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Last updated: September 1, 2012 9:41 am
When Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture opens in Canberra and Sydney next week, it will be the latest in a series of exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art curated from the collection of Swiss businessman and former diplomat Uli Sigg.
But with the recent acquisition of most of the Sigg Collection by Hong Kong’s M+ museum, the dual-venue show – at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Canberra, and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), Sydney – has been attracting more than the usual attention.
M+, scheduled to open in 2017 as part of the new West Kowloon Cultural District development, acquired Sigg’s works under a gift/purchase arrangement. The deal has been widely praised – but a few critics question the collection’s artistic and monetary value. They wonder why it is going to Hong Kong, not to mainland China. They worry about the timing. With a reported softening of China’s economic growth, there is anxiety about its high-performing art too. They ask whether the Sigg Collection can truly represent recent Chinese art history.
Sigg established the country’s first international joint venture – the China Schindler Elevator Company – in 1980, soon after China reopened to the outside world. A canny businessman with a passion for art, he was collecting contemporary Chinese art in earnest by the 1990s, a time when the market in this area was virtually non-existent. His motivation for collecting was, he says, to provide “another point of access to Chinese reality”, “a way in”.
When Sigg realised that no one was acquiring contemporary Chinese art in a systematic way, he began “to collect like an institution”, documenting art production in China along a timeline, across all media. He set out to create what he calls a “document” of contemporary Chinese art, one that did not then exist in China, or indeed anywhere else.
By the time the M+ acquisition was announced at Art Basel in June, Sigg had accumulated some 2,200 works by around 350 artists, probably the largest and most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world.
It is rare to be able to assemble an exhibition encompassing major contemporary art figures, events and trends in China from the late 1970s to the present from a single collection. In the case of Go Figure! the challenge was simplified by the focus on portraiture. The subject of the exhibition is the artist as an individual in whose hands the image of a figure or a face becomes a means to express wider concerns about the situation of China and its people in the present.
Portraiture has not been a conscious focus of Sigg’s collecting – although Ai Weiwei’s hyper-real 2004 portrait of Sigg, “Newspaper Reader”, is one of a number of portraits given to him by artist friends (and is included in the exhibition). Figure painting and body art lie at the heart of Chinese avant-garde concerns and provide a revealing framework for considering contemporary art practice and the relationship between artist and society.
The “portraits” in the exhibition take many forms and use a wide variety of media – oil painting, sculpture, installation, even the artist’s own naked body. The 45 works range from Fang Lijun’s striking about-face figure painted in high-pitch colour (“Untitled”, 1995) to the artist couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s large installation of frail old men, reminiscent of former world leaders, who traverse the gallery space in motorised wheelchairs, oblivious to their surroundings (“Old People’s Home”, 2007).
Some of the works are self-portraits; others are portraits of solitary individuals, friends or a group. But they also depict aspects of the country and culture as a whole. Many use indirect modes of communication, including satire and the absurd. In Zhang Peili’s 1992 video, an anchorwoman reads out the entry for “water” from the Chinese dictionary Sea of Words as if reading the news. In a painting by Yu Youhan from 2005, Mao Zedong and Marilyn Monroe morph into one celebrity Warholesque image. Yue Minjun’s miniature “Founding Ceremony” (1997), based on a famous 1953 oil painting by Dong Xiwen, evacuates all the officials from the rostrum of Tiananmen, leaving only four microphones.
Other works display a documentary fascination with aspects of everyday life, especially the layered complexity of China’s market-driven, communist-led society and the lives of its citizens. Wang Jianwei’s video From the Masses, to the Masses (2000) features the dance of a plastic bag through the city, while Zhou Tao’s video 1,2,3,4 (2000) documents zany consumer promotions in Shanghai.
In China, artists have long functioned as the heart and mind of society. The works in Go Figure! are acts of individual agency and creative revisionism; they participate in an ongoing process of investigating the past in order to understand the present and chart the future. That social responsibility can be controversial.
Some scholars prefer to use the word “experimental” to distinguish such art from that which is just contemporaneous. The story of contemporary Chinese art is contested and narratives differ depending on who is telling the story. Who are the key artists and art world figures to have shaped the field? What is the artistic canon? Who decides? These are complex questions and there are no definitive answers at this still early stage in the precocious trajectory of contemporary Chinese art on to the world stage and into official acceptance in China.
One relevant question is: where can you go in China to view a comprehensive collection of contemporary Chinese art? Last year, the National Art Museum of China (Namoc) presented an official view of Chinese art from 1949 to 2009 at the National Museum of Australia. Drawn from a massive show in China to mark the 60th anniversary of communist rule and entitled A New Horizon: Contemporary Chinese Art, the touring exhibition included a few widely recognised artists, notably Xu Bing, Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong.
But many more artists with established international reputations were not included. Much of the work in Namoc’s exhibition could be described as “of the period” rather than contemporary art as understood internationally or by many Chinese practitioners. This selection prompted questions about the way public museums in China today attempt to tell the story of Chinese contemporary art history.
In recent years a staggering number of public and private museums, including individual artist and collector museums, have been built in China. Among the big projects under way are the Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum, located in a historic power station, which formed part of 2010’s Shanghai World Expo site and is set to open on October 1, China’s National Day, as home to the Shanghai Biennale; and the new National Art Museum of China planned for the 2008 Beijing Olympics site, reportedly designed by Jean Nouvel and scheduled to open in 2015.
These new and newly refurbished buildings have the potential to signal a new era for China’s art museums. The challenge will be to ensure that what happens inside them matches the architectural vision and rhetoric and presents a diversity of perspectives on contemporary art, not just a narrow narrative of the Chinese party-state.
When I was invited to curate Go Figure!, I became one of a small number of scholars to have generous access to the Sigg Collection. My visit to Sigg’s castle home on a small island in Lake Mauensee outside Lucerne was a chance to see a collection that spans the period of my own engagement with contemporary Chinese art. I first travelled to China in 1978 and the following year enrolled at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts to study Chinese painting. Some of today’s leading artists were fellow students.
The earliest work in the exhibition is “Cadre” (1979-80), a small absurdist sculpture by Wang Keping, a core artist in the Stars art group that held an exhibition in the park near the National Art Museum of China in 1979 at the time of the Democracy Wall movement, and which, after its closure, led a protest march demanding artistic freedom.
Among the most recent is “A lighthouse was winking in the distance” (2010), a staged photograph by Chen Wei in which a blinding light erases the artist’s face. Big-name artists in the show include Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Xiaodong, Wang Xingwei, Li Songsong, Shen Shaomin, Rong Rong, Wang Qingsong, Miao Xiaochun, and there are key works by important women artists Yin Xiuzhen, Yu Hong, Kan Xuan, and newcomers Han Yajuan and Yang Na. The chosen works engage with the artists’ own worlds and do not merely recycle familiar and garish stereotypes.
The “document” created by Sigg inevitably differs from the “document” anyone else would create. The M+ Sigg Collection will be assessed and reassessed as it finds its place in art’s historical record. Those processes are integral to the charter of a public art museum and to the field of contemporary art. The narratives of contemporary Chinese art and what constitutes its canon will continue to be argued.
Hong Kong’s M+ is at the beginning of its institutional collecting. Iconic pieces such as Geng Jianyi’s “Second State” (1987), Wang Guangyi’s “Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2” (1988) and Lin Tianmiao’s “Braiding” (1999) are powerful portraits and would be considered foundational art works for any museum. For those interested in contemporary Chinese art in the full, varied, global sense of the term, the Sigg Collection is a good place to start.
Claire Roberts is the curator of ‘Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture’ at NPG, Canberra, September 13 to February 17 2013 and SCAF, Sydney, September 15 to December 1
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