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Swiss collector Uli Sigg with a "Bloodline" painting by Zhang Xiaogang
Swiss collector Uli Sigg with a "Bloodline" painting by Zhang Xiaogang


Oct. 14, 2011

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Swiss media executive Uli Sigg is one of the biggest collectors of contemporary Chinese art in history, but in a conversation today with The Art Newspaper’s Louisa Buck at the Frieze Art Fair in London, it became clear that Switzerland’s former ambassador to China is writing its history as well.

For one thing, he owns more than 2,000 works and has visited 1,500 artists’ studios since he moved to the nation in the late 1970s, but he doesn’t even think of himself as a collector. “I’m more of a researcher who is fortunate enough to keep some of my research,” which includes works by Ai Weiwei, Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing and Zhang Huan. “China is my ultimate study object,” he said, and “my personal taste is the least relevant criterion.” He has even, on occasion, purchased works that he doesn’t like, including examples of Socialist Realism, aiming instead to accumulate those which will ultimately form a “web” of Chinese history.

All of this has given Sigg an outsized influence on the culture of his home away from home (he said he now visits China about eight times a year). Documentarians, after all, shape their own narratives, and he never works with advisors. He is also more involved in the artistic practice than some collectors. He prefers buying via commission than through auctions, and often advises artists along the way. “I produce works with the artists and input my own ideas,” he said. (He also avoids Chinese auctions because they tend to have higher prices -- it’s a system that is corrupted, he implied, in favor of the seller.)

Sigg hasn’t reached his current position without becoming the object of some criticism, however. “In the beginning, my position was very much debated because the Chinese are sensitive about their culture and they thought, ‘how can a stranger intrude on our culture?’” he said. “I started the [Contemporary Chinese Art Critic Award, in 1997] because I said, ‘It shouldn’t be me who decides, you should have interest and motive, but you don’t.’” 

Sigg has been authoring the canon because China lacks the usual critics and institutions that would typically do the job, he said. Instead, what goes down in history as good or bad art is left to the market -- and to him. Still, he said he plans to give it all back to the people. He is currently in negotiations -- the subject of much speculation in the art world -- with the minister of culture and institutions in several cities. And, admirably, he has never sold an artwork. “You might make a mistake,” he said. “But it still has a place within the document.”

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