The M+ Sigg Collection at the Whitworth: Subversive, provocative, stellar

Susie Stubbs
A woman sitting on a wall

China’s contemporary art scene has gone from zero to hero in the space of just forty years, but no one has attempted to tell its story. Until now.

Modern and contemporary art has been knocking about in Europe since, like, forever. But in China, a country for whom cultural repression is still the norm, the visual art movement is still young. It only really got going in the 1980s and then largely behind closed doors – artists often worked in the knowledge that if they or their artistic offspring were discovered, imprisonment or worse would likely follow. Swiss collector Uli Sigg did, however, spot the signs of the burgeoning movement and began quietly collecting works by artists such as Ai Weiwei, Cao Fei and Zhang Peili. That collection is now widely considered the best of its kind in the world, and in 2019 it’ll form the heart and soul of a new museum – the M+ museum – in Hong Kong.

Between now and then, however, there is one chance to see that collection in the UK. The M+ Sigg Collection: Chinese art from 1970 to now opens at the Whitworth on 1 July and, among eighty works that span four, fast-moving decades, is Zhang Huan’s provocative Family Tree, a documented performance piece that saw the artist’s face gradually obscured by the ink of the calligraphers who painted lyrics across his face. It’s a work that delivers a visual sucker punch: a man gradually obscured by ink just as an individual can be forcefully subsumed into a communist whole.

The only chance to see this collection in the UK

Ai Weiwei’s contribution, meanwhile, is no less arresting, not least as he is still banned from leaving China (his six year-old son accepted his dad’s award from Amnesty International in Berlin last month; when passed the microphone he simply said: “I hope my dad gets his passport back”). At the Whitworth, Ai Weiwei’s Still Life will be painstakingly laid out; it’s a work made up of the heads of thousands of Stone Age axes.

In the main, however, it’s unlikely you’ll recognise many of the names in this exhibition, which is kind of the point. Contemporary art in China is still so new, so fast developing, that, apart from artists such as Ai Weiwei and Cao Fei, its protagonists remain little known in Europe. Uli Sigg’s collection provides a snapshot of its tumultuous, rapid and still precarious development – and this exhibition serves as an unmissable introduction to some lesser known but no less stellar names.

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