Uli Sigg served asthe Swiss ambassador to China from1995 to 1998. He first encountered Chinese avant-garde art in the 1980s, and since that time, he has collected more than 2,000 works by over 180 artists. Uli Sigg’s collection has been recognized as the most comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art, and he has beennamed in the ArtReview Power 100 list, which recognizes the world’s one hundredmost influential people in art every year.
The Server Art Foundation is honored that Uli Sigg, one of the most influential collectors of Chinese contemporary art, has joined its Expert Committee. Here, Sigg is interviewed by Xie Rong, chair of the Server Art Foundation, and Joy Cheng, member of the board of directors of the Server Art Foundation，Gu Zhenqing, art director of the Server Art Foundation. In the interview, Sigg discussed his current thinking about collecting, his unique understanding of Chinese contemporary art, and the development of art in the post-pandemic world. He also offered numerous suggestions for the future development of the Server Art Foundation.
The interview will be presented in two parts. This is the second half of the intervijidian
我去年在中国策划了《物演》展览，为了这个展览，我们召集了五位艺术家和五位科学家。他们不但有深入的交谈，而且每个人都参观了对方的工作室和实验室。当他们谈论潜在的逻辑或思考时，发生了什么呢——艺术家们的很多思考途径让科学家们感到惊讶，反之亦然。目前，服务器艺术基金会（筹）正在与未来论坛、锡纯基金会和Zeng Harburg Initiative 基金会联合筹备科学艺术双年展。我们很高兴邀请您担任这次展览的名誉主席。
Gu Zhenqing: I curated an exhibition in China last year entitled “Everything Evolution.” We brought together five artists and five scientists. They had conversations, deep conversations, and they each visited the other’s studio or lab. When they talked about their underlying logic or thinking, something happened. The artists surprised the scientists in a lot of ways, and vice versa. Currently, the Server Art Foundation is preparing for the Science and Art Biennale in association with the Future Forum, the Xichunjijin, and the Zeng Harburg Initiative Foundation. We’re delighted to have you as the honorary chairperson for the event. We know that you go to many large-scale international exhibitions every year, such as the Venice Biennale, documenta, and Art Basel, and you are also very familiar with the biennales held in China. By creating the Science and Art Biennale as a new, experimental biennale, we hope that scientists and artists will collaborate on an idea, opening their studios to each other, so that they willfoster in-depth collaboration underpinned by joint creative thinking, rather than simply a collaboration on the production or technical applicationlevel. What are your thoughts and suggestionson the biennale? How should we promote this new kind of biennale? Can you share some of your experience with us?
Uli Sigg: Very encouraging to hear this result of your exhibition! What’s a biennial? Biennial only means “something every two years”and it has no other meaning. Are we talking about an exhibition? Are we talking about a symposium every two years? Are we talking about artists and scientists visiting every two years? Are we talking about a product? Who is the audience? All these things have to be clear to come up with a well-rounded proposal. You have to tell me a little bit more about your current thinking, so that I can be helpful. At this stage, which of the things I just mentioned is it?
GZQ: There are so many biennales in China already, but this one is more focused. This one is focused on science and art; it’s an interdisciplinary effort. Every work will be produced jointly by artists and scientists. We have proposals for museums in Shanghai and Beijing next year, and we have already invited a few artists to think about that proposal. The scientists are also very excited; many scientists are interested in art, and may have tried to create some artistic work, but they still may not know a lot about art. If artists and scientists can come together, they can create a good atmosphere for deeper conversations and deeper thinking about how to create something. This biennale is just an exhibition, but we are trying to incorporate this new direction into art. The collaborations are not simply technical; they depend on thinking, an underlying logical thinking, about science, about art, about creativity.
Uli Sigg: My question is rather — you have answered it halfway — you say it’s an exhibition…
US: But is it an exhibition, a symposium, or a get-together? Is the product an exhibition every two years? Is it an interesting protocol for a great exchange of minds? That is my question: What kind of output do you want? From what you said, you seem to expect a physical result of some type to be ready when you launch the biennale, from some cooperation between scientists and artists, right?
US: So you will have to launch the process now to be ready in a year, and that process is, say, one artist and one scientist, or many of each side, meet and brainstorm, and then maybe the artist walks away and does a work, or maybe the scientist walks away and does a work, or maybe the two do a work…. Is that the idea, or part of it? I just want to get a better idea of what you’re considering right now. Did I describe it properly?
GZQ: Yes, this is a product created by an artist and a scientist, together. The works don’t only come from the artists or the scientists. They’ll collaborate; They have to discuss and produce the work together. This is a new way of thinking and a new style of curating. It’s also a challenge for me.But in the last few years, some of the works that artists have produced have really opened their minds. Artists really like to participate in these new contexts and produce work in new situations. Their way of thinking changes, and sometimes their vision is changed by this new situation.
US: That’s clear to me. What I mean is that you must give this thing a structure, yet not too much of it. How do the artists and scientists find one another? Do you create that moment, or how do you start the process that will have them produce what I guess we would want to call an artwork?
GZQ: When they present me with a proposal, I work with the curatorial team, and we have conversations with the artists and scientists. When the artist and scientist agree on a good project, maybe it ends there. Sometimes they may have something that only looks like a cooperation, and sometimes they may argue. The scientists may think that something is not their job or not their vision of art, so this is difficult. When artists and scientists really enjoy these creative conversations, they may produce new work. Sometimes that new work may transcend their current way of thinking because it’s so different from their formal work, but we try to support them. We will pay an artist fee and a material fee for good proposals, then the artists and scientists can finish, or produce, their work. We might be able to show half or 70% of the project; this is an experimental biennale, so it’s an experimental exhibition. We’re very interested in the production process, including how they were working and why they may have disagreed. We’ll have a lot of documentary footage of the process to give some background on the artworks in the exhibition. We don’t just want to show artworks produced by artists and scientists. We want to show their conversations, and we will make documentaries to give that background. This is a bit like a Science & Art Lab, but this lab could produce a new way of organizing a biennale. We have tried to give them a year, to give them more time, but it’s a good challenge for me, as an independent curator.
US:I see more clearly that it’s a very interesting idea. I see the difficulties of organizing the process, as it will certainly take some resources. The result could be anything from a protocol to a finished work of some kind, and we may or may not be able to call it an artwork, or a scientific experiment, or something else entirely. I understand that.
I think you’ll need a strong hand to give it structure, so that, after one year, there is a result to show, whatever that result is. You have to define a process, and that process has to have an end date. It’s sometimes very difficult when two disciplines meet. One discipline might think that the work is done and the other might think that it is just beginning. I did some projects in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), and that’s where you get into other issues such as: Is an artist involved at all, and do we even need an artist if we have AI?
I agree with you, it’s very promising and interesting, thoughtime-consuming. Do you have the resources to do all of this?
GZQ: Yes, we have the resources to get good results. This way of working is also very helpful for the artists. As you know, we also have the Art Clinic project. Many artists really like it when we bring in critics, curators, scientists, psychologists, and cultural scholars as experts. The artists are excited to hear them speak and engage in conversation with them. We have already succeeded in setting up a few conversations between artists and experts online. The artists really like this project, because it develops their vision and their ways of thinking and rethinking.
True artists always have to face difficulties, bottlenecks, and uncertainties in their work, so artists really appreciate that the Server Art Foundation offers this service. For example, when artists wanted to test theapplication scenario of their AI artwork, we brought in an expert from the Artificial Intelligence Research Association. This expert is doing some of the most advanced AI work in China, and the artists really enjoyed to receive help from the AI expert and his team.
We also brought in an expert on Shamanism, so the artists could learn more about Shamanistic culture, psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience. We’ve only accepted three or four artists to the Art Clinic project so far, but the results have been good. The artists really preferred to focus on the process of interaction. It’s not just about production; it’s also about connecting to the creative process.
US: I think it has great potential. I have no doubt. Structuring it will also be a great learning process.
GZQ: Thank you. My next question is: At present, sharing knowledge through online platforms has become a major trend. There have been more discussions of online or virtual exhibitions, sound works, virtual art galleries, and online interactions. Do you think that this will change art and collecting after COVID-19? After the pandemic is over, how do you see things changing in art and art collections?
US: Of course, COVID is a moving target, and the prospects most people envision are quite bleak. Will COVID go away? Maybe not, or maybe not for a long time. I’m actually surprised how black the scenarios are in the art world.
I just had a meeting with the Tate on this issue, and of course, I have had similar discussions with M+. They think they’ll have to contend with a COVID-type problem for years, and some have now laid off a third of their people or more. They think a third of all museums in the USA will never open their doors again, because of COVID; they think the time of the blockbuster exhibition—like a Monet show that would draw a million people in two months—may never come back. They think it will have a dramatic effect on the presentation of art and on museums, but this brings out the value of having a collection, because the money may just be there to show collection exhibitions. In this way, the works don’t have to travel, which brings up the other issue of climate change. All of the sudden, a lot of people are wondering if they should be traveling to exhibitions all over the world, and if the works should be traveling to exhibitions all over the world. Maybe a screen could do instead, to come back to your question. Personally, I think that, if there is a vaccine or something, and COVID goes away, people will very much return to old habits. But that doesn’t have to be entirely true for art, for art people, for the art market, and for collecting, if we’ll keep the good from what we’re learning now. All of these virtual exhibition rooms actually draw a lot of people, and more people have spent more time looking at art due to COVID,although on the web.
If we think back, how did people visit galleries? Beijing and Shanghai are actually quite fortunate because they have clusters of galleries, so people can just spend a whole day and see fifty galleries. If you’re in London, it’s very hard work to see five galleries, because they’re so spread out. Also people often feel a bit of shyness about entering galleries, because someone may want to talk to you, and they’re watching you.
The virtual viewing room will remain. Certain mediums can be seen in a viewing room more easily—photographs, videos, and two-dimensional works in general, particularly in high-resolution. What’s more difficult is the three-dimensional works, the installations. That is a problem that has yet to be solved. Viewing rooms, plus all of these webinars on a wide range of topics, will stay. Actually, you have access to a lot more information about art and the art market than before; there’s not a day when I don’t receive emails to join this or that webinar, whether to speak or just to attend. That didn’t happen in the past in the same quantity, so that has completely changed. I think the webinars are an interesting facet, you can click into a million different things. There’s also a downside: there’s more competition for our attention and time. I don’t want to attend five webinars in a day, but maybe I will go to one every other day. These are new rules and, yes, I think some of it will stay. In particular, I think the use of a screen for communication substituting some of the physical presence will definitely persist.
GZQ: OK, so we’ve come to my last question, Uli. I don’t want to tire you out.
US: You’re really making me work here!
GZQ: Haha, for my last question: I know that you’re not just an expert in Chinese contemporary art; You also have an eye for Western contemporary art. The last question comes from Xie Rong. As an art consultant for the Future Forum, she was engaged to set up a new museum, an Art and Science Museum. She also plans to develop a collection. Do you have any suggestions for the collection of a new Chinese art museum? Should the collection contain more Western contemporary art?
▲ ZKM艺术与媒体中心展览现场, 2019 ZKM
US: If you’re going to establish a museum, I would put a lot of effort into creating a museum like no other - and that’s not easy to do. The world doesn’t need just another museum. I understand though that the focus— art and science—is already very interesting for a museum. You mentioned the case of ZKM, which they call the “Digital Bauhaus” in Germany, and something of that type doesn’t yet, to my knowledge, exist in China. To begin with, I think it’s a very interesting idea, but I think it must be like no other museum, not just one more visual art museum. I recently discussed with a neuroscientist what an ideal museum requires from his point of view.The problem of what to collect also does not have an easy solution. I just want to highlight the idea of being different because it’s important, but I may not have all the answers for how to create a different kind of museum ready yet...
What to collect? I would strongly suggest my method of commissioning, because then you can really target what you want, and you can ascertain to get something that fits exactly into the museum’s mission. You’re already choosing artists for certain projects, so you’re already doing something along those lines, but maybe not yet with the same purpose as my commissions. For instance, I would have the museum only collect what it commissions, and I would carefully select what I feel is the core, art and science in this case, and then build around this core.
However, you also mentioned philosophy and the humanities, so you have a pretty broad range. In fact, the humanities will also be core as far as they help us determine ever more how to steer through this wonderbox of technologies - what to choose and what not, for existential self-interest.You may not have this museum on day one, but you’ll build toward a museum that is unique if you follow that line of thinking. Should it be Chinese art, or should it be Western art? Maybe that becomes less relevant. It should just be about these particular works of art, whether they were made by Chinese artist/scientist combination or a Western author.
Naturally, there is also the question of funding. You may notice that the same type of art may cost you substantially less money in the West or in Korea, than in China. You may in fact get more art for your money elsewhere. I would open myself up to both. Of course, it’s a museum in China and it’s a new idea created here, so why not build this idea around and give preference to Chinese art and science? But if there is a very interesting Western piece, or an artist who fits perfectly, then I would collect them as well. I wouldn’t make it conditional, that it has to be from here or there, but I would build it around Chinese artist and scientist combination to begin. That would be my preliminary answer; that’s simply what comes to my mind.
GZQ: Great, that’s all of my questions, Uli. Thank you for your answers. Joy Cheng and Xie Rong, do you have more questions, as we still have a few minutes?
JC: Can I ask one more? I’m interested to know if you expect Chinese contemporary art to enter the global mainstream.
US: Yes, I very much hope that Chinese art will enter more into the mainstream, but that does not imply that I want the artists to do mainstream work. All of my efforts with, say, the Chinese Contemporary Art Award, now the Sigg Prize, were really about having more Chinese artists come to this mainstream, because they deserve it.
It’s really not that other artists are so much better; it’s just that the gatekeepers to these big institutions, such as DOCUMENTA and the biennales, are predominantly Western people, so they bring in what they know. What they don’t know might be better, but it’s not going to be there. I think there are enough Chinese artists who have the potential to be mainstream artists, but it takes a number of things. It takes someone to help you get there, it takes someone to see you at the right moment, it may take a good gallery that is putting effort into you and not into someone else. It’s a lot of things, and out of a lot of good artists who have the same potential, only some will rise to the top. They are not necessarily better than others, but because of some luck that all these elements fit together in that moment, they make it and others don’t. I hope—and I am certain—that more Chinese artists will be able to join the global mainstream.
JC: When you say the ultimate focus of your collection is Chinese contemporary art, do you want Chinese artists to do work about changes in Chinese society, or can they do anything, as long as they’re Chinese artists? Do you expect Chinese artists to go to their roots, to Chinese philosophy and thinking?
US: Not at all, not at all. I was trying to say, in my answer to that early question, that this is just one method. I just want to see an artist apply a method very successfully. This can happen in either content or form. The idea can be taken from the Fiji Islands, or it can come from Chinese tradition; it just has to have novelty, it has to be different, and it has to express an idea that captures our imagination—all the qualities we expect in an artwork. But I have no specific Chineseness requirement, maybe that’s what you asked. It just has to be a work of an artist from the Chinese cultural space. I’m researching China its society and culture, and this is just a very good way to do that particular kind of research.I am also able to collect some of the results of my research. However, I also collect other types of art. Next April, in fact, I am organizing an exhibition about South Korea and North Korea, and I have included some Chinese artists who have made artworks about the situation in North Korea. I have an interest in that country, I was ambassador to North Korea as well. In this show, except for four Chinese artists making art about the Korea situation, the artists are all North or South Koreans. I have another collection, but my real real passion is the Chinese collection.
JC: Thank you, thank you.
GZQ: Uli, I did have one more question about the concept of “CCA,” or “Chinese contemporary art.” When people talk about the YBAs, everyone knows that means “Young British Artists.” We know what CCA is because of your prize, the CCAA, but in the mainstream global art community, does everyone understand what Chinese contemporary art is?
▲ 冻结展开幕式，左起Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, Stephen Park, Anya Gallaccio, Sarah Lucas 和 Gary Hume。该展览“是传说中青年英国艺术家(YBAs)的起源时刻，被视为成就英国现代艺术发展的展览之一。”
US: That’s a good question, because there are some debates about what Chinese art is,whether there is Chinese art - or any national art at that. But I personally am very convinced:that there is American art, there is Swiss art, and there is Chinese art. Why am I so convinced? Let’s just take one of these artists considered really global. I like to use the example of Richard Prince, with the cowboys riding into the evening sky or with these bike girls. This artist’s photos cost millions, but his work can only originate from American culture. No Chinese or Swiss artist would ever think of that cowboy riding paired with that particular sunset, or the million other small details of those works. That’s what I mean. We call it “global,” but if we dig deeper and you are a contemporary artist who wants to be successful in what I call the “global mainstream,” you in factneed to be rather different than the same. To not end up doing the same thing as Richard Prince, I have to find something that makes me different. And this difference is most easily found in my own specific roots. If I’m Chinese, then for instance, I have a very particular tradition I stand on that will not be shared by an American artist. That doesn’t mean that, in the end, we have to have any Chinese symbols in the work, but it may be reflected in the attitude towards art: Say,in the Shanshui tradition, you paint from your imagination, rather than the very realist landscape; you don’t go and represent the real thing. There are lots of things that you can find in your own tradition that can create this difference; otherwise, you’re just like everyone else. That’s why I see a justification for the term Chinese art.
I am confirmed in this every day when I look at art. I see that this artist must live in a big Western city, or this artist must live in an underdeveloped African environment, the art mirrors so much of a specific context. I can see this despite the fact that many people may think the work is all the same. These differences,however hidden, make the art interesting in the end. Yes, there is a reason why I called it “Chinese Contemporary Art Award,” but now the M+ Museum has taken over the prize. The first thing they did was to call it the “Sigg Prize.” I had twenty years to call it the Sigg Prize, but I felt that the Chinese Contemporary Art Award was a much better brand. It’s actually a great brand, but they thought that my name is also a great brand, so they chose my name instead,and of course I feel honored.The other thing was that they explicitly broadened it to encompass more of the M+ territory and focus, so we expanded to what is called “greater China”, Mainland,Hong Kong, Taiwan and maybe Singapore? It implies the Chinese culture, and I think it makes sense to talk about the Chinese cultural space, because that’s very distinct from, say, the Southeast Asian cultural space. There are real differences, but they do not so much follow national borders.
GZQ: OK, thank you. This hour and a half flew by. I want to thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge with us and our colleagues.
XR: Uli, I do have one more question… Do you have a wish for the Server Art Foundation?
US:Actually, someone asked me some time ago if I could come up with a slogan, and if I have a wish, it’s related to that. It’s about creativity, which I think is very much the focus of the Server Art Foundation. I have talked about creativity because I think it’s the only thing that can save us. . All of our physical resources will be used up at some point as we destroy the planet, but this one resource, human creativity, has no limitations - unless we impose them by ourselves, or leave it to chance as mankind did up tonow. Therefore I’m very happy that the Server Art Foundation has a focus on creativity and aims to foster creativity in people within and beyond China. I think you have something very promising to start with.
GZQ: Thank you, Uli. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us. Thank you also to Joy Cheng and Xie Rong for participating today. This was a very interesting discussion, and we gained a lot from it.
US: Thank you all.