Hans Ulrich Obrist is one of the most fascinating figures in contemporary art. He can easily, from the outside, appear a little bit Sphinx-like, gnomic and enigmatic. He’s a jet-setting curator who spends his life travelling the world, never sleeping, his brain stuffed full of encyclopaedic knowledge. Yet, he is, equally famously, a man full of generosity, whose persona hides a pure and child-like love of art and artists. There’s a certain innocence to his work. He’s born to connect people across disciplines. Using his office in Serpentine Gallery as a base during the week, he spends 50 weekends a year travelling the globe, continuing his mission, to meet, speak, engage, nurture and mentor artists. And it’s in his office, on a rainy Tuesday in London, that we find him, dressed in a bright orange sweater, and drinking green tea…
I’m interested in how you engaged with art on a personal, emotional level before it became your profession. What were your earliest memories of art? What was the art world like where you grew up?
My first encounter with art was when my parents took me to a medieval monastery, when I was seven or eight. It had burned down and been rebuilt during the Rococo period. This made a big impression on me as a kid, because you walked in these felt shoes and then you got white gloves, and you could actually look at these medieval books from around [the year] 800, 900. I was unbelievably impressed by the idea that these monks wanted to synthesize all this knowledge. This might be the root of my obsessive, encyclopedic drive of wanting to know everything, this extreme form of curiosity. As a teenager, I started to go to a really great gallery called Erker in St. Gallen, Switzerland, by myself. I met Eugene Ionesco there, the playwright, a contemporary of Beckett, who wrote these absurdist theater plays. We had a tea, and he sort of joked that his play, The Bald Singer — which has been performed for decades every single night — might actually be more permanent than some bronze sculptures which are being commissioned and then removed. That was actually quite meaningful. All of this led to me obsessively traveling between Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Austria and France by night train, just to go to museums. I would collect art postcards. By the time I was 15, I had thousands of them — you know, Surrealism, Impressionism, Dada, Fluxus, Conceptual art, Minimal Art. I was inspired by Malreaux to start my own imaginary museum. Every day, I would curate different exhibitions with these postcards. It had a lot to do also with a certain solitude, because I think in a way, growing up in this provincial Swiss little town, you don’t see the sea, you always long for the sea, you have the mountains blocking it. It’s a slightly claustrophobic endeavor. I was an only child.
It didn’t take long for you to start meeting and speaking to all these great artists. Were you surprised when they agreed to just let you into their studios to talk about art?
I suppose it was less surprising then than it would be now, because the art world was so much smaller. But still, I was a teenager, around 16, and I could just ring up Gerhard Richter. I suppose it had a lot to do with the fact that it was just so unusual that somebody so young would visit [them]. And then the artists told each other about this art-obsessed 16- or 17-year-old, and it became a kind of a rumor. So, actually, the doors opened up quite easily. At the beginning, I needed a bit of courage to just ring people up. But then that became easier, because I got introductions. People started to wonder: What on earth is he going to do? I didn’t know it myself. I knew I wanted to work with artists. My other thought was: how can I be useful?
How to be useful, I guess, became this role of the curator, a role that didn’t exist in the same way when you started. Did it feel like art could be your career back then? Or was it something that was kind of a hobby that became a career?
I never thought of it as a career. I just wanted to somehow be useful to art. I was aware that there were these Austellungsmacher — Makers of exhibitions — like Harald Szeeman or Kasper König, who became quite famous in the ’80s. So, I did see that there was a kind of way to make it into a profession. But at the same time, I had no clue how. Because there really weren’t any jobs. And there still aren’t many curatorial jobs, so one has to invent one’s own job in a way, which I then did. So, it grew slowly. For many years, it was very difficult to make a living from this activity, even if I was very prolific and feverish. It was all very precarious until I got started working full time at Musee Moderne in Paris, which was relatively late, around 2000.
Who had the most influence on how you developed as a curator, how you developed your taste? Who directed you? Or was it just more the people you were meeting and the conversations you were having?
I suppose the biggest influence came from [Peter] Fischli and [David] Weiss, because they were the artists I would always hang out with and I would see because they were in nearby Zurich. I was also particularly passionate about their work. And we became real friends quite soon and then they would always want to find out from me why I liked something, why I didn’t like something. This was like a school of seeing, in a way. I’ve always had these mentors. When I came to London in 2006, I chose Eric Hobsbawm to kind of be my mentor. I would visit him regularly when I had a free afternoon. I think the most important of these philosophical mentors was Edouard Glissant, who I really think is the great writer of our time. He coined notions that have been so useful to me like mondialité, creolization, which I apply every day. My curatorial activity coincided with an increased globalization in the art world. And there were lots of positive sides to this because when I entered the art world in the late 80’s it was still very western-centric and we tried to unpick that and make it truly polyphonic. Glissant helped me with that, in terms of the understanding that we need an archipelago of centers, understanding that we need an idea of mondialité. He said that globalization also has negatives sides, that we need to resist the homogenization of globalization. But he also understood early on that the counterreaction to globalization could actually be even worse. He said that basically we need a sort of a mondialité, a negotiation between the local and the global. I started thinking my exhibitions could maybe do that.
You curated the first Berlin Biennial, as well as the first Manifesta, and these two exhibitions feel indicative of the start of the moment you’re describing.
Berlin had become such a global city after the fall of the wall, and so many artists had moved there, so we felt it would be kind of interesting to do an exhibition there. [The Berlin Biennial] was based on a very simple idea. We thought it would be interesting to do an exhibition where we wouldn’t buy a single plane ticket. We would just map artists already in Berlin. We sent our team of extremely young curators around the city, and they made thousands of studio visits. And so we found a whole new generation of artists, like John Bock, Monica Bonvicini, Jonathan Meese. And Manifesta, that was the first European biennale. The exhibition happened in all the museums, it wasn’t one homogenized bloc, but it was kind of an archipelago of exhibitions. It’s always interesting to be the first one to do such a biennial, because it’s all to be played for, it’s all to be invented, it’s kind of super-free. You go into the unknown.
After all this, you got your first real job at the Musee d’Arte Moderne in Paris, your first permanent curatorial position within a museum context. The ’90s had been very free, and you’d been doing a lot of different things — how did your work change when you found yourself within an institution?
My work was always been based on encounters, on research. What would happen if all of a sudden I’m no longer doing this research? The work would kind of die. It was a bit like my first day of school; I kind of thought it was so strange, after this very sort of free childhood of time, where you do with your time whatever you want. Then all of a sudden, you are in this school calendar, and you’ve got to go there at 7 o’clock and time becomes very homogenized. I became interested in editing time. I tried the Da Vinci method where I would sleep 15 minutes every three hours. I tried not sleeping at all, with cups of coffee, à la Balzac. That was not sustainable. As you know, Blazac died an early death, so I didn’t want that. I stopped that. When I got this job in Paris, I said I have to be in the office from Monday to Thursday, so I decided to just go on a trip every week from Friday to Monday, and then I did this 50 times a year, even at Christmas time, no holiday. This would give me time to research. I was far too all over the place to ever be able to concentrate. I was kind of a medium. And it was extremely chaosmotic. I was kind of out there, linking people and producing energy, and taking energy and giving energy, and it was all about generosity. And then at a certain moment I realized that this also lead to a problem because if you don’t sleep 6, 7 hours every night, I don’t think you properly dream. That’s when I came up with this idea of the night assistant. I don’t know if you know about this. I [hired] a night assistant, who basically works for me every night, from midnight to 7AM, from 11PM to 7AM, so we’ve got two overlapping hours at the end and the beginning. Then I sleep, and he continues to research. So, that again is another form of editing time. Hopefully I’m going to come up with more ideas like that.
How did your approach to curating and working with artists change when you found yourself within the kind of framework of an institution?
When you’re a freelance curator, you never really get to curate solo shows, because museums curate solo shows in-house. I kind of felt at a certain moment, that that’s the deepest, most osmotic relationship you can develop with an artist — working on his or her big monographic show. That’s a very different reality than just lending, or basically borrowing a piece from an exhibition from an artist and putting it in the group show, or asking an artist to react to a theme of a group show. It means working with an artist for a year every day, talking to him or her every day.
This kind of template is kind of what the Serpentine is, the best kind of solo shows. How do you keep evolving as a gallery?
Through conversation. Yana Peel and I are very old friends, but new colleagues. We have been collaborating for a year, and that led to a bigger emphasis on technology. The process never stops. There is always a new chapter being added. And then of course it’s always a conversation with artists. For example, Ryan Trecartin told me that there are such amazing artists born in the ’90s. I said, wow, I don’t know anyone born in the ’90s — that was like five years ago. By now, we know thousands. And then we started 89+ to map that generation. So in a way, the method never really categorically changed. It was always like I started kind of as a flaneur reading Robert Walser, going on walks. Metaphorically, that is what I always do: I have conversations, I’m a flaneur, and ideas grow out of this. I have conversations with many, many different people in many different disciplines. I speak to scientists, I speak to architects. Then my main work is to connect them. I think that’s as important as exhibitions. I visit my friend Etel Adnan very regularly because she’s so inspiring and gives me so many ideas. And she always says that for many centuries, history was driven by this idea of imposing manifestos, but now it’s more about the feminine quality of listening. And I think museums should take that into account.
Interviews are another essential part of your practice. How do you kind of see your role as the interviewer? Are you a journalist in that moment? Or do you think of yourself as more of a curious friend?
It’s changed a little bit over the years, because I think I’ve developed more and more recurrent questions. They’re the building blocks of every conversation now. I like to ask [artists] the question you started off with: how it began. It’s always interesting how someone came to art. Also, what’s the first museum they visited. I think that always has an impact on you. I love asking artists: what do you see as your student work, and where does your catalog begin? I’m very interested in epiphanies, mini and maxi epiphanies. Then I’m of course interested in things that didn’t happen — the whole complex of the unbuilt. We know about architects’ unrealized projects, but we know almost nothing about the unrealized projects of other practitioners, poets, and novelists, and scientists, and visual artists. So, I always ask them about the unbuilt. There are obviously projects that we couldn’t do because they were too expensive or they were too big. But then there’s another category, which [Doris] Lessing told me about — the projects we don’t dare to do, because of a kind of self-censorship. Then there’s the question how one is handing down one’s expertise to the next generation. I had a kind of a whole multitude of mentors, so I always want to do the same with the newer generation. I’m interested in how artists do that.
I have a question I quite like to ask everyone, like you were saying: Can you think of one thing that you’ve done in your career that you loved and thought was amazing, but that the public didn’t get or enjoy or understand?
That’s a great question. I think the main example of that, because it’s my least successful show, and in a weird way one of my favorite shows, is Laboratorium, which we did in Belgium in ’99. It was an experimental show. In the end of the year, all the elders agreed: ‘they got this famous curator from Paris, who very sadly produced a flop.’ There were only about 10,000 visitors for this very big exhibition, rather than the expected 100,000. The idea was we did a show about the laboratory: the lab becoming a general condition. And we looked at artist studios and the scientific lab. We invited visitors to actually visit scientific labs and do studio visits. We did a big exhibition in the photographic museum of sleeping labs by Rosemarie Trockel. Lots of different labs were happening there. In an empty building, we invited artists to build their own labs. The whole thing was truly experimental. To me it was one of the most exciting and satisfying shows of my life, but it was also a public flop. The only consolation was that the people who did come spent hours and hours there. Maybe it was too early, or the wrong city to do it. We never found out what it was.
You’ve done so many interviews and asked people so many questions. I wonder if there’s ever a question that you’ve wanted to ask an artist, but never do?
A long time ago, I read an interview with Jean-Luc Godard — my big unrealized interview, because I never managed to meet him. Godard says he was crossing the border between Switzerland and France, something he would frequently do, and the customs agent recognized him, knew who he was, but didn’t know his work at all. That was [Godard’s] way of saying that the discourse is all about people and their lives, but not so much about the work. And I read that quite early on in my research and from this I drew that, wow, I should really focus my interviews on work. It should always be about the work. So maybe [the personal questions are] what’s missing. I sometimes regret that I don’t ask people more about astrology. It would be nice to have a calendar with the all birthdays in it of everyone I met in my life. So that’s an unrealized question. Maybe the question you just asked me. It’s a great question because it’s about failure. And you can only succeed if you’re not scared of failing.
Cover image: Carsten Holler, Upside-Down Goggles, Installation view from the exhibition Take Me (I’m Yours), selected by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine Gallery, London (24 March – 30 April 1995) © 1995 Carsten Holler.