First look: inside Galerie Urs Meile's new digs

The Caochangdi-based gallery reopens on a prime spot at 798

Galerie Urs Meile has always been a must-stop on any Caochangdi art walk. Indeed, the long-running gallery helped build up the off-798 neighbourhood, setting roots there in the mid-'90s and imbuing the alternative art zone with status and credibility through its representation of artists like veteran landscape painter Qiu Shihua, post-'80s new media artist Cheng Ran, and Ai Weiwei, who designed their iconic grey-brick Caochangdi gallery complex. Even the lesser-known artists on their roster consistently shine; solo exhibitions for Li Gang, Chen Fei and Yang Mushi were among our favourite showings of young Chinese artists in the capital's art world last year.

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Sadly, and rather abruptly, Galerie Urs Meile announced in early February that due a landlord dispute, they'd been 'compelled to close' their exhibition spaces until further notice. While 'compelled' closures have rather dominated the cultural news cycle in Beijing this year, this one has a happy ending: Galerie Urs Meile 2.0, which is now open to the public on a prime stretch of real estate in 798.

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The new space received a test-drive in March, when they staged Cheng Ran's multimedia performance piece Neoclassical, consisting of a dialogue read aloud by Cheng's assistant and accompanied by an abstract sound performance by experimental musicians Li Jianhong, Li Weisi and Li Qing. The half-renovated, rubble-strewn feel of the space at that time added a gritty charm to the performance, a feeling that has now been outstripped by an airy, understated grandeur achieved by the hand of Japanese architect Mitsunori Sano. Under his design, the former warehouse space has been transformed into a soaring grey-and-white cube that is flooded with light by day, thanks to a generous assemblage of high-ceiling windows.

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The austerely arranged interior space is finely complemented by its inaugural show, a series of white-washed landscapes by Sichuan-born Qiu Shihua. At a quick glance one only sees a chain of blank white canvases — only after sustained, up-close viewing do Qiu's delicate depictions of sweeping forests and valleys emerge to reward the careful viewer.

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In addition to the gallery room, the 520-square-metre space also contains offices, storage rooms, and a bedroom for when Urs Meile himself decamps from his other gallery space in Lucerne, Switzerland to log time on the Beijing scene. The team behind Galerie Urs Meile Beijing is keeping their old Caochangdi space, but utilising it now primarily as a residency for visiting artists. Though we'll miss the gray-brick Caochangdi staple, we're impressed with Galerie Urs Meile's new 798 digs, and look forward to seeing how they'll make use of its grand interior for art in other media, such as a show of new video works by Cheng Ran that they have planned for later in the year.

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