An exhibition of the M+ Uli Sigg Collection arrives in Manchester for the last leg of its European tour – revealing the visionary nature of the collector.

Influential Chinese contemporary art collector Uli Sigg donated his collection to Hong Kong’s M+ museum in 2012. The Collection has been dispersed and on a European tour ever since – and arrives at the award-winning Whitworth in Manchester this summer.

"The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now" at Whitworth, Manchester. Central Gallery. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

“The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now” at The Whitworth, Manchester. Central Gallery. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy The Whitworth.

It has been a summer of landmark exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art around the globe. Earlier this month, the Whitworth at the University of Manchester launched the first exhibition in the United Kingdom of the M+ Sigg Collection, entitled “The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now”. It launched on 1 July 2015 and runs until 20 September 2015. The museum is displaying 80 works created during 40 years of artistic production in China by some of the most significant names in Chinese contemporary art.

The show also marks the last leg of the Collection’s tour in Europe. In 2014, Sweden’s Bildmuseet at Umeå University held “Right is Wrong / Four Decades of Chinese Art from the M+ Sigg Collection”, a different selection of almost 80 works in various media also spanning four decades of art in China, including painting, photography, sculpture, video, installation and performance by key figures in Chinese contemporary art.

"The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now" at Whitworth, Manchester. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

“The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now” at Whitworth, Manchester. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

Shaping the M+ Sigg Collection

Swiss collector and media executive Uli Sigg (b. 1946) first travelled to China to set up a joint venture for the Swiss elevator company Schindler Group in the 1980s, and was Swiss Ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia from 1995 until 1998. Sigg was a pioneer: he started collecting Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s, as he reveals in a recent interview with Handelsblatt:

I purchased the first picture in my contemporary art collection in 1995 in China. By the way, it was by a woman painter, who has since completely vanished from China’s contemporary art scene. […] [It was] an important learning experience, because I quickly noticed that no one was seriously collecting this art. I was shocked, to put it mildly, at the thought that in 20 or 30 years, they would look back at this time without knowing what the artists created in this period of change so important for China. I decided to compile a documentation of contemporary Chinese art on my own.

"The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now" at Whitworth, Manchester. Foreground: Zhan Wang, 'Artificial Rock No. 31', 2001. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

“The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now” at Whitworth, Manchester. Foreground: Zhan Wang, ‘Artificial Rock No. 31’, 2001. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

His visits to China have been frequent ever since, and his involvement with the country’s art scene and promotion of Chinese contemporary art internationally still represent a necessary and pivotal element for its growth and recognition. In 1998, Sigg also established the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA), and he was a key figure in facilitating the historic inclusion of 20 Chinese artists at the 1999 Venice Biennale by Swiss curator Harald Szeemann. In 2005, the Sigg Collection travelled for the first time around the world in an exhibition entitled “Mahjong”, in institutions such as Bern’s Kunstmuseum, Berkeley Art Museum and Boston’s Peabody Essex Museum.

"The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now" at Whitworth, Manchester. Foreground: Zhang Huan, 'To Add one Meter to an Anonymous Mountain', 1995. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

“The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now” at Whitworth, Manchester. Foreground: Zhang Huan, ‘To Add one Meter to an Anonymous Mountain’, 1995. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

Sigg’s collection of Chinese contemporary art is the most extensive, spanning four decades of artistic production in China, including more than 1500 artworks from the 1970s and 1980s avant-garde and the so-called movements of Political Pop and Cynical Realism extending into the 1990s, as well as encompassing the new generation of artists of the 2000s.

In 2012, Sigg donated his collection to the M+ museum in Hong Kong. As the South China Morning Post reported, the museum recently announced its opening is moving to 2019, a two-year delay from its originally scheduled launch in 2017. The 2012 donation deal included 1,463 works of contemporary Chinese art by 325 artists – conservatively valued at USD163 million – with an additional 47 works to be purchased by the M+ at USD22.7 million, as a demonstration of M+’s commitment to the Collection. The fact that the collection went to an institution is only natural, as Sigg himself revealed at the time of the donation about his approach to collecting:

I changed my approach and decided to collect like an institution, documenting the art production of China from ‘day one’ to today, along a timeline, across all media, rather than according to my personal taste. I set out to create a ‘document’ about Chinese contemporary art that was missing in China, and was also missing outside.

"The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now" at Whitworth, Manchester. Background: Zhang Huan, 'Family Tree', 2000. Foreground: Huang Yong Ping, 'Six Small Turntables', 1988. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

“The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now” at Whitworth, Manchester. Background: Zhang Huan, ‘Family Tree’, 2000. Foreground: Huang Yong Ping, ‘Six Small Turntables’, 1988. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

The M+ Sigg Collection at the Whitworth

The M+ Sigg Collection is “an extraordinarily important milestone in the history of M+” and the building of its permanent collection, as the Museum Director Lars Nittve wrote in the South China Morning Post in 2013:

Sigg had, over a couple of decades, assembled a collection that better than any other reflected the development of contemporary Chinese art from the late 1970s up until today. With an eye towards documenting what he presciently saw as being one of the great cultural stories of his time, Sigg built his collection as a museum might, focusing more on the historical moment than his personal taste. Consequently, his became the most well-documented and widely presented, examined and exhibited collection of Chinese contemporary art anywhere, with works drawn from it shown around the world.

"The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now" at Whitworth, Manchester. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

“The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now” at Whitworth, Manchester. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

The exhibition at the recently renovated and re-opened Whitworth in Manchester – nominated as the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year 2015 – marks the last time the collection is shown in Europe, before starting a tour of Asian museums ahead of M+’s opening in 2019. As The Art Newspaper reports, only five percent of the actual Collection is exhibited in Manchester, concluding that:

A show of 80 works by 30 artists stretching across 40 years is bound to be uneven. But as a concise guide to Sigg’s collecting strategy, the breadth of work that will eventually occupy the cavernous spaces of M+, and the key moments in what remains a relatively young contemporary art scene, the Whitworth’s exhibition is a useful taster.

The exhibition features 80 works by leading contemporary artists from China, created from the 1970s to the present day, including Ai Weiwei, Zhang Peili, Yang Fudong, Zhang Xiaogang, Cao Fei and Kan Xuan.

"The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now" at Whitworth, Manchester. Foreground: Ai Weiwei, 'Still Life', 1995-2000. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

“The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now” at Whitworth, Manchester. Foreground: Ai Weiwei, ‘Still Life’, 1995-2000. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

Taking centre stage in the gallery is Ai Weiwei’s Still Life (1995-2000), as the press release explains it is a “mass-display of thousands of Stone Age axe heads [that] is an iconoclastic gesture made to offset the value and importance of the ancient object”. Another highlight is by one of the most influential and provocative contemporary artists, Zhang Huan. His photographic work Family Tree (2000) documents his performance where artists wrote lyrics on his face about his family history.

Other significant works engage with the transformations faced by China in its relentless growth, such as Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (Part III) (2005), which employs traditional aesthetics and settings in contrast with the modern storyline addressing issues linked to China’s rapid urbanisation. Wen Feng’s photographic series On the Wall (2002) “captures China in the throes of rapid urbanisation in the early 2000s”, according to the press release, presenting “the personal transition that mirrors China’s own economic, political and social change”.

"The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now" at Whitworth, Manchester. Background: Wang Xingwei, 'New Beijing', 2001. Foreground: Zhan Wang, 'Artificial Rock No. 31', 2001. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photography: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

“The M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art from the 1970s to Now” at Whitworth, Manchester. Background: Wang Xingwei, ‘New Beijing’, 2001. Foreground: Zhan Wang, ‘Artificial Rock No. 31’, 2001. Exhibition organised by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, Hong Kong in collaboration with Whitworth Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Pollard 2015. Image courtesy the Whitworth.

Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia (2006) is one of the most representative artworks created by the new generation of Chinese artists. The three-part film (video link) is set in an Osram lightbulb factory in China’s Pearl River Delta region – where a large number of people migrate to in search of work opportunities – and documents the lives of the factory workers.

The selection of key exhibits inevitably reveals the presence of a political theme, as Karen Wright writes in The Independent, but she adds:

This personal history of a huge country, carefully selected both by Sigg and Whitworth’s curators, enlightens us painlessly to the turmoil of this amazing country.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, contemporary art in China, collectors, museum exhibitions, events in Manchester

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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