The film-maker Michael Schindhelm has taken the Swiss art collector Uli Sigg back to the China that the businessman-turned-diplomat first encountered in 1979. “China was like North Korea ten years ago,” Schindhelm says, describing the moment when the Communist Party began to lift the Bamboo Curtain, allowing Western companies to do business there. The first half of The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg, which received its Asian premiere in Hong Kong on 21 March, recalls the China of the 1980s, which has largely disappeared as the country has modernised at top speed.
An abandoned factory in Beijing provides an atmospheric location for the start of the film, which takes Sigg on a trip down memory lane. Schindhelm says that it was very hard in today’s China to find a suitable factory in which to film Sigg reflecting on his life’s journey, which has taken him from the lakes near Lucerne—he was once a competitive rower—via the factory floors and boardrooms of 1980s China to becoming the proud owner of a Swiss castle filled with contemporary Chinese art. He even owns a lake.
Sigg was sent East to help set up the pioneering joint venture Schindler China. In the film, he recalls days of tough negotiations in smoke-filled rooms, followed by nights in karaoke bars bonding with Chinese colleagues. The austere guest rooms of a vast, redundant steel works in Beijing double as the kind of hotel where Sigg stayed in the early days; he recalls how a rat helped itself to a bar of Swiss chocolate that he had left on his bedside table. “It was the best hotel in Canton,” the collector says.
Sigg is the personification of “getting in on the ground floor” in business and art. While Schindler’s lifts and escalators were enabling China’s buildings to rise, Sigg sought out the country’s underground art movement and the young artists who were looking to the West. When he returned to China as Switzerland’s ambassador in 1995, accompanied by his wife, Rita, they set about collecting Chinese contemporary art in breadth and depth. Being an ambassador “gave him diplomatic immunity” to meet artists, Schindhelm says, adding that Uli and Rita Sigg make a great research team. Several appreciative artists appear in the film, praising Sigg’s vision, including Ai Weiwei and Wang Guangyi. Ai calls Sigg “the maker”. The collector had the stamina and single-mindedness to visit artists in their studios, arriving at around 10pm after a long day’s work in the Swiss embassy, followed by a banquet or other social function.
A prolific collector and the founder of a pioneering Chinese art award—a shrewd move that opened many artists’ studio doors—Sigg was also a go-between. He introduced China’s artists to foreign curators, such as the late Harald Szeemann, Chris Dercon and Hans Ulrich Obrist. “He was an amateur who introduced all these big-shot curators from the West to contemporary Chinese art,” Schindhelm says.
The Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who have designed Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, where the roughly 1,500-strong Sigg collection will one day take pride of place, are glad that Sigg was a trailblazer in China. They recall how he introduced them to Ai Weiwei, which led to their collaborative design for Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, another Swiss-Chinese saga that Schindhelm made into a film in 2008.