Uli Sigg started out studying law and worked as an economics journalist in Switzerland, before moving to China aged 31 to work for the Swiss elevator company, Schindler Group. From 1995 to 1998, he was the Swiss ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia. The executive and diplomat has built up the world's largest private collection of contemporary Chinese art. He spoke with Handelsblatt's Jürgen Kremb and Susanne Schreiber about some of his discoveries and decisions.
Handelsblatt: Experts are saying the Chinese president and head of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, wants to tighten reforms, but two exhibits by Ai Weiwei have just opened. Is this a reversal in Chinese cultural policies?
Uli Sigg: No. Only in Ai Weiwei’s case. He was an absolute red flag for the authorities. Last spring, when he wanted to take part in an exhibition of the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA) I created, public officials pulled his works out of the exhibition and erased his name from the list of former jury members. That wouldn’t happen again now. That is, at least, a positive signal.
The authorities won’t rein in art and culture as tightly as is feared in the West?
It is a kind of smart appeasement. Both sides are getting out of the corner they had painted themselves into without losing face.
You have been close friends with Ai Weiwei for a long time now. Did he open the door into China's art world for you or was it you who made him into China’s Andy Warhol?
I’ve known Weiwei since 1995. He’d just returned from the U.S., where he actually had failed as an artist. I introduced him to the Swiss curator, Harry Szeemann, who took him to the Biennale in Venice in 1999. Ai Weiwei says today, in his own humorous way, “I am a Swiss product.”
Does Ai Weiwei’s success, in essence, rest on his always being seen in the West as a political artist?
No, that would be doing him injustice. His work such as the Coca Cola urn is his early criticism of the detrimental effect of Western consumer society on China. He describes the clash between tradition and modernity, between Chinese society and the all-powerful Western industrial culture, but at that time he was not criticizing the system.
In 1919, students were demanding Confucianism be destroyed. Cultural criticism in China has the habit of ending in bloodshed, from the counterrevolution of 1966, to 1976, and Tiananmen Square in 1989. Doesn’t the destruction of historical objects inevitably have to be perceived by the Chinese leadership as dangerous activism?
Not at all. Ai Weiwei cooperated directly with the authorities at first, for example, in the design of the stadiums for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He wanted to help design a structure the Chinese would accept with pride as an expression of their culture. But when the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan happened and many children lost their lives in collapsed schools due to substandard construction materials as result of corruption, his break was final.
You were the one to make scorned avant-garde art big while, at the same time, you advised the government. How can you be successful in China as a European without having to make compromises?
It’s true I stand more or less with one foot in the political art-activist camp and the other in the government camp, for example, as a consultant to the Development Bank of China. In China – and I must emphasize this – there have never been any restrictions imposed on me nor any kind of behavior prescribed.
How do you explain that?
One reason could be that I have also done a lot for the country. In 1980, I was the one who set up China’s first joint venture with the outside world for Schindler elevators. At the time, it took someone who would put his credibility on the line for the country.
So it was never a problem that Swiss Ambassador Uli Sigg took up with the most flamboyant and most critical of Chinese artists?
I never spoke about my activities as a collector until 1999. Undoubtedly, it was known I collected art.
What was your first piece of Chinese art?
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.
So, it was a flop?
No, an important learning experience, because I quickly noticed that no one was seriously collecting this art.
Did that surprise you?
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.
Weren’t leaders of the Beijing avant-garde, like Fang Lijun, already commanding several hundred thousand U.S. dollars for their pictures?
That came much later. For Zeng Fangzhi’s “The Last Supper,” which recorded a price of more than $23 million (€20.7 million) in 2013 at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, I paid at most $7,000 back then.
Were the lines between art, kitsch and artisan mass production still quite blurred back then?
If you know the material, you can see the difference. I continually observe this with curators, who know nothing about Chinese culture and then suddenly do a Chinese exhibition. The result is often a disaster.
In 2012, you announced you were giving 1,463 works to M+, the museum of visual culture in Hong Kong. Are you planning to sell what’s left for a lot of money?
When I decided three years ago to give major parts of the collection to M+, I mostly got two kinds of reactions. The artists said: “Fantastic, now everybody gets to see our art.” The cynics asked if it was just a brilliant move to avoid taxes.
Weren’t you also criticized for the collection not going to Beijing?
Originally, that had been my wish. I would have preferred seeing everything in the Chinese capital and, to that end, also was in negotiations with the cultural ministry. But then, the whole thing got very complicated.
Is that because many works are still too critical in China, however reformed it is?
The official concept of art in the Chinese world is still very much characterized by harmony and beauty.
How great of an influence will you have over what is on display from your collection after M+ opens in 2018?
My contracts with the museum which, by the way, will be larger than the Museum of Modern Art in New York, specify that over a period of three years at least 5,000 square meters must set aside for the exhibit of my collection. In addition, the museum always must have 500 of the works on display, but the context is at the discretion of those in charge of M+.
There is a story going around that one artist is no longer in your good graces because his dog bit you while you were visiting a gallery in Beijing.
That is a story written by a journalist with the Shanghai Daily that never happened, but because it is perpetually on the Internet, I am always being bitten by dogs.
Video: Uli Sigg at the St. Moritz Art Masters 2013.