Chinese contemporary art has made a big impact in Vancouver over the past decade, thanks to public work by Ai Weiwei and prominent exhibitions like the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Unscrolled in 2014.
It’s so well known these days, in fact, that it’s easy to forget how closed a society China was just a few decades ago, and how far underground the artists now celebrated once were.
German filmmaker Michael Schindhelm puts the pieces together by focusing on one crucial westerner who helped usher the art out into the world. The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg is the story of a Swiss businessman, and later ambassador, who was able to gain rare access to a country once as closed off as North Korea is today. Sigg went on to collect thousands of seminal works by the likes of Ai, Fang Lijun, and Zeng Fanzhi, donating most of them in 2012 to the soon-to-be-built M+ museum in Hong Kong. But the film is also the story of modern-day China, a portrait of almost unimaginable change that speaks personally to Schindhelm, who was born and raised in East Germany.
“After the wall fell in ’89 we had to adapt to this in a very fast way and a lot of people had problems, especially people in my generation and the older generation. So I saw the extraordinary change Chinese people would have faced,” the filmmaker, author, and opera and theatre director tells the Straight over the phone from his home base in London, before the film travels here for the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Music/Art/Design (M/A/D) series. “And I saw how much art really articulates this challenge and transformation. It helps us to understand how China has changed today.”
Lingering images of that art play a central role in The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg, as do wide shots of the ever-rising skyline of China’s changing landscape. It’s a country Schindhelm is familiar with, having toured it first with opera, and then having spent years filming—the story of the building of the Olympic stadium in Beijing. That years-long project brought him into contact with Ai Weiwei, and also, not surprisingly, with Sigg. “He was kind of the string-puller behind the scenes of the architecture in 2002,” Schindhelm explains, speaking of the facility designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architectural team slated to build our new Vancouver Art Gallery.
The story of how Sigg came to be that “string-puller” in China starts in the late 1970s, when the former journalist is sent by the Schindler elevator company to try to painstakingly broker a deal with post-Mao dignitaries. It turns out to be one of China’s first forays into capitalism with the West—and one of the people he negotiates with is future president Jiang Zemin.
“He had the guts to stay there and convince Chinese officials it’s actually worthwhile to go into a joint venture. You could say he introduced China to capitalism,” Schindhelm marvels. “And later, when he returned as an ambassador in the mid ’90s, he was appreciated for his efforts 10 to 15 years earlier.…This all gave him some kind of autonomy to mingle with artists to discover Chinese art.
“I lived under Soviet rule for 30 years. I really can understand what it meant for him in the ’70s to travel freely in the country. He even knew the country better than the Chinese people themselves, because they were very restricted for travel.”
Schindhelm is able to build a sense of those closed times with rare archival footage. For the present day, he tours with Sigg to several artists’ studios in modern-day China—though Ai Weiwei can only be interviewed when restrictions are lifted midway through filming and he’s allowed to fly to Berlin.
Schindhelm comments: “I often work with countries with limited freedom of expression, where this issue must be tackled. It’s always important to be able to be aware of sensitivity, but at the same time not to chicken out about talking about these things.” Bird’s Nest, he adds, was in fact a more precarious film to shoot, given the building’s importance as a symbol of China opening up to the world and the falling-out between officials and Ai Weiwei, who ended up under surveillance.
One of the key points in the movie is that the great artists of contemporary China entrusted Sigg with their millions of dollars’ worth of works because they did not believe their own country would protect them. Sigg still dreams of taking those pieces back to a museum in mainland China, but for now, Hong Kong will have to suffice.
For his part, Schindhelm, who has seen repressive regimes come and go, is sure many Chinese mainlanders will finally be able to take in the stunning, sometimes subversive work of their compatriots at M+, when it opens in 2019. The art, after all, is part of their collective history—a point Sigg takes to heart.
“Forty to 50 million mainland Chinese are coming to Hong Kong, and they’re not only coming for shopping now—it’s to enjoy things like freedom of expression,” says the filmmaker, who also works as an advisor to the new West Kowloon Cultural District that the M+ museum will join. “When I presented the film at Art Basel [Hong Kong] in March, 60 artworks were on display for the first time in a temporary space at the site of the museum. Forty thousand people came from mainland China to this exhibition space with many things you would never be able to show in China.
“The situation in China is pretty difficult. But this art is not a sort of short-lived hype. Uli’s mission was to keep a very significant chapter of Chinese historical art alive. For him, it would be nicer, of course, to be around long enough so people in mainland China can see the works there. Maybe…”
The Vancouver International Film Festival presents The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg at SFU Woodward’s on Friday (September 30) at 3:45 p.m. and at International Village on October 10 at 7:15 p.m.