Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture

The largesse of Uli Sigg, a Swiss champion of experimental Chinese art is on show, in Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture, a two-part exhibition drawn from his significant collection and on show in Sydney and Canberra.

Visitors beware: the crumpled geriatrics tootling around in electric wheelchairs (shown in the video above) may not look it, but they are in the midst of an intense battle. Clad in outfits symbolising positions of world power, the 13 male figures are on snail’s-pace collision courses, bumping into each other before moving on to another feeble adversary. Eerily realistic, they are in fact fibreglass and silica gel sculptures driven by motion sensors in Old People’s Home, an installation in Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture.

Split across two venues – Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) and Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) – the showing of Chinese portraiture is one of the most significant of China’s contemporary art to be seen in Australia. It features more than 40 works drawn from what’s reputed to be the best record of experimental art from 1979 to now: the collection of businessman and former Swiss ambassador to China, Uli Sigg.

Sigg began collecting contemporary Chinese art en masse in the 1990s, but had been keenly watching the scene since his first visit to China in 1979, when he began to document works outside the realms of China’s state-sanctioned art industry. Altruism has driven him to keep the $160 million collection intact. He recently announced the donation of most of his collection to M+, a visual arts museum to open in Kowloon, Hong Kong in 2017.

The collection’s status derives from its size – it numbers 2200 works by some 350 artists – and its breadth, says Go Figure! curator Claire Roberts. “Few took any interest in contemporary Chinese art until relatively recently,” she says. “Sigg’s interest early on [meant] he was able to buy key works by key artists.”

Photography, sculpture, painting and video all feature in the show, which includes works never before seen in Australia but which represent key moments in Chinese art history, such as Geng Jianyi’s 1987 work The Second Situation. The portrait of a laughing face symbolises a subversive response to propaganda-driven work of earlier decades.  Sigg himself is portrayed in Newspaper Reader, a sculpture by dissident artist Ai Weiwei. A quiet, benevolent presence, the work captures Sigg’s spirit – absolute dedication to a task at hand.

Go Figure! shows at the National Portrait Gallery, 9 September–17 February, 2013; and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, 15 September–1 December.  This story was first published in Vogue Living Sept/Oct 2012.

Text: Madeleine Hinchy

Video: Madeleine Hinchy
Photographs appear courtesy of M+ Sigg Collection.

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