A Swiss from the county of Lucerne: Uli Sigg. As a teenager at the World Rowing Championships he discovered that you can be among the world’s best, even when you come from a province in central Switzerland. Subsequently, Uli Sigg wanted to be one of the best. Not just at rowing.
In 1980 he became Vice President of the first joint venture between a Western corporation (Schindler Group) and communist-controlled China. He played an often curios, challenging and decisive role in introducing a market economy in China. He also encountered prominent Chinese politicians and underground artists.
In 1995, the Swiss Federal Counsellor Flavio Cotti appointed Sigg Swiss Ambassador to China, Mongolia and North Korea. In Chinese circles of government it was said that Switzerland had the best diplomat in Beijing. Several nations asked Sigg to mediate the conflicts over the new Panchen Lama.
Sigg hadn’t forgotten how to row. Ambition pushed him forward.
His success as an entrepreneur, as an investor or as a diplomat weren’t enough for him. In the mid-nineties Sigg discovered that no one had really taken an interest in new Chinese artists. Thus he became their most influential collector. Sigg acted as a mentor and mediator for creative luminaries such as Ai Weiwei, Zeng Fanzhi and Cao Fei. His collection became the largest and most diverse of its kind worldwide.
Sigg turned to art because he wanted to understand China. He promised the artists that he will keep many of the collected works only for a limited period of time. One day they must return to China. Once the country is open enough politically, these works will be publicly displayed.
The artists have given him some of their most important works. As of 2015 there are 2,200 pieces in the collection. Nowadays Sigg lives at Castle Mauensee, Switzerland, not far from his birthplace. Yet he remains a global player. He sits on the advisory board of China Development Bank along with Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair; he counsels the Tate, Art Basel or MoMA on questions concerning contemporary Chinese art.
Not to mention he has struck a great deal: 1,500 works of his collection will travel to Hong Kong in 2019 under the condition that M+, the Museum for Visual Culture, will be completed. With that, a significant part of the largest collection of contemporary Chinese art in the world will return to China.
Sigg has fulfilled his self-imposed mission.
He will continue to collect, mentor and support, however, especially for the next generation of artists. Creativity is the only inexhaustible resource, he says, as if he were talking about himself.
Every now and then he rows on the Mauensee. And sometimes genuinely wonders that you can actually be among the best in the world even when you come from a province in central Switzerland.
This film is a journey through the exceptional life of Uli Sigg and the modern history of China since Mao’s death. In it we meet many creative personalities, including Ai Weiwei, Rita Sigg, Cao Fei, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and Lang Lang. We visit karaoke bars in Tienzin, Castle Mauensee and the once largest, now abandoned steel factory in China. We experience parties thrown by Hong Kong billionaires and the construction site of the M+ Museum, artist ateliers in Beijing and the nighttime cookshops in Jinhua.
A pig is slaughtered. An art fair takes place. An Olympic stadium is built. A Chinese president is greeted. A bridge is crossed.