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View of “M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art,” 2016. From left: Liu Wei, It Looks Like a Landscape, 2004; Yangjiang Group, Calligraphy Peach Blossom Garden, 2004.

“M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art”

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View of “M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art,” 2016. From left: Liu Wei, It Looks Like a Landscape, 2004; Yangjiang Group, Calligraphy Peach Blossom Garden, 2004.

WHEN SWISS COLLECTOR Uli Sigg donated the bulk of his holdings of contemporary Chinese art to the fledgling M+ in Hong Kong in June 2012, it was more than just another gift by a leading collector to his or her favored museum. Sigg’s largesse—he contributed 1,463 objects, valued at $170 million—instantly transformed M+ from an institution in planning into a global player. In the process, it canonized a list of artists whose previous successes had been mainly commercial, and enshrined a narrative of China’s recent art history as a dialectical push from the haze of the Cultural Revolution toward a more critical, possibly democratic enlightenment. The thinking went that in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the People’s Republic historically not subject to the latter’s censorship, new possessors of this unparalleled trove would be granted the political leeway necessary to ensure its preservation and display. Cause for celebration: Chinese contemporary art was returned to (some iteration of) its native soil, and M+ had secured a collection whose reputation could be counted upon to radiate outward from China to Asia and beyond, and which would aid the institution—in light of its painstakingly negotiated, government-sanctioned mandate to serve as a public museum of visual culture—in its drive to become, to twist its host city’s slogan, “Asia’s world museum.”

In the ensuing four years, M+ has established a program and personality on par with these ambitions, even if repeated delays have pushed the completion of its physical premises to (for now) 2019. In the interim, it has organized a series of pop-up shows, allowing an all-star curatorial team to explore and showcase strands in the collection including architecture and the moving image. The most recent of these, “M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art,” mattered to the institution as no other had. Organized by senior curator Pi Li—a scholar and participant-observer whose career has included stints as independent curator, a magazine editor, a Central Academy of Fine Arts professor, and a Basel-worthy gallerist—the show featured a judicious selection of more than eighty works from Sigg’s collection (including some from an additional forty-seven that the museum purchased from him), offering a vision of art as both agent and function of the myriad transitions that have occurred since the mid-1970s, throughout the long process of “opening and reform.”

The fact that this accounting of the avant-garde was denominated entirely in the acquisitions of a single Swiss collector was somehow less limiting than one would expect, largely because Sigg’s role in the Chinese art world has long been that of active influencer rather than detached connoisseur. Sigg’s first encounter with China was when he traveled to Shanghai in 1979—the same year the Stars Group exhibition in Beijing, with which the story of contemporary Chinese art often begins—to set up a joint venture on behalf of the Swiss industrial group Schindler. He began collecting in the ’90s and gained momentum during his tenure as ambassador in Beijing between 1995 and 1998, shortly after an initial wave of international exhibitions had begun to create visibility for artists working in China. During his ambassadorship, Sigg hosted Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist as they researched “Cities on the Move,” acted as the trusted interlocutor of a recently returned Ai Weiwei, and invited Harald Szeemann for the sojourn that ultimately led to Szeemann’s inclusion of twenty Chinese artists in the 1999 Venice Biennale. To this day, Sigg sees himself less as a collector than as a “researcher” attempting “to compile an encyclopedic-type collection—I call it a ‘document’—that allows one to see and understand Chinese art production” since the ’70s.

Fittingly, then,“M+ Sigg Collection” was divided into three neatly chronological chapters: 1974–89, 1990–99, and 2000–12. Of these, the first was unsurpassed in its cogent presentation of ideas, objects, and documentation. Hitherto-unseen footage by the filmmaker Chi Xiaoning showed the Stars Group exhibition—in which a band of amateur painters and sculptors hung their protomodernist works from the fences around the National Art Museum of China, then marched on the municipal party-committee building demanding artistic freedom after the show’s near-immediate closure by local police. In the footage, one could see the first hanging of Huang Rui’s Yuanmingyuan: Rebirth, 1979, a muted extrapolation from the ruins of an imperial palace, while the work itself hung just a few feet to the right of the screen on which Chi’s film was projected. Nearby, a quartet of untitled Ma Desheng woodblock prints (all 1979) called to mind the medium’s radical history in the 1920s and ’30s, as well as the Stars’ connection to that earlier avant-garde lineage. One, depicting an artist alone in the studio, nearly abutted photojournalist Liu Heung Shing’s image of students painting a nude model at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, which reopened in 1978 after being closed throughout the Cultural Revolution: twinned visions of a resurgent romantic individuality. The conceptualism that sprouted from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou took center stage in the next room, where Huang Yong Ping’s Taoist-Dadaist valise Six Small Turntables, 1988, foregrounded Geng Jianyi’s The Second Situation, 1987, made up of four sequential monochromatic laughing heads completed for the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” show at NAMOC, several years before myriad imitators.

Pi used the second chapter to illustrate the ways in which art continued to evolve after 1989. In Geng’s collage on wooden panel Two Series of Five Steps of Wearing Clothes, 1991, the artist deconstructs simple actions such as putting on a jacket and taking off a sweater into multistep instructional sequences. Zhang Peili’s video Water (Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary), also 1991, strikes a similar note, with famed anchorwoman Xing Zhibin reading definitions of basic words with the syncopation and anomie that mark her delivery of the nightly news. These paired pieces, from artists who are themselves lifelong interlocutors, subtly evoked the resurgence of high-socialist modes of rhetoric and control in the wake of the failed student movement even amid the deepening of market reforms, an eerie prolepsis of today’s situation, in which neoliberal capitalism has decidedly not brought political liberalization. A nearby room of paintings was dominated by the inevitably twinned schools of “Political Pop” and “Cynical Realism,” monikers coined by the critic Li Xianting in 1992. To Li, for whom there could be no conceptualism after Tiananmen, these styles represented a shift away from the Western-style experimentation of the ’80s toward a direct engagement with local realities. Li’s contention, in turn, was undermined by claims that such works amounted to a new form of export art, later dubbed “packaged dissent” by Geremie Barmé. The fact that this room could have also been a singularly impressive auction preview—with nearly adjacent canvases by Liu Wei, Liu Xiaodong, Zeng Fanzhi, Wang Guangyi, Yu Youhan, Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang, and Yue Minjun—highlighted both the prominence of these artists in the initial round of international museum exhibitions and biennials including Chinese artists in the ’90s and the degree to which, over the following decade, the growing market for Chinese art clung to the playbook those shows established. The final part of the chapter explored the new work that flowered as photography and video came into widespread use, and as experimental, often artist-organized exhibitions arose to showcase such practices during the second half of the ’90s. Chen Shaoxiong’s Sight Adjuster III, 1996, was one notable and rarely shown example: an elaborate stereoscopic contraption with two monitors playing slightly different versions of the same Naumanesque scenes of simple actions. Other images from the now well-known performative-photographic canon rounded out (or dulled) the narrative: These included a picture of Song Dong breathing condensation into ice in Tiananmen Square, another showing Zhang Huan’s face gradually disappearing beneath the names of his ancestors as inscribed by calligraphers, Hai Bo’s paired photographs of identically arrayed groups of families and classmates before and after the Cultural Revolution, and a depiction of Xu Zhen’s back reddened from the slaps of an unseen hand.

In the exhibition’s third chapter, singular narratives about the development of Chinese art—whether as a collective movement toward social progress or as an expression of the nihilistic disillusionment that followed the collapse of that goal—were stretched to a breaking point. The early twenty-first century saw styles and orientations diverge widely even as social spaces for art, however circumscribed, began to emerge. Pi posited the art of this period as a mechanism for reconciling tradition with modernity in response to rapid urbanization. This formulation, however facile, was well suited to certain works that proliferated in the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics. An installation by the Yangjiang Group, Calligraphy Peach Blossom Garden, 2004, ran like a spine down the center of the section, comprising a timber bridge through fake flowering trees and mounds of what appeared to be drunkenly discarded calligraphy scrolls covered in dripped wax. Behind it hung Liu Wei’s one-liner It Looks Like a Landscape, 2004, an oversize photograph in which human posteriors double as ancient peaks. (Both artists were once shown by Pi at his pre-M+ venue, the Beijing-based Boers-Li Gallery, which he co-owned and where Sigg was a major client.) An injection of institutional critique from such pieces as Yan Lei’s The Curators, 2000, a wry paint-by-numbers transfer of a snapshot of Okwui Enwezor and his Documenta 11 team on their China listening tour that year, contributed to the sense that this generation, even more than that of the preceding chapter, might best be dubbed Cynical Realists.

The pride of place in this final chapter was given to Wang Xingwei, a technically virtuosic and deeply witty realist whose mode of appropriation has itself been widely appropriated. Wang was represented by the painting that graced the catalogue cover of previous iterations of the exhibition in Umeå, Sweden, and Manchester, UK, and whose appearance there triggered the heightened level of scrutiny from Hong Kong authorities that eventually led M+ to abandon not only this cover image but the show’s original title, “Right Is Wrong.” The painting, titled New Beijing and realized shortly after the capital seemed to secure its global future by winning its Olympic bid in 2001, is based on another famous photograph by Liu Heung Shing, this one of wounded protesters being transported on flatbed pedicarts on the morning of June 4, 1989. Wang’s satiric rendition, however, replaces the bloody activists with plump penguins. Liu’s original photograph appeared in the exhibition’s first chapter, sharing a refracted sight line with the painting, uniting tragedy and farce. That such a presentation was still possible in Hong Kong this past spring, even amid persistent news of deepening encroachment on the territory’s increasingly tenuous freedoms, argues that the greater project of building M+ into a public institution belongs squarely to the narrative that this show, in a sense its founding exhibition, rendered so clearly and urgently.

Philip Tinari is Director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.