Modern China comes to life through art

One of the works in the exhibition features Mao hailing a taxi

One of the most important collections of contemporary Chinese art, owned by a former Swiss ambassador to China, has gone on show at Bern’s Fine Arts Museum.

This content was published on June 16, 2005 - 13:41

The exhibition in the Swiss capital highlights Uli Sigg’s long love affair with the genre and documents the artistic and social changes that China has undergone over the past 25 years.

There are 350 works from Sigg’s extensive collection on display at the exhibition, which offers an overview of the Chinese avant-garde art scene from 1979-2004.

Sigg, now deputy chairman of the Ringier media group, has had close links with China since the late 1970s. From 1995-98 he served as Swiss ambassador to the country and still travels to China several times a year.

Sigg and his wife, Rita, were among the first people to start collecting modern Chinese art in the 1990s.

"When I first came to China in 1979 I was not really moved by Chinese art," Sigg told swissinfo.

"Perhaps this was because I was looking at it through the eyes of a westerner, or perhaps because it was only in the 1980s that Chinese art became interesting in the eyes of a westerner," he said.


The result is a collection of around 1,200 works by 180 artists, which has earned Sigg a certain notoriety in China.

"This Swiss has become a very strange phenomenon in China," said Ai Weiwei, an influential modern Chinese artist and co-curator of the exhibition.

"He has been to every corner of the country, in regions where I would never go, to put together the most complete and detailed collection of Chinese art in the world," he told swissinfo.

The exhibition, entitled "Mahjong – Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection", is the museum’s largest ever undertaking, which means that most of its usual exhibits have been cleared away for the four-month-long event.

A further 25 large works are on display at cement giant Holcim at Holderbank in canton Aargau from June 21 to August 28.

The display in Bern – which curators describe as a coup, coming at the same time as the Paul Klee museum opens in the city – features all forms of contemporary art, including paintings, sculptures, video and installations.

According to Weiwei, who has also worked with Swiss star architects Herzog and de Meuron on their Olympic stadium project in Beijing, Sigg has assembled works of art "with a care and precision which is surely part of the Swiss character".


But he says that the collection is not just about art, as it also represents the social and economic development which has taken place in China over the past few decades.

Matthias Frehner, the director of the Kunstmuseum, agrees: "Like industry and the economy, art has also undergone a transformation in the past 15 to 20 years, a process which took at least a century in the West."

Under the communist regime of Chairman Mao, art had largely been used for propaganda or educational purposes. After the dictator died, artists began to experiment, and a diverse and dynamic art scene emerged.

"The incredible power of innovation and experimentation by Chinese artists appears in all its intensity when you compare their works with those of western artists," said Frehner.

"While our creativity has been for many years showing signs of wear and tear, Chinese art has been addressing existential questions, expressing a new political consciousness or showing the social reality," he added.


Many of the works clearly reflect the tension between socialist ideas still in circulation in China and the consumerism unleashed by capitalist reforms.

In one image, Mao, with his arm raised in a salute, is shown hailing a taxi. In another, the dollar and the Chanel and Coca-Cola logos have been integrated into traditional Chinese pictures.

But Sigg says that the taboo-breaking nature of the collection means that it is far more likely to be accepted on the international art scene than in its country of origin.

"Probably a quarter of the works in my collection couldn’t be shown in China," explained Sigg. "But in many cases, the leaders in China would not even understand the political, social and artistic significance of these works."


Key facts

"Mahjong – Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection" runs from June 13 to October 16, 2005, at Bern’s Fine Arts Museum.
It brings together 350 works from Uli Sigg’s 1,200-strong collection of modern Chinese art.
Around 25 larger works are on display at cement giant Holcim in Holderbank in canton Aargau from June 21 until August 28.

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In brief

Sigg first went to China in 1979 when he was working for the lift company Schindler. He was Swiss ambassador to China from 1995-1998.

He is still involved in a number of projects in the country, particularly as an art patron. He has also founded China’s first contemporary-art prize.

Sigg followed the development of the avant-garde art scene in China in the late 1970s and started systematically collecting works of art in the 1990s.

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