Every two years, the Sigg Prize at M+ shines a light on six rising stars of the art world who were born or work in mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. The prize aims to promote art from the region on the international stage and also provides a financial boost to the shortlisted artists: a cash prize of HK$500,000 is awarded to the winner and HK$100,000 is given to each of the other artists. The winner will be announced in early 2024.
The Sigg Prize is named for Swiss businessman, diplomat and art collector Uli Sigg, who is one of the largest collectors of contemporary Chinese art in the world – and the donor of more than 1,500 works to M+. Joining Sigg on the Sigg Prize jury are some of the biggest names in the international art world, including Suhanya Raffel, director of M+; Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate museums in the UK.
For this year’s prize, the jury shortlisted the artists Jes Fan, Miao Ying, Wang Tuo, Xie Nanxing, Trevor Yeung and Yu Ji, whose works are now on show at the Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition at M+, which runs until January 14, 2024. We met these six artists, whose interests range from the ancient to the contemporary, the public to the private, and the local to the global – and who collectively reveal the ambition, diversity and complexity of contemporary art in the region today.
Ghosts haunt Wang Tuo’s art. To make his work, Wang dives into Chinese history and literature, identifies key characters whose lives interest him, then makes videos, paintings and more inspired by these shadowy and often long-gone figures. Investigating individuals, Wang believes, can reveal important truths about society that are often overlooked by — or removed from — the grand narratives of history. “In Chinese tradition, when a family member passes away, the rest of the family leaves an empty seat when they gather for a meal,” Wang explains. “This is also how a lot of history and literature exists—unseen. To prove the existence of the unseen, we need to zero in on the objects of emptiness.”
Wang’s art is often rooted in truth, but he is an artist and not a documentarian: he takes individuals’ stories as a starting point, then sometimes embellishes and edits his discoveries to better explore certain ideas. This blurring of fact and fiction is on full display at the Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition, where Wang is showing The Northeast Tetralogy, a series of four videos he made between 2018 and 2021. These works collectively tell the story of a series of violent incidents throughout the 20th and 21st centuries that rocked Dongbei, China’s northeastern corner, where Wang grew up.
The first and final video tell the story of Zhang Koukou, a migrant worker who in 2018 murdered three people to avenge his mother’s death; the second takes viewers much further back in time and follows a patriotic student taking part in the May Fourth Movement in 1919, a series of protests against Western powers’ decision to allow Japan to retain areas of China it had seized during WWI; and the third features the deathbed confessions of an elderly intellectual who lived through a siege during the Chinese Civil War in 1948. Through these individual stories, Wang illuminates painful but sometimes hidden moments of China’s history, while also revealing the duelling forces that underpin most human societies: a desire for peace but the presence of violence, and ambitions for modernisation but a yearning for tradition.
In his next projects, Wang is looking further back in time and further afield geographically in his search for fascinating characters. “One project is about Ming dynasty philosopher Li Zhuowu. Another is about former South Korean president Park Chung-hee,” he says. Wang can’t reveal any more at this stage, but the pair’s controversial stories — it is still debated whether Li was a pioneering philosopher or just a political provocateur, while Park was a repressive, authoritarian dictator who kickstarted South Korea’s economic boom — provide plenty of opportunities for Wang to shine a light on contested moments in history.
Yu Ji’s art takes many forms — sculptures, installations and videos among them — but one thing connects it all. “My work takes the body as its starting point because it is the tool and medium of my creative process,” she says. “My works are handcrafted by myself and engaged my body, the whole process is a constant dialogue and negotiation with the body.” All of Yu’s work can be understood as an investigation into the human body’s relationship with its surroundings – a look into how people both shape and are shaped by their environments.
After graduating from the College of Art at Shanghai University in 2011, Yu embarked on her famous Flesh in Stone series, for which she cast body parts in concrete. As the series developed, she also began casting sections of ancient sculptures of bodies she visited in China and Cambodia. Yu was drawn to these antiques because they have often been visibly shaped by their environment: they might have been rubbed smooth after centuries of exposure to sun, wind and rain, or pieces might have been broken off during particularly violent storms. They therefore make visible Yu’s interest in interactions between people and place. Yu’s career really took off in 2019, when works from this series were included in the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which features artists from around the world.
Some of Yu’s art is less literally inspired by the body. The highlight of her display at Sigg Prize 2023 is an enormous hammock filled with construction debris from around Hong Kong, which Yu asked the M+ team to start collecting when the finalists of the Sigg Prize were announced at the end of March. While making this work, Yu was not concerned with replicating parts of the body. Instead, she wanted to make a sculpture that enabled her to physically engage with the materials that make up the city – and encouraged others to do so too.
This sculpture is representative of an ongoing goal of Yu’s to explore the relationship between the body and place. She is particularly interested in how different locations inspire very different artistic responses in her. “At the beginning of 2022 I embarked on living nomadically, moving with brief stops from one city to the next,” says Yu, who previously divided her time between studios in Shanghai and Vienna. Yu began 2022 with a residency in New York, where most Covid-19 restrictions had been lifted, then travelled to San Francisco, Berlin and Orange County, California.
“I decided to be constantly mobile as an experiment on my own body, testing how I would adapt my creative practice to frequent movement and disruptions,” she says. Now that Sigg Prize 2023 is open, Yu is once again becoming a nomad. “In the coming year, my work and exhibition plan will echo my creative commitment to nomadism, touring through Cambodia, United Kingdom, Italy and the United States.”
Xie Nanxing’s art is hard to pin down, which is exactly what he wants. “I want my work to generate more questions in order to open more possibilities,” he says.
Xie only ever works with paint, which he has been fascinated with for as long as he can remember. “Painting has been an interest since childhood, and I have always wanted to be only someone who paints,” he says, adding that he finds the “complexity and difficulty” of painting to be fascinating. Xie is also interested in adding to the culture of painting in China by using an ancient, traditional medium — painting dates back millennia in the country — to explore contemporary issues and ideas. He further expands the story of painting in China by working primarily in oil and acrylic paint, both of which developed in the Western world, rather than the black ink that dominates in Chinese art.
The medium of paint and a commitment to experimentation are perhaps the only two constants in Xie’s work. He has been exhibiting his paintings since the early 1990s, but he has never adopted a signature style and his subjects vary wildly from series to series. He has experimented with everything from photorealism to pure abstraction, making paintings of male and female nudes, drops of water on a sheet of glass, shop interiors, the flame of a kitchen hob and much more. Last year, in a solo exhibiton at Petzel Gallery in New York, Xie presented a series of paintings that appeared to be pixelated, hinting at the aesthetics of computer culture, although he compared his paintings more to the ancient art of mosaics. By jumping from topic to topic and between past and present, Xie is constantly pushing himself, as well as continuously proving the relevance of painting in contemporary art.
At Sigg Prize 2023, Xie has turned to art history for inspiration: he is exhibiting “The Ballad of Pieter Picking His Teeth” (2022), a triptych partly inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Blind Leading the Blind,” which was created in 1548 and is sometimes interpreted as a criticism of the political and religious suppression in the Spanish Netherlands at the time. Xie’s take on Bruegel’s painting tackles a different socio-political problem: the ongoing destruction of the natural world by humans. His work features a Rorschach test, abstracted images of roast ducks, human excrement and flowers — and much more — to express Xie’s horror at humanity’s neglect of the environment.
While Sigg Prize 2023 is on show in Hong Kong, Xie is already on to his next project: Hello, Portrait! a solo exhibition at Thomas Dane Gallery in London, which runs until December 16. “The exhibition explores the many facets of portraiture, and experiments with its complex visual language,” he says.
Miao Ying’s artwork “Problematic GIFs—No Problem At All” (2016) is a TV screen displaying a montage of popular GIFs in China, including plenty of cats. The work initially appears cutesy, until Miao reveals that GIFs are particularly popular on messaging apps in China because they’re hard to censor – a fact that transforms Miao’s brightly coloured, sickly-sweet artwork into an exploration of censorship, surveillance and digital control.
The internet is the subject of all of Miao’s work but it is also her medium: much of her work only exists online. While other artists make paintings or sculptures, Miao creates websites, GIFs and screenshots. Miao is especially interested in what she calls the “Chinternet” — the Chinese internet — and its unique ecosystem of apps and search engines, as well as the way it excludes the American corporate giants like Google that dominate much of cyberspace.
Miao’s insightful artworks, which often reflect on how the internet has slipped from being a utopian tool created to bring people together into a dystopian nightmare that divides societies, have earned her international acclaim. Her work has been exhibited at major events including the Venice Biennale; is collected by institutions such as New York’s New Museum; and is championed by leading curators like Klaus Biesenbach, the director of Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Shanghai in 2019, Miao was one of a handful of artists invited to introduce him to her work at a private lunch.
Right now, Miao is fascinated by the rise of artificial intelligence. “The emergence of ChatGPT has changed a lot of things. AI has already replaced some human intelligence,” she says. Miao’s interest in AI is reflected in the work she is showing at Sigg Prize 2023: “Pilgrimage into Walden XII,” a multi-part video game installation driven by AI, as well as works she is currently exhibiting at a solo exhibition at Kiang Malingue gallery in Hong Kong, which runs until November 11. Every time Miao’s work at M+ is turned on, it generates a new sequence of events. Much of the text in the work is generated by ChatGPT.
“‘Pilgrimage into Walden XII’ is set against a medieval backdrop and uses a fictional political village as an allegory,” explains Miao. The setting of a medieval village might seem out of place in Miao’s hyper-modern, futuristic art, but Miao thinks there are unsettling similarities between the Dark Ages and life today. Just as people in the past were subject to the whims of cruel rulers who controlled all aspects of their life, most people today are at the mercy of technology. If we’re not careful, we could end up as slaves to it.
This July, the UN secretary general warned the world that “the malicious use of AI systems for terrorist, criminal or state purposes could cause horrific levels of death and destruction.” These big, global concerns about the power of technology and its control over our lives is at the heart of all Miao’s work – even when those ideas are conveyed through the medium of cute cat GIFs.
Hong Kong artist Trevor Yeung is in high demand. A few days after the opening of Sigg Prize 2023, he flew to London to open the largest exhibition of his career to date: a solo show titled Soft ground at Gasworks. Next year, that exhibition will travel to Para Site in Hong Kong and the Aranya Art Center outside Beijing. Yeung is also taking part in the Sydney Biennale next March and, in April, is representing Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale, which is arguably the world’s most important contemporary art event.
Yeung has attracted such widespread interest — and acclaim — with his installations, which often stimulate the senses of hearing, smell and touch as well as sight through Yeung’s use of unusual materials. He is perhaps most famous for his installations featuring live plants. Yeung’s work is partly about plants themselves, but he also uses them as proxies for other beings and ideas, especially human relationships and society. “I always see ourselves, our behaviour in plants,” says Yeung. “Working with them helps me to understand more about ourselves, as human beings.”
For Sigg Prize 2023, Yeung has chosen to exhibit a handful of works that reflect on the tumultuous past few years. “These artworks focus on the difficult moments that we may all connect in these years, including typhoons and pandemic,” he says. In 2018, Yeung dreamed up “Suspended Mr Cuddles” as a response to the experience of living through Super Typhoon Mangkhut. The installation features five money trees hanging from the ceiling with ropes, suspended in mid-air. Yeung sees it as a metaphor for how everyone’s lives froze when Super Typhoon Mangkhut passed over Hong Kong, temporarily shutting down the city. The image of a tree flying also visually conveyed the power of the storm. A few years later, in 2021, Yeung remade the work in a different configuration – this time to illustrate how billions of lives froze as the Covid-19 pandemic tore around the world. Now the latest version of the work is on show at Sigg Prize 2023.
While his works at Sigg Prize 2023 reflect on dark, era-defining moments, Yeung himself is upbeat. “I’m very happy to be shortlisted for the Sigg Prize and to make an exhibition with other finalists together,” he says.
Jes Fan was born in Canada, grew up in Hong Kong and now has studios in both Hong Kong and New York. Fan trained as a glass artist and many of his sensuous sculptures and installations feature delicate glass orbs, but he also uses an array of more unusual materials to make his work, including blood, semen, melanin, testosterone and urine. Fan uses these to explore the slippery nature of gender, race and identity and how these can change over time. The idea that identity is in flux has informed Fan’s own life as a transgender man who moves between Hong Kong and New York, although Fan resists attempts to tie his art too closely to his biography. Fan was unavailable for an interview for this story.
Sigg Prize 2023 runs until January 14, 2024 at M+.