In 2019, after a three-year delay, M+, Hong Kong’s museum dedicated to Chinese visual culture, will open to the public. It will contain a staggering collection of art with works by Ai Weiwei, Cao Fei, Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Wei, Wang Guangle, Wang Guangyi, Song Dong, Hai Bo, and more. The former Executive Director, Lars Nittve, sees M+ as the equivalent of New York’s MoMA or the Centre Pompidou in Paris, in terms of depth and cultural importance.
M+ wouldn’t have been possible without Swiss businessman and art collector Uli Sigg, who in 2012 donated and sold 1,510 Chinese contemporary works of art (a portion of his collection) to the museum. Michael Schindhelm’s 2016 documentary portrait, The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg (available July 17 on Icarus Films), recaps Sigg’s life and how he accumulated his collection — from Social Realism to Cynical Realism and political Pop artworks — to preserve contemporary Chinese art for three decades. In interviews and reiterated in the film, Sigg prefers to view himself as “a researcher of China and of Chinese contemporary art who just happened to buy some of the results of his research.”
Segmented into parts, Chinese Lives follows Sigg’s life in chronological order, starting in 1979, the year that he first went to China as a representative of the Swiss elevator manufacturer, the Schindler Group, which ultimately lead to the first joint venture between a Western company and China. Sigg leaves the documentary temporarily as Schindhelm concentrates on several artists — Ai Weiwei and Wang Guangyi, among others — living during the time of Communist China. During this section, Schindhelm runs through Chairman Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the growth of a reformed economy. Until this point, the film moves at a steady clip, perhaps moving too fast and giving the impression that the periods covered in the 1970s and ’80s are mere backstory. In the ’90s, the doc slows down to a steady rhythm, and it is here where Sigg’s presence in the film returns, as it is the decade when he feverishly began to acquire art.
In 1995 Sigg became the Swiss Ambassador to China, which lasted until 1999. He was buying art with an objective eye, one towards preserving culture, and he often possessed pieces that went against his personal taste. Moving into the 21st century, Chinese art reached international attention in no small part to Sigg’s efforts. He created the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA), an award that functioned to get artists noticed by important Western curators and gallery owners. At the same time, pieces by Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, and others were fetching for millions of dollars. And yet Chinese Lives glosses over the link between commerce and art that leads to these astronomical prices, and merely notes that these artists were becoming further influenced by Western culture. Voiced by Cao Fei, one of many talking heads in the film, the downside is that this globalization threatens to erase the specificity of Chinese culture.
Following Sigg’s announcement that he will donate a sizable portion of his collection to the soon-to-be-opened M+ museum, Chinese Lives ends on a hopeful note for the still-growing art scene in China. And yet, one leaves the film with a simplified depiction of Sigg. Chinese Lives is a standard, conventional documentary filled with interviews with Sigg himself, his wife, Schindler Group colleagues, Wang Guangyi, Cao Chong’en, among others — all who speak of Sigg glowingly. That is, save for Ai Weiwei, who doesn’t critique him per se, but one of his decisions. To refrain the film from expressing only one point of view, the director includes Ai’s dissenting opinion on Sigg’s donation. Staunchly anti-authoritarian, he believes that he shouldn’t have given back the art to China because they don’t care about it. (Sigg decided to donate to M+ and Hong Kong, because he thought the mainland would censor such pieces by Ai and others.) And that’s it for critical takes on Sigg; there’s no mention of the criticism coming from the mainland surrounding the donation itself (why didn’t he donate all of his art? Why were some pieces donated while others sold to the museum? What gems is he hiding?).
Moreover, a bit deceiving, Chinese Lives doesn’t acknowledge that the majority of the artworks seen in the film are not actually a part of Sigg’s collection but often pieces located in the studios of artists whom Schindhelm interviewed (something Sigg himself mentions during a post-screening discussion at New York’s Asia Society). A powerful tastemaker and gatekeeper, Sigg is portrayed as a great man. He appears to be a one-man movement who brought contemporary Chinese art to the West, as well as China.
Can one person single handedly alter the perception of Chinese art? By smoothing over any rough edges, Chinese Lives seems to think so. Be that as it may, the documentary is a good, albeit slanted, starting point to familiarize oneself with contemporary Chinese art and the man who helped expose it to the world.