Last Friday, the 8th of December, the Swiss-Chinese Chamber of Architects and Artists (SCAA) held their 8th and last event for this year in the Kulturhaus Helferei. The guest speaker was Uli Sigg, famous collector of contemporary Chinese art and founder of the China Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA). The moderator was Mulan Sun, founder of SML Architektur ETH SIA and president of SCAA.
“To demolish the rules but to keep the tradition”, with this quote by the designer Alexander McQueen Mulan Sun, the moderator of last Friday’s discussion with Uli Sigg about contemporary Chinese art, summarized the dilemma of Chinese artists nowadays. The struggle of inventing something new, having a new idea and contributing to the global art discourse, is not one that only Chinese artists have. What is different for Chinese art in comparison to western art or “Westkunst” as Sigg calls it, is the paradigm that lies beyond: In the “Westkunst” the historical experience is being refused, the tabula rasa principle applied on all tradition. Harmony and beauty has no importance. The Chinese paradigm wants to build on tradition, the idea that something new can only arise when the artist is in the “state of the master” prevails. Beauty and harmony are important.
In the years from 1979 to 1981 the window to cultural freedom was wide open in China and contemporary artists who did not work with the socialist-realist propaganda code were seen in public for the first time. The artists wanted to contribute to building a new China and were enthusiastic about new ideas, subjects and forms of expression. When their works were not shown in the National Art Museum, the artist group “the Stars 星星画会” mounted their art on a fence outside the museum, where hundreds if not thousands of citizens came to discuss the paintings that had never been seen before.
Sigg told his story: as he went to China in 1979 to work he wanted to find another approach to Chinese reality through art. He explained that at first he was disappointed by what he found. Looking at contemporary Chinese art with a western eye, the works seemed to have been made 80 years late, the ideas had been developed in the West before. All the artworks he found were nevertheless very important contributions to the history of Chinese art. Ten years later Sigg had managed to change his point of view. As he pointed out more than once during the evening, one always has a blind spot when looking at unfamiliar cultures, but one must try to identify that blind spot and reduce it. Sigg started collecting art in 1989 and from the beginning had the ambition of collecting relevant artworks from the cultural revolution up to today, since no official institution in China did the job. Now Sigg has returned 1500 of his 2300 accumulated works, by making a donation to the M+ museum in Hong Kong West Kowloon. This marks the fulfillment of his original goal, to build the biggest collection of contemporary Chinese art, to make it accessible to the public and to contribute to the discourse about Chinese art.
One of the questions that were asked at the Q&A after the discussion was if there are two parallel art worlds in China: the contemporary underground scene and the contemporary academic scene. This, of course, sparks the discussion of which art is relevant to art history. A canon is being written by Chinese art critics, but Sigg suggested that research on the subject could only be started after the opening of the M+ Museum. Will there be two histories of contemporary Chinese art? Will a way be found to merge the different approaches and to produce one universal canon? Many galleries have up to date published great catalogues on the various artists that are also present in Sigg’s collection, but would that not be the market that writes art history? Will there ever be a national history of contemporary Chinese art, written by Chinese art critics but not exclusive of the many works that have had a tough position over decades?
The next event of SCAA will take place in January in cooperation with Galerie Urs Meile.
(caption of the title image: Weng Fen 翁奮 ‘Sitting on the Wall’ (detail), 2002-2003) © Weng Fen