Chinese Art Since 1970: The M+ Sigg Collection and its sister volume, M+ Collections Highlights are the handsome (and befittingly large) catalogs for M+, Hong Kong’s Herzog & de Meuron-designed museum of modern and contemporary visual culture which opened to the public in November of 2021.
M+ encompasses 17,000 square meters of exhibition space in thirty-three galleries, and the books cover its four important collections. These comprise the M+ Collection; the M+ Library Special Collection; the M+ Collection Archives; and finally, and most importantly the M+ Sigg Collection, to which Chinese Art Since 1970 The M+ Sigg Collection is devoted. The Sigg Collection is M+’s crown jewel, and one of the finest contemporary Chinese art collections in the world.
M+ as an institution has been steeped in controversy of one form or another for years now, for among other reasons being late to its completion date, wildly over-budget, and for losing a prominent curator before completion. So, what is its mission, actually? Having spearheaded the curatorial direction of collecting for nearly a decade, the Museum’s Deputy Director, and Chief Curator, Doryun Chong, who edited M+ Collections Highlights, supplies the answer in his introductory essay. M+ is a multidisciplinary museum of visual culture rooted in Hong Kong, with a global perspective.
M+ Collections Highlights runs to 503 pages, and features more than700 illustrations drawn from all four collections grouped by decade, spanning the 1950s to the 2010s, taking geography and “thematic contours” into account. The artists, architects, and designers whose work is reproduced hail from a range of countries in Asia and beyond. In addition to informative descriptions of each work, twenty-four very readable essays on subjects such as “The ’85 New Wave”, “Beyond the Western Paradigm” and “Chinese Art, Hong Kong Art” help orient the reader.
The curated temporal slices reflect multiple visions of the museum’s Hong Kong roots. In the selection from the 1990s work by Tsang Tsou-Choi, the Hong Kong street artist known as the King of Kowloon, whose art has largely been painted over, and Stanley Wong’s crossword puzzle design poster for the MTR and 1994 film poster for Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express share the stage with Zaha Hadid’s Malevich-inspired architectural plans for the Peak. These pieces evoke a Hong Kong that was grittier, sexier, and more international than currently. Andreas Gursky’s large format photograph of the HSBC building captures its brutalist grandeur. Several works on the Kowloon Walled City—a photograph by Ian Lambot, and Suenn Ho’s Route map—remind us how places once teeming with life can disappear into the ephemeral past.
Chinese Art Since 1970: The M+ Sigg Collection, the second of the two catalogs reviewed, edited by Pi Li, Sigg Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs, is the stronger of the two books. In his short Preface Suhanya Raffel, the M+ Museum Director, writes that the Sigg Collection sets M+ apart from other institutions because no other museum has collected “with any degree of depth avant-garde art created in China in the late twentieth century.” This is true. Ironically, Uli Sigg, the remarkable Swiss industrialist, diplomat, and friend to Chinese artists chose Hong Kong’s M+ and not a mainland institution as a permanent home for his collection in 2012 because of Hong Kong’s relative freedom of expression.
Sigg is a fascinating character. He arrived in China in 1979 as an executive at Schindler Group, China’s first international joint venture in the post-Mao era—it made elevators—where he worked until 1990. He then served as Switzerland’s Ambassador to China from 1995 to 1998. In his essay, “Why I Collected What I Collected”, Sigg says, “I was interested in the concerns and in the works created in the unpredictable atmosphere of a nation in total transformation.” His collecting was informed by “deep discussions with and learning from more than 1,000 artists and cultural workers in China.”
Complementing its 700 illustrations, one of the book’s brilliant touches is a timeline that effectively lays out the shifting socio-political landscape in China. Spanning the years from 1972 (when Nixon and Mao met in China) to 2019 (large scale protests in Hong Kong) and 2020 (the imposition of the National Security Law), the photos and commentary for each year provide valuable context. This includes examples of censorship like the erasure of the Gang of Four from official photos of Mao’s funeral, major exhibitions of Chinese art in the West, and record sales of Chinese art at auction. They all tie into the major themes Pi Li outlines in his excellent essay, “Chinese Art: Object or Method”. In it, he asks how Chinese art can maintain its vitality, implying that to do so, it must face up to three contradictions: the struggle against political restrictions, the shift from critique to caricature, and the absolute, unexamined, and deterministic power of the market.
Another brilliant touch is the commentary provided on almost every artist from well-known art historians, curators, and critics including Hong Kong’s own Johnson Chang, the ubiquitous Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Pi Li himself. Between the timeline and the commentary, a picture of artistic life, and the struggle with the contradictions Pi Li highlights emerges. Chinese Art Since 1970 is an indispensable education. Both M+ catalogs are must-reads for anyone interested in modern and contemporary Chinese art.