M+ donor Uli Sigg defends contemporary art: ‘It may even put a finger in the wound’

Published (HKT): 2021.04.23 13:27

A Swiss art collector and former envoy to China has rebutted claims from Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong that artistic value is absent from his collections, saying contemporary art requires one “to be open to the realities of this world.”

The collector, Uli Sigg, came under reproach from pro-Beijing politicians and media outlets after he donated the majority of his contemporary art collection to M+, a museum at the West Kowloon Cultural District that would open later this year. Sigg’s donations included photography from Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

He did not directly address the criticism in a statement issued on Thursday, but explained the role of art.

Sigg started by saying parts of Hong Kong society had a different understanding of what contemporary art was about, and their views were shaped by tradition. They believed that “art is here for us to enjoy ourselves, to take us to the sublime, and to take us to another world so as to escape from mundane tasks; it should show us the ideal, show us beauty and bring us a state of harmony.”

“In that traditional mode of thinking, art is your good friend — but contemporary art is not: Contemporary art may be critical of reality, may even put a finger in the wound,” he said.

Contemporary art was about being open to the realities of the world and having an interest in its analysis and critique, he continued.

“You have to have an interest and a curiosity in art, for showing you new spaces and new thoughts possibly outside your comfort zone. You have to be much more open than in the tradition. If you don’t work on this openness, you will not appreciate contemporary art.”

Sigg explained that it would take time to be exposed to contemporary art so as to understand and appreciate it, but if the discussion was cut off, the public might not really get into it.

“It is much about the attitude toward what art should do. Should it just be a beautiful space over there, where I can go, be entertained, and then come back? Or should it contribute to our real lives, starting our thought engine? It is about two very different paradigms.”

Sigg emphasized that his collection was not shaped according to his personal taste, but was based on what an institution ought to have, “attempting to mirror in an all-comprehensive manner the art production of the contemporary and experimental artists living in [China], along the timeline and across all media.”

“I was interested in their concerns at specific moments in time and in works created in this unpredictable milieu and in the atmosphere of a nation in total transformation,” he said in the statement.

He added that not everything in the collection might be for exhibition to a broad public, but reserved for research of art historians.

A Swiss ambassador to China in the 1990s, Sigg in June 2012 donated 1,463 items to form the permanent M+Sigg Collection of Chinese contemporary art, then conservatively valued at HK$1.3 billion. The collection, which later grew to 1,510 works, features four photos by Ai, including a well-known picture of him pointing a middle finger at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

At the time of the initial donation in 2012, the museum described Sigg’s collection as having been “systematically built as a coherent museum-quality collection since the early 1990s, representing the historical development of contemporary art in China as a whole.”

The current furore has erupted amid local tensions over Hong Kong’s national security law, enacted last summer. Pro-Beijing forces last month questioned whether the display of Ai’s artworks would violate the law by spreading hatred of China.

Click here for Chinese version


Apple Daily’s all-new English Edition is now available on the mobile app: bit.ly/2yMMfQE

To download the latest version,

iOS: bit.ly/AD_iOS

Android: bit.ly/AD_android

Or search Appledaily in App Store or Google Play