Pi Li, Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Art

M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art traces and illustrates the emergence and development of Chinese contemporary art over the past forty years. It represents the tenacious, individualistic, and courageous practices artists used to respond to the phenomenal social transformation that took place in China. This fascinating story began in the 1970s, during which self-initiated collectives emerged, adopting an underground and unorthodox approach to operate in a restrained and isolated social context. This early effort paved the way for a vigorous avant-garde art movement to flourish in the 1980s. After the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, artists persisted in questioning and challenging globalisation and urbanisation; this critical attitude endures in the dynamic present-day art scene.

This exhibition presents over eighty representative works in various mediums created by seminal Chinese artists over the last four decades. The works are drawn from the M+ Sigg Collection, comprising 1,510 works, which the Swiss collector Dr Uli Sigg donated to M+ in 2012. Dr Sigg is a businessman and a foreign diplomat who began his relationship with China at the beginning of the 1980s; he built this world-class comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art in a systematic manner when these works were largely unrecognised on the mainland and beyond. As Hong Kong is now home to The M+ Sigg Collection, audiences can engage with these magnificent artworks and savour the compelling stories behind them. 

The exhibition follows a three-chapter approach.

The first chapter begins with the last years of the Cultural Revolution and extends to the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition. It introduces artistic practices and experiments within the self-initiated collectives, such as the No Name Group (1974–1979), the Stars Group (1979–1982), the Pond Society, the Northern Art Collective, and Xiamen Dada during the 85 New Wave. The establishment at the time did not accept these works. From 1974, for fifteen years, the artists operated on the periphery and demonstrated robust, self-aware, and critical attitudes towards the dominant culture and the political environment. 

The second chapter looks at the final decade of the twentieth century. It examines the practice of Chinese art within the context of internationalisation after the end of the Cold War. During this period, Chinese society underwent a series of economic reforms that began in the 1980s while experiencing rapid urbanisation and marketisation. For artists who once struggled on the periphery, this was an opportunity to reposition themselves in an international context and reach a wider audience. The breakthrough of Chinese art in the local and international markets triggered cultural anxiety and gave rise to the artistic styles of Political Pop, Cynical Realism, and Gaudy Art. Many artists considered art to be over-consumed by the market; they felt an urgent need to react through radical experimentation in video, photography, performance, and conceptual art. The complexity and the tension between works favoured by the market and avant-garde practices provide a cogent narrative for Chinese art in the 1990s.

The third chapter moves into the twenty-first century and centres around Chinese art in the pre- and the post-Olympic era. During this time, China experienced an unprecedented economic and social acceleration caused by globalisation and urbanisation. Artists became conscious of the consequences brought on by these rapid developments and, as a result, art production expanded beyond political viewpoints to include everyday vocabularies. Some artists re-examined anti-tradition as practiced by the 85 New Wave, forging a new relationship between the contemporary and the traditional. A series of events including the Sichuan earthquake and the global economic crisis triggered some artists to once again embrace social engagement as a strategy for exposing conflicts and injustices in the process of urbanisation. The style and the language of art produced during this period focuses on individualistic values and meanings, with an emphasis on social intervention and rationality—a departure from the urge during the 1980s for intellectual liberation and protest. 

See also