy at auctions?
From time to time, but I'm not a regular buyer, except in some special

Such as?
The most recent purchase I made was of a Cultural Revolution period
painting at an auction in China depicting Mao visiting Guangdong
province in 1972.

Have you ever sold anything?
No, I keep the collection intact. I'm not a seller, though I've been
approached by auction houses.

How much is your 1,400 piece collection worth?
I don't know how much its worth, since I'm not a seller.

But surely you must have some idea for insurance purposes.
Yes, I would have to adapt my insurance values sometimes [to reflect]
latest auction prices that are relevant. But honestly I don't know and
can't figure it out.

Balfour is Asia Correspondent for BusinessWeek based in Hong Kong




with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)



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