He finds artists, he remakes artists and somewhere in between finds the time to connect people. He has written 350 books, continues his ongoing interviews with artists from around the world [The Interview Project], gives lectures, and carries on his main role as a curator. Topping the Power 100 list of the art world last year, Obrist has become what some would describe as a gatekeeper.
He himself is a giant node, a nexus point in the art world that people are drawn to. This is by no accident – Obrist lives, breathes and sleeps art. At the age of 22 he embarked on his travels across the globe to visit as many exhibitions as possible. This passion hasn’t subsided, Obrist spends almost every weekend in a different city finding the next big thing. He doesn’t consume it, it consumes him. Director of the renowned Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park, he approaches this position with a gentle eccentricity, putting on works ranging from his legacy project Marathon to the rule-breaking interactive exhibition ‘Take Me (I’m Yours)’. Whilst some consider we live in a cultural vacuum in today’s world, Hans Ulrich Obrist wants us to understand that art will outlive everything, and who’s to say he is wrong?
I know you have a long standing relationship with the German artist Gerhard Richter. You recently worked on a book 40 Tage that has just come out. I was just watching an interview with Gerhard Richter and he said something interesting. That “he’s quite pessimistic about the future of painting and that most people just want to be entertained these days.” Would you agree with that?
Interestingly enough he’s just done the most extraordinary series of paintings at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne – a series of paintings from 2016 and among the best paintings I’ve seen in the 21st Century. They are actually very optimistic after a series of darker, abstract paintings. So it’s an interesting paradox.
But would you say that it’s a sentiment that you agree with in the wider cultural sense? That in painting you don’t see a bright future?
No, there will always be artists who surprise us and that gives us optimism. I do believe that art is the highest form of hope, as Richter says, so I think even though, politically, it is a very difficult moment in the world, I still think art is hope.
Do you think that artists have some type of obligation right now to comment on the times we’re living in? You talk about the difficult moment that so many people are facing.
I don’t think that we can tell artists what to do, that’s not what a curator should do. The extraordinary thing is that art can outlast us all and still be relevant now.
I mean you can look back to Goya, and see that his work is relevant now, independent of the wars that Goya depicted at the time. Many artists are asking themselves the question, ‘What is the role of artists in society right now?’ An example of this is John Latham, who has an exhibition at the Serpentine right now. He worked with the Scottish Government in 1976 on this highly ecological project. He was creating derelict land art from these huge coal piles that would have been wasted. He showed that there need to be a lot more sustainable energy options in the future.
"Many artists are asking themselves the question, ‘What is the role of artists in society right now?’ "
Hans Ulrich Obrist on an artist's obligation
It’s interesting because one of the best exhibitions that I’ve seen, was by accident, I walked into the Serpentine and it was the Duane Hanson exhibition. I didn’t know who this was but I just walked in, so there was this element of wonder and astonishment. So I’m interested in the work that you do as a curator. Are you just catering to people who know about art or is it more for the general public?
That’s a very interesting question, I’d say both rather than either or. In terms of curating, it is of course for the specialists, but it is also for the wider audience, for someone who has maybe never visited an art exhibition. Of course, the Serpentine is in a park, and very driven by the motto ‘Art for all’. To give you a concrete example of how that works, a couple of months ago a taxi driver dropped me off early in the morning at the gallery. As it was long before opening hours, 7 or 8 in the morning, he asked if I was involved with the gallery. So I explained to him that I am the artistic director, and he started to tell me this story about a walk he took in the very colourful pavilion we had designed by the young Spanish architects selgascano.
He came with his family to the park and all of a sudden his daughter ran into the pavilion, she was attracted by the vivid colours and the scheme, and he said he never would have had the thought that he would even enter an art gallery, because it’s not for people like him. So this shows the kind of barriers we face, even if it’s free admission he felt that it’s not for him.
That’s so interesting.
So he went to fetch his daughter and they spent some time in the pavilion. And he said it’s extraordinary, ever since then she talks about nothing else but architecture and he’s been buying her books and is almost 100% convinced that it is what she is going to study and become.
That obviously made me very happy because that’s what we work for every day, in order for that to happen. It’s about removing these barriers and creating the best possible exhibition for everyone. We have more than a million visitors a year, and that’s very important. So it is clearly the latter and not the former.
Do you ever Google yourself?
No, I Google other people. I have a Google alert on myself, because I’m interested to see the feedback and the reception in terms of my exhibitions and my texts, so that’s why it’s good to have the alert. But I Google all day long about all kinds of things, different artists and exhibitions.
The orbital influence of Hans Ulrich Obrist, pictured here with Tracey Emin and a former co-director of the Serpentine Gallery Julia Peyton-Jones
I think the reason why I’m asking you if you Google yourself, is because after doing research, it seems there is a public misconception about you. One quote states – “Obrist is often assumed to be a kind of megalomaniac who is more prominent that the artists he shows – and who is willing to crush the heterogeneity of artists work in order to extract coherent themes”. Do you think that people often misconceive what you are doing? I mean personally I see what you do possesses a certain kind of ‘chaos of collaboration’ approach.
I think what’s interesting is that there are a lot of different perceptions, particularly because I work not only in art but in architecture, in science, I think it’s an expanded notion of curating and of course the work is perceived in these fields very differently. But you evoked this thing about the curator being more prominent than the artist. For me, there has always been this very clear line, that the curator is a catalyst, an enabler, working very closely with artists. I am just the medium in a conversation with artists, so that is certainly a misunderstanding, and I think that is why I started to write because I felt that people were misunderstanding. At the beginning I was just publishing interviews but then I was really inspired by Studs Terkel, the great art historian of the 20th Century who I met, and has more than 10,000 hours of recording with all the jazz pioneers and he made this great portrait of work during the Great Depression in the US, so there was also this social and political dimension, and he explained to me how you can use these hours of recordings to not just publish them as interviews but also to turn them into books.
Would you say that your manic travel schedule, your interviews and your curating, are a form of performance art itself?
I haven’t practiced as an artist. I see myself as a junction maker, very much as you described it before, bringing all these different fields and people together. Of course I continue to exhibit objects and create junctions between objects, quasi-objects, non-objects and then, as Timothy Morton would say, ‘hyper-objects’, these bigger phenomena that go beyond the realm of the object.
Obrist’s turning his notebook into a conceptual work.
But other activities that I am involved in are cyber introductions, where I send emails to people I feel urgently need to meet, and I think often really great things come out of that.
What was the last introduction you made?
Well today I introduced Steffi Czerny who is the founder of DLD in Germany, which is a wonderful digital conference, with Jon Kamen who is the founder of RadicalMedia and produces these extraordinary documentaries and digital films. I thought that if they met there could be a really interesting synergy between them and they are both based in New York so I just dropped them an email to say that they should meet, and they are meeting as we speak.
I do those kinds of things every day, and that’s as equally important to me as curating an exhibition. For me, very early on I had this incredible privilege of meeting great artists such as Gerhard Richter, Annette Messager, Boltanski, or Fischli and Weiss who were of course so essential in my trajectory at the start. I knew I wanted to work with artists but I wanted to be able to do something useful and important because I really believe that what is going to remain from our time are these great artists.
Serpentine Pavilion 2015 designed by selgascano
Where do you find joy in things?
I’ve worked on so many projects throughout my trajectory that have given me joy. Whether it is supporting young artists at the beginning of their trajectory, like the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, or Douglas Gordon who I helped organise his first museum show in Paris in the 1990s, or recognising the work of the forgotten artists, the pioneers.
Whenever I travel somewhere now I have this methodology, I always ask, is there a Louise Bourgeois in this city? Is there an amazing, visionary older artist whose work deserves more attention? Artists like Maria Lassnig in Vienna, the late Gustav Metzger or Phyllida Barlow.
I look at artists like that and ask who need revisiting. It’s not only about the future artists but it’s also about looking back, kind of protesting against forgetting. That gives me a lot of satisfaction because it can make a huge difference.
It’s not only exhibitions that make me happy, but books. Reading them and also editing them, like with the Gerhard Richter books. To do books with art, for me, that is what remains from an exhibition. It’s a very democratic art form, anyone can have access to it, its not expensive and it can circulate. I have written about 350 books, it’s an important part of my life and I’m kind of obsessed with them.
I get this sense that you are fascinated by the different paradigms in art, the different epochs. If you could go back to the different art ages I’m sure you’d be there interviewing the same legends, people like Edvard Munch etc. There was a line I read about you that kind of encapsulates that, saying that you are always trying to cheat time. I don’t think that was meant negatively, more about how you live your life, wanting to be everywhere, doing everything all at one time. There is so much out there that it is almost consuming you rather than you consuming it. Would you agree with that?
I do a lot of things to try and liberate myself from this construct of time that we have. I remember speaking with the great composer La Monte Young, and he said he always felt so constrained when he was at school because he had this homogenised timetable. So when he came out of school, he decided that his day consisted of 23 hours, and he almost freed himself of time. I’ve been really interested by that.
Young would spend every other day in bed, so he was creating this new sense of time rather than being constrained to the prescribed timetable, and I’ve always been interested in the different ways of playing with time, liberating time. When I was a teenager I didn’t want to sleep so I just drank loads of coffee but obviously that didn’t work, then I found the da Vinci rhythm where I slept 15 minutes every 3 hours which works really well, so I am permanently trying to find new methods. Since having an office job, Monday to Friday, it has been good for me, more stable for my thoughts and I use the evenings to write. But then I came up with this idea that every weekend of the year I should travel to maintain the research flow, there is never a weekend I don’t see art. So that is another way of liberating time, of being free.
Twenty-one years after its huge success at the Serpentine Gallery, the exhibition conceived by Christian Boltanski and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Take Me (I’m Yours), is recreated. Visitors are invited, even encouraged, to touch, use, and take away objects and ideas from the show.
Tell me why you are so interested by artists? I don’t see you out there doing conversation books with construction workers or people that work in offices. The artists are leading the narrative. What makes the artists so incredibly engaging for you? What is their language?
Artists invent other worlds. They also bring us to where we never thought we would go. It is very unpredictable. One thing we discussed earlier is this idea that artists are creating work that will remain throughout the centuries, and that has always fascinated me, the long duration of art.
But then let’s bring in another theme, you’re on Instagram where everyone is constantly looking for the next ‘like’ or whatever you want to call it. So how does art keep that long duration now?
Firstly, it’s not because of new media like Instagram that art forms disappear. It’s important that painting, sculpture, drawing all continue. There is a total renaissance of drawing which is amazing, so many drawing activities happening in studios.
"Artists invent other worlds. They also bring us to where we never thought we would go."
Hans Ulrich Obrist on the importance of artists
You said that Warhol would have loved Instagram.
Yeah I think Boetti also would have loved it. Of course, you can never replace the experience of the exhibition, because we have more visitors in the physical exhibition than ever before, so it actually draws people into galleries rather than replacing them. There are a lot of people who criticise Instagram saying that people will only see art in this way now, and of course that would be horrific if it was the case, but in our case it is the opposite.
It’s like in music, where people have a desire to go to concerts, it’s the same in art where people want to experience it by going to an exhibition. Exhibitions are a democratic ritual in fact, it’s not prescriptive, you can stay for as long as you like, and I really believe that can’t be replaced by social media. But for me, the reason that Instagram is interesting is that it is a space where you can see a lot of work outside of exhibitions. Like with the Instagram projects I mentioned earlier, it has become a bit of a laboratory for artists.
You have seen the rise of Gerhard Richter over the course of your 30 year friendship. Talk to me about this ever-increasing commodification of art, because there was this recent TV show about Sotheby’s following Jussi Pylkkanen and it shows this incredible obsession with the Nouveau Riche and the hyperinflation of art prices, and Gerhard Richter is one of the most notably valued artists on that scale. Do you think it has got out of hand?
I have never worked in relation to that because I have worked with public exhibitions, with museums and books, so in that sense I don’t really know much about this commercial aspect of art, it’s not something I’m interested in. I’m interested in creating extraordinary experiences with exhibitions for as many people as possible, to democratise that medium.
But you are considered one of the most important people in the art world, you have so many nexus points, so this commercialisation or subversion of art must have crossed in to your work at some point?
No because I think there are a lot of parallel realities, like in quantum physics. But of course, in a world where money plays an important role, as in the art world, it is more important than ever to take part in projects where that is not the case. We also don’t want artists having that at the forefront of their mind when they are creating. For example, my first show at the Serpentine when I was a guest curator in the 1990s, called ‘Take Me I’m Yours’, which has now had a revival, it showed last year in Paris and continues to tour, but it basically consists of the artists creating multipliable work that visitors can take away with them. So this allows everybody who sees it to have an exhibition in his or her own home. That motto that I have mentioned, ‘Art for all’, is really what drives me.
To coincide with the exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s 40 Tage, Hans Ulrich Obrist will be in discussion with Michael Bracewell on the 29th of March about Gerhard Richter’s which is on display at HENI. You can purchase the book here in limited numbers. Hans Ulrich Obrist is also the creative director at the Serpentine Galleries.
A film where the equilibriums are set in motion and one things lead to the next. I went to their studio in Zurich in 1985 when I was 17. I had known their work through exhibitions but I had no idea they were working on this film, so I arrived at their studio and there was this chemical reaction and that was when I decided I wanted to work with artists for the rest of my life.
These are very political paintings related to German terrorism. I saw that when I was a young curator in the 1980s and that had a really deep impact.
It almost denounced Viennese activism. It denounced performance art, it denounced the idea of identity being changed. But it never stops, it’s an exciting journey where we keep discovering new works that inspire us, even if we are living in a difficult time that makes me very optimistic.