«Uli Sigg on Architecture, Design and M+ Museum Hong Kong»

Von Julieta Schildknecht


The interview with collector Uli Sigg took place in Summer 2020 in the midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic, during lockdowns and social distancing, during the historical time when all art fairs and art exhibitions happened online and became global.


Our conversation took place outdoors at his castle’s garden, a rare moment of solitude to the collector and busy businessman who happens under normal conditions to jet around the world in view of his numerous responsibilities.


Julieta Schildknecht: Uli Sigg, what do you think about architecture in general here in Switzerland in comparison to China?

Ueli Sigg: Of course we have more rules and we are much more concerned about what we put into the world. Our care for the existing is very different now than China where the respective governments discovered this care only over the last couple of decades. It took time till they realised this enormous change within the big cities is also destroying culture not just creating it. Admittedly a better living space and living quality for many in their own view but at the cost of destroying much of their culture. It is in essence making their cities faceless. We were doing the same but learned due to our historical development our lesson earlier – which however I consider also too late.


JS: Do you think design is part of architecture or is there a difference when you decorate a space like your castle?

US: As long as I decorate a space then that in my definition doesn’t need to have a function other than to please me and my wife. Of course architecture and design are related to art,but they have to serve a function. If they don’t we will not be really happy about their use.


JS: But some of the artists’ works you collect are questioning design…

US: Yes? They rather research design! Look at the artist Shao Fan: He deconstructed a ming chair to look like an explosion drawing. Yet he did it because he was so fascinated by Chinese carpenters woodwork and the art of the handicraft, the art of producing a sophisticated piece of furniture over thousands of years without a single nail nor glue. So he is a designer in the widest sense and designs in fact objects.


JS: He divided one chair in two parts and two people instead of one person can afterwords sit on his chair.

US: Yes, he is doing design in this case. How did he get into this. First of all due to much exposure to classical Chinese furniture and his admiration of and curiosity about the production process. The artist is not questioning this tradition he just wants to know more and ideally take this tradition to somewhere else into our time. He actually says: “You know, tradition, if you search for it you will never find it. In your work It simply has to happen.”


JS: When you decided building the museum what was your expectation in terms of architecture?

US: The city of Hong Kong is building it. It is part of the West Kowloon Cultural District,the biggest construction site for culture in the whole world.So there must be adequate architecture!


JS: Who are the architects?

US: Herzog & De Meuron. Hong Kong organised an interesting design competition. They decided for another process than the usual one: a first round was an open call on the internet. In a next round the choice was reduced from some 80 to 30 participants, then to six. These six architects had a year to produce a study, not a final project proposal. This project proposal was one issue for the jury to judge – I was a member of the jury. But another issue for the jury was the cooperation mode each architectural firm was able to establish during that year. How did they interact with the client authority, understand and integrate its wishes and constraints for the museum? Herzog & de Meuron won the competition. I of course was really happy because we had already realised the “Birds Nest” (the Olympic Stadium) in Beijing together.


JS: And you were involved with that project?

US: Yes. I didn’t know them in person first. But Herzog & de Meuron intended to do something in China. They approached me and asked if I could bring them to projects in China. That’s how it started. I brought them to China and I also introduced Ai Weiwei to them. Jointly we applied within only a couple of days for the competition of this Olympic Stadium in Beijing – we just happened to be there at exactly the right time to participate in the competition I basically negotiated the contract with them together and I was involved with many aspects.They considered me their coach during this process until the building finished. It is a very iconic building and it was certainly the most globally published building for some years. Considering its function, what is considered more important than an Olympic stadium – at least in the runup and during its use?


JS: As of the museum, did you build it for your collection or are you donating your collection to China?

US: The city of Hong Kong builds it as part of West Kowloon Cultural District. It is a city project that started for serious about 12years ago and its soft opening is possibly in June 2021. The pandemic did not impact so much because the building site was never closed. Most sites in Hongkong kept building.


JS: Is it a space just for your collection or is there going to be other donations?

US: No, it is a visual arts museum: Art, Design and Architecture,with its collection being expanded.


JS: Are you part of the museum’s Board of directors or are you just keeping your collection there?

US: I donated close to 1’500 works, many of them very large. Physically it is a huge collection for any museum. The city treats me very well so far and involves me in the board and in the acquisitions.


JS: donated by the biggest collector of Chinese contemporary art worldwide…

US: It will be the only place in the world you will be able to read the story line of the Chinese contemporary art from its beginnings till today – because nowhere else exists such a collection.


JS: and of course, this is an iconic museum for the Chinese! How is it for you as the first contemporary Chinese art collector to be awakening their interest towards contemporary art?

US: Their interest is recent. When I came there 1979 it was the very beginnings of contemporary art in China. Before 1979 there was no such thing. I tried to follow it since day one.


JS: What made you start collecting their art?

US: Well, first I was very ignorant about China. My hope was through their contemporary work to learn more about China. In the beginning I found it quite boring what they produced because they were completely cut off from the West and had no idea about western contemporary art. Finally they were allowed to do autonomous art, but then they first had to find their own language. After some years I could see this happening and in the early 90’s I started buying some works. Then I realised no-one was collecting it in any systematic way and that seemed very awkward to me because in the biggest cultural space in the world nobody cared about what their contemporary artists were doing. I thought if no-one does what actually a national museum ought to do, I will.  That’s when I started collecting in a big scale.


JS: Are supporting many artists in China who were in the beginning unknown?

US: Yes, contemporary art in China was for a long period an underground phenomenon.


JS: It’s interesting to notice the way Chinese artists reinterpret ages that weren’t part of their own culture.

US: That’s part of their resources in making contemporary art.


JS: Are you searching and collecting from new Chinese artists or are you collecting from the same artists you have been collecting since 1979? Are you collecting european or american contemporary art?

US: I follow my own taste when collecting non-Chinese contemporary art. Contrary to how I collect chinese contemporary art: in a very systematic and encyclopaedic way.


JS: Do you have a curator working with you?

US: Never, this is all part of my own initiative. I search the artists, I do my own research and I negotiate my purchases. But over time a network of artists and curators and critics has formed which provides me inputs. And for years my wife accompanied me during studio visits.


JS: Where is your interest for such a consistent and strong collection coming from? Do you have other collectors interacting with you for instance like Art Basel?

US: It’s as I imagined a National Museum would collect. Basically mirroring the art production of China across all media and along the timeline.


JS: Do you think that knowing most of the artists makes a difference?

US: I think without knowing them it wouldn’t be possible to collect the way I am collecting.In China for long there were no reliable informations to be found other than through personal visits.  No books, no nothing. I had to build much of it by my own research.


JS: How about your exhibition in Turino?

US: It has the title „Facing the Collector“. The director of the museum is Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. She curated a Documenta. I knew her because I had established an art award in China, something that didn’t exist before in contemporary art. I also established an art critic award. I also invited her to be in the jury. I used to invite key names in the contemporary art world for them to see Chinese contemporary art to incorporate it in their own projects. Harald Szeemann was one of them as well as Ruth Noack, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Alanna Heiss from PS1, Chris Dercon from Tate, also Bernard Blistene the director from Pompidou, Suhanya Raffel from M+ and Maria Bashaw from Tate. Whoever I felt could support Chinese contemporary art I brought into the jury. All this I handed in 2018over to M+ museum.

They now organize my prize and renamed it to Sigg Prize. For twenty years I could have named it like that but I never thought of it in this way. They felt I am a brand name in Asia and therefore they wanted to name it Sigg Prize. 2019/2020 they organised the prize for the first time. They are doing the prize like the Turner prize. We in a jury select 6 artists, then do the exhibition and out of the 6 artists we choose a winner.


JS: Do you think that with all the political changes happening at the moment in Hong Kong, do you think this will change it as well or do you think they will keep the purpose of the museum and in the importance of contemporary art in their social structure?

US: Of course no one yet has a clear view of this new law – how it is going to be implemented.
People are silently protesting, holding up white empty sheets of paper and empty white banners. They are also arrested. Is it subversion? Is it terrorism? That’s what I mean. No one knows how the courts will interpret the law.


JS: Is it about the act or direct assertion or just about the content, is it the purpose or is it just the fact that people will loose their right to express themselves or of free speech?

US: That is already one effect because you don’t know what is going to happen and of course that leads to self-censorship.


JS: And art is totally related to freedom of expressing oneself. How in this case will your museum look like? Are you keeping a space for the exhibitions but its purpose is to offer different social gatherings and events and serve the community…

US: Just like a new Museum in the world’s classic definition – and much more! It will definitely be a signpost for Asia and the world. it does have all these functions and of course the government guaranteed that they will respect freedom of speech, freedom of art. I am optimistic till proven wrong. And my collection is theirs already since 2012 thats when my donation was made.


JS: How about design and art that you keep in other sights where you live besides in your castle?

US: I am always careful about my surroundings. I simply have to like it … When I rebuilt the castle I worked with an architect from Luzern, a good friend of mine, Max Wandeler. He was also a very intense collector of contemporary art. He actually introduced me to contemporary art when I was a young student. He was 12 years older.  He had a very good understanding of what kind of space I need.


JS: There is no cluttering just big spaces that fill its functional purpose. Would you agree, just like the etruscan, that the environment in a space is there to serve human beings and not the contrary?

US: Yes – and of course there is also something asian about that. The void, you know, is a category in asian aesthetics. Remember the white paintings you saw, by Qiu Shi Hua.


JS: They are contemplative and one notices that contemplation plays an important role for you. Many of the art pieces you have here are related to contemplation.

US: I am in fact open to any type of art. It can be contemplative but it can also be aggressive or it can be very formalist – as long as the artist can take me somewhere I cannot go on my own.…


JS: Your garden, the garden you made, has also many contemplative niches.

US: Yes, yes! The garden here really didn’t exist. And then I didn’t think of design or architecture here, I was just thinking of how I would like to surround myself and what I would like to see and to feel here.


JS: Isn’t this the aim of architecture in the end?

US: Probably ought to be. In any case that is how I went about it. As I said, having a clear idea, but not knowing exactly how to achieve it or thinking which plants could be here and if I would ever see them grow. Nature took so much longer than I expected. Of course a gardener would have known but we didn’t. It was much about trial and error. As to my first gardener, he was a psychologist, didn’t have experience either. This happened with my second gardener and the one I have now.. None of them had a specific gardening knowledge. But my wife and me, we like the result!


JS: Do you think the pandemic will change architecture worldwide? Now that financial sources for building are more restricted? or do you think this restriction will be only temporary? Are people becoming less complicated?

US: My experience with the museum people is that they all have a pretty bleak scenario about the future. Their thinking is now really immersed in the pandemic issues. Of course they have the duty to think about the actual pandemic moment because they must run their institution.  They are starting to measure the spaces to control how many people will be able to go to the museum spaces at one time in order to keep the social distancing. They think it is the end of the blockbuster exhibitions because you are no longer able to welcome huge crowds of visitors in the museum, to pay for expensive venues. They believe the collections will become more important because now is the moment to show them and the artworks cannot travel the way they would before the pandemic. The whole logistics is down. It’s a revival of collections and permanent exhibitions for whoever has a collection. They of course have no income from visitors for months. And If they will have again it will be from a third of the visitors they used to have due to safety restrictions… And equally restrained will the public hand be. It does look pretty bleak indeed but if Covid disappears as it came then of course people I think will return quite soon to much of their former habits. I want to make clear that’s not a value judgement. I don’t want to say it is good or bad, I just think we humans won’t change so dramatically if things return to what we presume normaly.



Hong Kong, Photo Frontpage: © Kris Provoost