Hans Ulrich Obrist Interview
I would like to ask you, as curator and author of many books on art, how do you see the borders between curator and critic? Do they still have a voice to determine, for example exhibitions like this year’s Venice Biennale was a really narrative exhibition, or has it all been dissolved with today’s horizontality, with the internet, etc.
I have always been someone who makes exhibitions. In German you call it an exhibition maker (ausstellungsmacher) it has always been my practice, but I have also other parallel activities, I write on art, I edit books, I record conversations with artists but my main practice has always been to make exhibitions. There is obviously a long tradition of making exhibitions, but initially there was no independent curating, it happened mostly in museums. The inspiration on my practice came from Harald Szeemann, initially, growing up in Switzerland I saw the way that he worked within a museum yet sustained lot of independent projects in his spare time. Then Kasper König became my mentor, he was a great exhibition maker. Then Suzanne Pagé became my mentor, from her I learned how a museum works, how one runs a museum, how one makes a program, how one works between the contemporary and the historical shows and that was somehow another sort of learning process. For me that has been the background, I have never gone to a curator school. I learned it on the job from a great ausstellungsmacher, Kasper König, and from a great museum director, Suzanne Pagé, these very complementary knowledges. The most important things I learned, besides that, was always with artists, I am always very close to artists, having conversations with artists. That was my main school.
In terms of your question about boundaries, I suppose, obviously there are boundaries. I am not an artist, I have never had an art practice and I am also not a critic because it is not something I have done a lot, I have not written a lot of criticism. In my case is mostly the making of exhibitions, that’s what I do. And then, obviously, thinking about exhibitions, there is also the questions: How does one document them? How does one archive them? I have been inspired by Vasari and the idea of how can one write the lives of the artist, and how in a certain moment of my conversation, meeting all these great artist, and at a certain moment to have an archive, and so that became a parallel activity. But I think that in the art world there are all kinds of parallel realities. We need an art world where there are strong museums, where there are also strong art schools, where there are strong criticism, strong theories, all these things are very important. Obviously in the context of globalization there are all these new possibilities of global dialogue, but then there is also a certain danger that maybe the homogenizing forces of globalization are also at work, and how can we resist them? So that’s why I think it’s so important to have all these different voices, to have a very polyphonic artworld.From your point of view as Director of the Serpentine and having curated projects like Do It and nanomuseum, that expand the field of art to anywhere, how do you see the dynamics between a hierarchical system like that of institutions and a more open, democratic practice?
That has always been my Harald Szeemann model, to be inside and at the same time outside the institution. Harald Szeemann left the Kunsthalle Bern after he did When attitudes become form he left the Kunsthalle Bern and became an independent curator, and then later in his life he combined the two, he became the visionary curator of the Kunsthaus Zurich, where he did this exhibition Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk, that was an inclination towards the total work of art, with Rudolf Steiner and Shwitters, etc, all these different forms of gesamtkunstwerk, and he did also lots of extraordinary solo shows Cittá Irreale, The unreal City, by Mario Merz, an utopic igloo city on the top floor of the Kunsthaus, these are shows which for me as a kid were very inspiring. But what was very inspiring was the way he negotiated being both inside and outside the institution. But that has been something artists have done even before that and for a long time. We all learn from artists, without artist there wouldn’t be an artworld. I’ve got a very artist centered view of the artworld, I think that the artists are clearly the heart of the artworld.
I learned so many things from artists, for example if you think Marcel Broodthaers in this museum, Department of Eagles, he sort of defined this idea: What can actually found an institution on a daily basis? And for me, also coming out of conversations with Christian Boltanski and Fischli/Weiss, that lead to my kitchen show, and came to this idea that we can just do it ourselves, we can found our own structures, declare the kitchen into a temporary museum, or declare my hotel room, a year later, in 1992, and in 1993 the Hotel Carlton Palace where we did an exhibition with 70 artists in a modest hotel, it wasn’t a palace at all, it was just a modest hotel in Boulevard Raspail, Paris. We invited artists to come to the hotel room and leave traces and do works. So art can happen where one expects it least, that’s what Robert Musil says in the The Man without Quality, he says art can pop out of where we expect it the least and that has been something I have always been very interested in. I suppose its not only the sort of Marcel Broodthaers conversations through his work and then through Boltanski, James Lee Byars, this idea of being inside/outside the museum but it was also Félix Gonzáles-Torres who was for my generation I think essential because he somehow marks the transition of the 80’s and the 90’s, at that moment it wasn’t about occupying space but more of liberating space and Félix taught me and many other people that its not about necessarily not being in the museums, that its also about infiltrating these institutions and then replicating, that the beginning of my Migratoire project, my first project in the museum was nothing else than bringing my kitchen show and my hotel show and all these sort of parasite museums into the big museums and so in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris we did a sort of infiltration with these pieces of Migratoirepopping out from anywhere unexpected, like Douglas Gordon did a text “a moment where you meet someone with blue eyes, or green eyes” and that popped up as a text, the museum popped up as a voice in the telephone system and at the same time you have Rirkrit Tiravanija who offered the facilities to make tea or coffee and no one really knows what it was until it was gone, and by the time it was gone everybody regretted and was wondering where it was and so that was another form of infiltration. A lot of artists, for example Félix Gonzélez-Torres installed flowers in the offices and he changed the office from within and he also installed a billboard, so this Migratoire project was sort of my first museum experience. It was the idea of a migratory project which didn’t have a fixed place in the museum and which could always use unexpected places in the museum. So for me since the very outset of my work there has been this kind of oscillation, inside and outside the museum, carry the museum into the world, carry the world into the museum, I suppose Broodthaers was the biggest influence, that that idea can be a daily practice.
How do you see the future in this sense, will it continue to be an interchange between the hierarchical and open system, or will it be more horizontal?
It is always difficult to predict the future as a curator because we cannot predict the future of art. Artists have their artist’s minds and we can only be as close as possible to the artists in order to understand where, maybe, art might go. And that’s what we are doing now with the 89plus project, where Simon Castets and I started to do this research where we map the digital generation. The first generation of artists who actually grew up with internet, who are digitally native and that is a long term, long durational mapping endeavour, where over the next ten years or so we are going to map how this generation grows and evolves. We will also hopefully enable the visibility of this generation doing residencies and books and hopefully later also exhibitions, and obviously then we will see the impact the internet has. One of the things which is interesting also is the relationship to objects because for many of these artists you know, John Nashville said there is the physical brain, so the physical still plays an important role because in this digital realm maybe the physical disappears from this digital reign and many of these artists do exhibitions which primarily exists online and in some kind of way it is not so different from my kitchen how which wasn’t online but just a very few people visited and then it became a rumour and obviously still there is this question of resistance. How, you know, Les Immatériaux was this exhibition by Jean Francoise Lyotard he did for the Centre Georges Pompidou. In the end of his life he told the artist Phillipe Parreno he wanted to do the opposite of Les Immatériaux and create resistance and this resistance is something we, Daniel Birnbaum with Phillipe Parreno, we are going to pick up and actually try to realise the unrealised exhibition of Lyotard. So that is another thing that is interesting, the notion of resistance for the future.
The other thing which I think is also very interesting is the question of you know, we’ve got more and more information and the quantity of information augments exponentially but that does not necessarily mean that we have also more memory. It could very well be that amnesia is at the core of the digital age. So I think that in this sense for the future it will also be important to protest against forgetting. I think memory is a big topic. Another thing we can observe is a lesser attachment to objects, I’ve seen a lot of friends of mine who has recently moved apartments, I have moved apartments recently, I just put so many books and stuff into storage because it becomes very liberating just not to be surrounded by too many objects, its not to have too many books but to be in some kind of way more free. That is something that might also play, you know Tino Seghal doesn’t do objects and he said that with this whole idea of the object he came to a conclusion, a cycle that runs from the nineteenth century to the 60s and now we are in a sort of different moment. It is quite interesting to thinks about what that actually means with this whole new interest there is for life situations, for living sculptures. I’ve done a show with Klaus Biesenbach called, 11, 12 and 13 Rooms, where there was all sorts of living sculptures, this of course is not performance, it has the same duration of an exhibition, the difference is that at seven o clock in the afternoon, when the museum closes, the sculptures then go home. These are things I think will become more important in the future. It doesn’t mean that objects disappear. We always have object, quasi-objects, non-objects à la Michel Serres, and there will always be objects. But then maybe there is a bigger questioning of how to still add objects, if to still add objects, and also the limits of growth, sustainability, these are big topics, as Binswanger says and they are also relevant in art.
Since you mentioned the 89plus project, where you spotlight the internet generation, what is the best way, in your opinion, to take advantage of this technology?
I think we have not yet seen the Nam June Paik of the internet age, it very often takes a little bit of time to you know, a medium is invented and not immediately artists are making art with it, it takes some time, there’s a certain delay, you know. The television was invented and it took years for Nam June Paik, that was one of the first to really make art out of television and I think we are in the imminence of having the Nam June Paiks, and I think that is interesting to see, if you look at the work of Ryan Trecartin, how he has incorporated Youtube into his film practice. He is certainly one of the first artists where we can really see in his installations and in his films what changed in terms of the internet and the whole digital field. I think that it will become much stronger, much more present even with the next generation. Ryan himself said he is so excited about the artists of the 90s, he looks forward to see the artists from the 90s. Ryan was a great inspiration not only for the 89plus project but also for my Instagram project. I started to post handwriting on Instagram every second or third day I have handwriting by an artist. The idea is to resist this idea of the disappearance of handwriting in the digital age, because less and less people use handwriting. Umberto Eco wrote a whole text about how teenagers no longer write very often. So we want to make handwriting again very present. That’s why I invite artists and architects to handwrite a sentence and then I celebrate the handwriting by posting it on the internet. We have more than 250 of these handwritten documents which in the end of the year will also become a book. It’s a project that is very much about – let me show you the most recent one which is “A giraffe walking into a painting” from John Baldessari wrote two days ago when we met in Basel, the other recent example is the mathematician Cédric Villani who wrote “The hand, our most ancient and faithful ally, accompanies us in all our reflections”, so that is Cédric Villani. Maybe I can give you a third and last example for this project, we have the astronomer Dimitar Sasselov who looks into extra solar planets and lives in other planets and he talked about the future, he says “The future is forever”.
What was your greatest epiphany for art?
There has not been one epiphany but lots of moments of revelation, of learning, but certainly for me one of the most incredible moments was when I was a seventeen year old teenager I visited the artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss in Zurich, it was in the mid eighties and they were just doing this equilibrium, the photographs, which are actually very interesting, they are the predecessors of what we show now at the Kensington Gardens. Julia Peyton-Jones and I invited Fischli/Weiss to show Rock on top of another rock which we realized together with Jochen Volz, so we invited them to realise these two gigantic rocks on top of each other. Rock on top of another rock is a collaboration with the Qatar Museum authorities and the stones will also go to Qatar after a year on the Kensington Gardens, we invited Fischli/Weiss to do this project of an equilibrium, is a rock on top of another rock, and that very much reminded me of the first day I visited their studio, where they did this equilibrium in photography and then, all of a sudden, animated into a film and it became a chain reaction The way things go. When I, as a teenager, saw this situation of this film in the studio, that day I knew I wanted to become a curator.
What is your suggestion for new artists and curators?
Jean Rouch once told me, my neighbour in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the great film maker, and visionary Jean Rouch, he once sent me a postcard and he says: immense courage. I would say that. My advice is to have immense courage. Because I think in some kind if way, it’s only this project where we take the courage and where at the end very often change things. The most remembered exhibitions are the ones which have changed the rules of the game. Its something Richard Hamilton always said, when an exhibition invents a new display feature, when it changes the rules of the games its more remembered, and that would be the second advice, not to be afraid of changing the rules of the game.