“Everything is politics,” declares a character in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain. Nowhere is that more clear than in M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art, Hong Kong’s first glimpse of the upcoming M+ museum’s permanent collection of Chinese contemporary art. The collection and the exhibition have been both tinged by controversy, but the show itself is a fascinating window into the cultural, social and — yes, political — life of China from 1976 onwards.
“It’s very important that you give the full story,” says Pi Li, a senior curator at M+ who oversees the Sigg Collection. “Hong Kong is now one of the most important art marketplaces, but that has somehow reduced the context of the work. It’s important to show not only the well-known works, but also the historically important works.”
The collection’s story starts with the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, which gave way to a period of reform and liberalisation after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. In 1980, a Swiss businessman named Uli Sigg made his first visit to the country, where he helped negotiate one of the first international trade agreements with the government of Deng Xiaoping. “The state officials were stiff, a bore,” recalls Sigg’s wife, Rita. “But we felt right at home with the artists.”
Sigg began building what would eventually become the world’s largest private collection of Chinese contemporary art. “I was trying to mirror art production,” he says. Whatever artists produced, he collected. When he moved to Beijing in 1995 as Switzerland’s ambassador to China, Sigg became a fixture in the contemporary art scene. “A lot of people could have done what I did,” he says. “But they didn’t. This is the most striking thing.”
A few years ago, Sigg began looking for an institution that could give his collection a permanent home. He wanted it to live on Chinese soil, but he couldn’t risk donating it to a museum in mainland China, where the heavy hand of state censorship would prevent many of the works from being shown. So he decided on M+, which has ambitions to reach the stature of the Tate Modern or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sigg donated and sold a total of 1,510 works to M+, instantly securing the museum’s status as a landmark institution.
M+ Sigg Collection is the public’s first introduction to the breadth and diversity of the collection. The show’s 80 works are divided into three chapters, beginning with the underground artistic movements born in the dying days of the Cultural Revolution before progressing through the political experimentation of the 1980s, the rise of the consumerist era in the 1990s and the globalisation, economic might and social upheavals of the 2000s and 2010s.
The works are as much a window into the evolution of modern China as they are a reflection of the concerns of its artists. In the 1980s, as the strict social and political controls of totalitarianism receded, a new generation of artists began exploring the possibilities of this more open era.
“We were not a movement, just a gathering of people,” says one of the exhibition’s artists, Zhang Peili, who is from Hangzhou. In the mid-1980s, he and a group of fellow artists formed the Pond Society, which was interested in capturing “glimpses of personal daily life – it had nothing to do with politics or big themes.” But even with this decidedly low-key approach, Zhang and his collaborators couldn’t help but reflect the society around them. When they made paper figures of a person doing tai chi and pasted them on walls around Hangzhou, they disappeared within a day. “People took down the pieces of paper they could reach and resold them,” says Zhang.
Many of Zhang’s later works took an oblique approach to thorny social and political issues. In 1988, after he contracted Hepatitis A as part of a local epidemic, Zhang took 20 gloves corroded by chemicals and assembled them together in a piece called The Condition Report of Hepatitis A. In 1991, he produced a video called Water (Standard), in which the same news anchor who announced the military crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square read aloud the definition of 水 (water) from the Chinese dictionary – a dryly satirical take on propaganda and censorship, implying that the nightly news was as meaningless as reading passages from the dictionary.
The spectre of Tiananmen Square can be felt in several parts of the exhibition, including the work of Liu Heung Shing, a Hong Kong photographer who documented the aftermath of the massacre on June 4, 1989. One of Liu’s most famous photos depicts two wounded men, their shirts stained with blood, being rushed to hospital on the back of a tricycle cart. That image inspired Wang Xingwei’s 2001 oil painting New Beijing, in which the two injured men are replaced by penguins – an absurdist intervention that raises questions about historical memory in modern-day China.
“It’s actually quite haunting, this painting, because if you look around the corner at [Liu’s] photos of Tiananmen, the composition is almost exactly the same,” said former M+ director Lars Nittve at the opening of the Sigg exhibition. He noted that, because discussion of June 4th is banned in China, New Beijing can be shown on the mainland without much controversy. “This painting is not politically challenging if you show it in China because almost no one has seen the original photograph.”
It strikes a chord in Hong Kong, though, where anxiety over repression by Beijing has reached a crescendo. Before opening in Hong Kong, the Sigg exhibition was shown in Sweden and England, where it was known as Right is Wrong and advertised with Wang’s penguin painting. When the show came to Hong Kong, however, some members of the M+ museum committee insisted the title be changed and New Beijing be replaced by a more innocuous painting.
Critics immediately cried foul. “I think the officials here are still trying to half-guess how Beijing would feel when an exhibition is mounted, so they tend to be very, very cautious,” one of the museum’s committee members, local cultural advocate Ada Wong, told the New York Times. In the same article, Pi Li said, “The problem in Hong Kong is not censorship. The problem in Hong Kong is self-censorship. It’s self-censorship hidden in the procedures, so it’s difficult to distinguish.”
That has left many people worried about the future of M+. The museum’s construction has already been delayed — it is now expected to open in 2019 — and founding director Lars Nittve left his position in January, though is still working as a consultant. Although Nittve was responsible for overseeing the opening of the Tate Modern, he says M+ has been much more difficult to set up because of government intervention. “Almost every day and night is spent arguing,” he told the Times. “Politics are real here. It has real consequences, and you have to take it very seriously.”
But Uli Sigg says he is confident about the museum’s future. “They have ambition with the best people,” he says. “Whatever happens, it will still be more than what the mainland [is allowed to do].”
There is still plenty of work to be done with the collection, which is a treasure trove for researchers. Pi says there are many lines of enquiry that haven’t been fully explored, like the role of overseas Chinese artists, who maintained cultural and personal links to China while being insulated from its political upheavals. “Sometimes the diaspora is the place to preserve certain traditions,” says Pi.
He just hopes that controversy won’t overshadow the museum’s efforts. “We don’t want art to be a tool of propaganda for certain ideologies,” he says. “The main thing we are showing here is how complicated is the Chinese reality and how individual artists react to these situations. I’m just worried that people will simplify it and interpret the show too politically.” Because while everything may be politics, politics is not everything.
Where: M+ Sigg collection exhibition – ArtisTree, 1/F Cornwall House, Taikoo Place, 979 King’s Road, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong. For more details visit www.westkowloon.hk
When: 23 February to 5 April, 2016