by Iona Whittaker, translation by Song Jing 宋京
Urs Meile was born in Switzerland, the son of a modern art dealer and collector, and established a self-titled gallery for contemporary art in Lucerne in 1992. After visiting China on the invitation of Uli Sigg in 1995, Meile opened a Beijing branch housed in a series of Ai Weiwei-designed buildings in Caochangdi in 1996. Since then Galerie Urs Meile has grown to become one of China’s most reputable contemporary art galleries, representing Qiu Shihua, Ai Weiwei, Cheng Ran, Wang Xingwei and Yan Xing.
Iona Whittaker: Your father collected art — how did he influence your interest?
Urs Meile: When you grow up with art, step by step you become interested in it. My father was a collector of and dealer in modern art. He always told me, “Don’t do anything with contemporary art, that’s the worst!”
IW: Why was that?
UM: Because you don’t earn money! It’s a completely separate target. But that’s how I became more and more interested.
IW: It was your friend Uli Sigg who precipitated your first visit to China. What were your circumstances at the time?
UM: I had started very late with the gallery. That was in ’92; at the beginning of the ’90s the market was very bad so you couldn’t do anything properly. I was always collecting contemporary art. By June ’97 the market was so bad you couldn’t sell any art anyhow.
IW: What did you imagine about the trip? Did you have aims for it?
UM: I had absolutely no idea about China. When I was at school and university we were taught that China was the big danger. But then when Uli became the Swiss Ambassador he called me and said, “I have an embassy here, I have a driver, I have a cook and people do art.” It was that simple, just “Come and have a look.” That’s how it started, in January 1995.
IW: The two of you toured round studios for two years — can you remember any of the curiosities or questions that arose for you as you went?
UM: Of course, you had hundreds of questions. You saw a lot of paintings and performance, because at that time there were no real exhibition spaces. Performance meant you could just do something, and when the police came it had already happened. You couldn’t even remember how you got the information because there were no publications. You just heard it. You went there — maybe it was already closed, or opened for an hour. Everything was like that.
IW: Did you find there were particular questions the artists had for you, as visiting outsiders?
UM: It was very difficult to have a real discussion, because if they had a concept they were not used to articulating it — the response would be, “Mmm, I just do it.” The first thing they were thinking when they looked at you, a stranger, was money: “Finally I can sell something.” It took five, six, or seven years until they became familiar with you. It was a very strange situation.
IW: So meeting Ai was a big trigger.
UM: Yes, absolutely. I visited him at his studio but there was no art — nothing! Just some old pots and I said, “What the hell is this guy doing?”
IW: How did you conceptualize your early shows?
UM: It was initially my target to give an overview of what was going on; I was still searching for the right thing to do. We started with Ai Weiwei about whom I was completely convinced, even though for another eight years there was no market and people were telling me I was a complete idiot.
IW: What was the reaction to the show in Switzerland?
UM: People had no idea and did not understand what was going on. They immediately compared the work with what had happened during the last 80 years in Europe. They were very curious about this exotic moment and what would happen rather than fascinated by the content of the artworks.