Art style

How China’s Top Art Collector Escapes Censorship in Hong Kong’s New Museum

The first test was successful, thinks Uli Sigg. So far, everything has gone well. His new exhibition has just opened, visitors like to come and — this is most important for the Swiss businessman — everything is on display. He did not have to remove an exhibition from the list of works.

The M+ in Hong Kong is a new museum that wants to compete with the established ones. He wants to surpass the MoMa in New York and the Center Pompidou in Paris. Sigg, a rather down-to-earth man, says, “There’s no better museum in the whole world.” This is great self-praise, since Sigg’s own collection is at the heart of the museum.

The only problem: great art is often political; he interrogates the rulers. Since the Chinese Communist Party suppresses criticism and freedom in Hong Kong, the metropolis is a bad place for politics and art. So how did the collection get here?

The 75-year-old businessman and art collector has led several lives. Sigg first worked as a business journalist, then took a lucrative job with elevator manufacturer Schindler. In this capacity, he created the first joint venture between a Western industrial group and a Chinese public company. Later, in the 1990s, he was appointed Swiss Ambassador to China. During his tenure as a diplomat, he was mainly active as a collector of contemporary Chinese art.

“There were years when I was the market,” he says. I chat with Sigg via video call. He is at home, at Mauensee Castle, located on a small road halfway between Zurich and Bern. Sigg looks nervous. Instead of enjoying his retirement, he is busy. He has just returned from Hong Kong. But the same day, he will travel to Bern for a conference.

He says he has always taken an “encyclopaedic” approach to art collecting. What he means is that he didn’t collect what he liked, but what happened to him. In other words, everything. In doing so, according to some art experts, Sigg amassed a collection that a Chinese national museum should have built up.

Pushing the boundaries in the face of state oppression

But Sigg says China treats modern art badly. “Contemporary art is critical of traditional Chinese art, it puts its finger on the wound.” In 2012, Sigg decided to donate most of his collection, some 1,500 works. He chose Hong Kong – which seemed like a smart move at the time.

One thing was clear: no museum in Beijing or Shanghai would ever exhibit this collection. It was too critical. By contrast, the port city of Hong Kong, a former British colony, has only been part of China again since the 1990s. But a part where, at least until 2012, there was more freedom of expression and of art than in the rest of the country. It was a cosmopolitan and cultural city, a melting pot between East and West.

We know what kind of China we will have in the years to come.

What Sigg didn’t know was that the Chinese Communist Party would begin eradicating the Special Administrative Region’s autonomy soon after. He fought the “one country, two systems” principle, which gave Hong Kong special status. Today, critics speak only of “one country, one system”.

Compared to 2012, Hong Kong is unrecognizable. Last year, the People’s Republic passed a “security law” in the port metropolis, cracking down on democracy advocates in parliament and civil society. Since then, freedom of speech, art and the press have been subject to the arbitrary power of the Communist Party.

A grim vision of art in China’s future

A while ago, the online magazine New citizens ceased operations due to increasing repression. This makes the magazine the third medium to close in a matter of months. Sigg says the “security law” has also damaged Hong Kong’s reputation as an art metropolis. Critical artists are afraid of not being able to exhibit. There is a “silence in the city which is not conducive to creativity”. How to manage a museum here?

Sigg says he had to confer with the authorities for about six weeks to get the list of works in his collection accepted. It’s not surprising. Last spring, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said in a public message that her authorities were “on full alert” and would ensure that the exhibit “does not harm national security”.

It’s a small miracle that Sigg got his list of works accepted. And so, there is currently art on display at M+ that cannot be seen in the rest of China. From world-renowned exiled artist and regime critic Ai Weiwei, for example, and Wang Xingwei. It is unthinkable that a painting like Wang’s oil painting “New Beijing” is exhibited in mainland China.

Last resort

That’s because he alludes to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre – and the censorship of his memory. In the painting, a handful of men transport bloodied victims on bicycles. But the victims are not human. Instead, penguins roost on the bikes – seabirds that don’t even exist in China. This is a reference to large-scale propaganda efforts to make them forget the dead.

As gratifying as it is for Sigg to have his list of works accepted, he knows that China’s authoritarian turn in recent years is attributable to President Xi Jinping. And that, in the style of a longtime leader, he is likely to accept a third term soon – a departure from conventions introduced as recently as the 1980s. “So we know what kind of China we will have in the years to come,” Sigg said gruffly.

Still, he would return his collection to Hong Kong again. It’s part of China, he says, and one day it will be on display across the country, “though I may not live to see it.”

What would he do if the Hong Kong authorities started censoring his collection? “Resume talks with the authorities and try to convince them,” says Sigg. “And, as a last resort, take legal action.” There is a slight doubt in his voice at the last sentence.

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