The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Swiss collector Uli Sigg sees contemporary Korean art as part of global mainstream

Former ambassador to N. Korea has art collections from both Koreas

By Park Yuna

Published : Oct. 30, 2023 - 18:51

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Swiss art collector Uli Sigg (Uli Sigg) Swiss art collector Uli Sigg (Uli Sigg)

To Swiss art collector, businessperson and former diplomat Uli Sigg, who is known for having an extensive private collection of contemporary Chinese art, collecting art in a meaningful way allows one to understand a society, and collectors supporting artists and museums enables them to develop and function better.

“The most important quality a collector has to build is to find a focus that will distinguish a collection from a mere accumulation of works. I collect artworks as I find this the most rewarding way to research our societies,” Sigg said in a recent email interview with The Korea Herald.

“The collector allows a material base for artists to exist as such, also contributes ever more to museums to do their function, which is to be the collective memory of our time. Because their budgets allow less and less to do this without help from existing collections,” he added.

Sigg’s collection came to global attention when he donated 60 percent of his entire collection to Hong Kong’s M+ museum, which opened in November 2021.

His donation of some 1,500 works to the museum is one of the most comprehensive collections of contemporary Chinese art in the world, according to the museum.

While Sigg’s Chinese contemporary art collection was made with an “encyclopedic approach,” he follows his own taste when it comes to Korean art, according to Sigg, who also has a strong interest in the relationship between the two Koreas. Sigg served as Switzerland's ambassador to China, Mongolia and North Korea from 1995 to 1998.

An installation view of Yee Soo-kyung's An installation view of Yee Soo-kyung's "Whisper Only to You" at the Museo di Capodimonte in 2019 (Yee Soo-kyung)

Contemporary South Korean art, he said, has made its way into the “global mainstream of contemporary art” with several great and talented artists.

Among the South Korean artists he has been interested in is Yee Soo-kyung, whose “Translated Vase” series is created with sculptures reconstructed from discarded fragments of ceramics.

Sigg’s interest in the relationship between the two Koreas partially explains why he is drawn to Yee's works.

In a recent email exchange between Sigg and Yee, Yee wrote in English that, out of a desire for the reunification of Korea, she created "The Other Side of The Moon," "made of black-glazed ceramics fragments from Hoiryeong in North Korea, which was showcased alongside white porcelain jars from the Joseon Dynasty at an exhibition at the Leeum Museum of Art, in 2014."

When Yee moved her storage from near the Demilitarized Zone in June to its current location in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, she showed some 20 works from the storage facility in early September, inviting art experts and collectors in an event that coincided with Frieze Seoul. Yee had asked Sigg to select which works to display.

Sigg has supported Yee’s career for the past 15 years, well before her “Translated Vase” series became famous at home and abroad, purchasing early works in her “Flame” drawing series.

“We had a conversation about her state of mind that had been affected by personal issues at the time. I could immediately read the work as a very elaborate chart of her psyche at that moment in time and I was particularly attracted by the outstanding technical skill matching that intensity,” he said.

Yee Soo-kyung's new storage facility in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, where her works selected by Swiss art collector Uli Sigg were shown Sept. 6-9 (The Page Gallery) Yee Soo-kyung's new storage facility in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, where her works selected by Swiss art collector Uli Sigg were shown Sept. 6-9 (The Page Gallery)

Sigg currently holds some 90 works of contemporary Korean art, including 12 paintings from North Korea.

Regarding his collection of North Korean art, Sigg said, “I wanted to document with a few samples of their (North Korean) variant of Socialist Realism as I did with the Chinese version. So the (North Korean) government allowed me to collect a few exemplary works as a result of prolonged negotiations."

Yee's solo exhibition, "Yeesookyung: Temple portatif," will run through Dec. 17 at the Cernuschi Museum in Paris, France.

Regarding the two Koreas, Sigg expressed his wish as a former Swiss ambassador to North Korea for the relationship between the two to improve.

“I wish there were a peaceful solution to the benefit of both sides. But we clearly lack a vision of what that solution would look like -- not to mention even of the first steps of the path to that solution,” Sigg said.