The story of Marco Polo is never-ending. It lives on in countless retellings. Even today. Someone sets forth into the unknown. He returns and reports. Sometimes his stories are not believed.
No one believed Marco Polo, for instance. They called him a show-off. Messer Milione. Apparently because he claimed everything in China was a lot bigger. Uli Sigg prevented the possibility of no one believing him by amassing the largest collection of contemporary Chinese art. 2,200 pieces of art speak for themselves. And for Uli Sigg, for his Chinese lives.
When I met Sigg during the filming of Bird’s Nest, I immediately noticed that this man doesn’t live just one life, but many. Simultaneously and consecutively. I could count at least three. He was living three exceptional lives.
In 1979 he belonged to those adventurers who wanted to convince communist-controlled China of the benefits of a market economy. He succeeded. For twelve long, hard, exciting and sometimes absurd years he directed the first joint venture in Beijing.
In 1995 he was appointed Swiss ambassador to Beijing. Naturally he was more than just a typical career diplomat. After all, he knew President Jiang Zemin from his days at Schindler, and he was familiar with the underground art scene. Artists such as Fang Lijun or Wang Guangyi never saw Sigg as a collector who wanted to earn money. Ai Weiwei even negotiated a lower price for his own works. These people knew that the majority of contemporary Chinese art of this time would have been destroyed or lost forever if Sigg hadn’t taken care of it.
For almost twenty years, Sigg has been commuting between his castle on the water near Lucerne and China. That is how we met in 2003. Herzog and de Meuron sought out his help in the preparation for the competition to build the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Without him, Jacques and Pierre told me then, we will never get this done. Back then Sigg was already the most influential man when it came to matters of contemporary Chinese art. He consulted on politics and economics.
However, this is not what made his exceptional lives so interesting. Ambition is one thing, but luck definitely helps, too. A luck that Sigg enjoys just as Marco Polo would have enjoyed it.
I would argue that, through a chain of coincidences and an array of personal motives, Sigg was able to witness from an intimate closeness the awakening of China during the Open Door policy. It awoke from its almost two-hundred-year coma. You could even suggest that Sigg played a part in awakening this giant. When he visited the People’s Republic of China for the first time, even less was known about the country than today about North Korea. The country and its people didn’t even know that much about themselves. Sigg travelled, negotiated, managed, sweat, froze, learned and taught like almost no other Westerner before him. He encountered Chinese presidents and evasive RAF terrorists. Ai Weiwei told me: Uli was always the maker.
Contemporary historians view China’s start into the 21st Century as the most momentous transformation of any society in world history. Not only was Sigg a part of this transformation, he also wanted to understand it. He realised that art may be the best way of achieving this, more so than all the diplomatic dinners, business deals, business trips or media reports put together.
Contemporary Chinese art, as we have seen it in Sigg’s collection, is a unique witness of China’s transformation. Of its reconstruction, of its destruction. It is a coincidental and yet curious metaphor that Sigg was involved in building lifts for Schindler. Personally he wanted to reach new heights, but through and with China. To me Uli Sigg’s Chinese lives are also a story about the modernisation of China. The artworks in his collection appear to tell stories about an unprecedented epoch filled with economic, social and ecological changes. The film gives, next to Sigg and other Western experts and friends, Chinese artists of three generations and their works to have a voice. They don’t speak so much about art. Instead, we let art and artists speak about society.
In the three years that I spent with Marcel Hoehn, Filip Zumbrunn, Feng Membo, Patrick Kull, and later Dieter Meier, Marina Wernli and many others who have worked on the film; that I spent with Uli Sigg, his wife Rita and the other protagonists, I have changed my outlook not only on China, but also on our time. On that which we call globalisation.
For this I am grateful to all participants, especially to Uli and Rita Sigg.