Curator of the Week: Hans Ulrich Obrist


Hans Ulrich Obrist outside Serpentine Galleries, by Kate Berry for Artsy, via Artsy.

I see a curator as a catalyst, generator and motivator— a sparring partner, accompanying the artist while they build a show, and a bridge builder, creating a bridge to the public.


Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss-born curator and cultural titan who currently helms Serpentine Galleries, although there is far more to him than his lengthy title there (“Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programs, and Director of International Programs”). The 48 year-old Obrist started early, pursuing the company of artists like Peter Fischli, David Weiss, Gerhard Richter, Alighiero Boetti, and Louise Bourgeois by traveling across Europe while still in high school. Many became life-long friends. As a university student living in St. Gallen, Obrist mounted his first exhibition in 1991. Held at his apartment in tribute to a similar endeavor by his idol, Harald Szeemann, the presentation was entitled The Kitchen Show after the location of the pieces within the space and comprised works by Fischli-Weiss and Christian Boltanski, among others. Since then, Obrist has brought his experimental approach and passion for the arts to the global arena as an author and historian, as well as in various institutional capacities. He is based in London.


Obrist topped ArtReview‘s 2016 Power 100 list, a ranking he first received in 2009; according to the publication’s deputy editor, Oliver Basciano, his influence has only continued to expand since then, especially through social media (Obrist has 158k Instagram followers, myself included). But beneath this veneer of stardom, Obrist seems to have a genuine intellectual drive and an animated creative spirit. His zest for art gives him a reputation for a hectic schedule; he is also famous for his lack of need to sleep (I discovered, much to my delight, that in attempting to stay awake he used to employ the Balzac method I’ve adopted of copious coffee drinking). The French artist Philippe Parreno is cited in a New Yorker profile as saying of Obrist: “For me, there is no difference between talking to him and talking to other artists. I am engaged at the same level.” His persistent earnestness renders him magnetic; there is a constant buzz around whatever he’s working on, and although Marina Abramovic affectionately described a younger Obrist as “astonishingly innocent,” there is a seriousness and realness to what he does. I see this particularly with Obrist’s Interview project, though since then he’s done a million different things to further cement his universal respect. Inspired by dialogues between Pierre Cabanne and Marcel Duchamp, and David Sylvester and Francis Bacon, Obrist has recorded 2,000 hours of interviews with over 70 artists, architects, writers, film-makers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, and performers in what he calls “an endless conversation.” His subjects are figures such as John Baldessari, Zaha Hadid,  Yoko Ono, Rem Koolhaas, Elaine Sturtevant, Richard Hamilton, and Eric Hobsbawm. He began publishing these exchanges in Artforum in 1996, and in 2003 eleven were released as Interviews Volume 1 (the second volume emerged in Summer 2010). 28 of the longer interviews in Obrist’s archive were printed separately as individual books, while others have been broadcasted digitally on Periscope and disseminated through other forms of media. Early on in the process of developing each discussion, Obrist’s enterprise caught the eye of Princeton critic Hal Foster, who wrote an essay on the Interview project in 2003, commenting on its “formlessness” and the way in which Obrist permitted participants to stray from a topic. Like the late John Berger who preached man’s access to the visual world in his televised BBC lectures and book on “Ways of Seeing,” Obrist is the kind of icon who is sufficiently versed in the human experience, however cliched that sounds, that he was and is able to shape what is relevant and reinvent how we interact with art. [Editor’s Note: check out Berger and Obrist in conversation here]. He’s allowed to be considered “radical”—even in replicating the ventures of his precedents— just as all innovation begins with ideas spurred by what came before but that temporarily wear the stigma of “otherness.” Obrist’s ends might be the same as Cabanne’s and Sylvester’s, but his means are different, and ultimately that’s what matters. The interview style he pioneered would be applied to his tome “A Brief History of Curating,” composed of his talks with the 20th century’s leading curators in which they sketch out aspects of their own medium (evaluated by Foster for London Review of Books). It also set a precedent for today’s Artist Project and Art21 videos, in addition to the 99 percent invisible podcast. If it sounds as if I’m giving a single person too much credit, I’ll say this: you must be sufficiently down with your people to bring the esoteric concepts and aims of distant figures to the masses, and for all his detachment from the average, Obrist does just that.

Known for

Named an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2009, Obrist achieved international acclaim with the 1995 Take Me (I’m Yours) show that he put on for Serpentine while still part-timing at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The format of Take Me (I’m Yours) where visitors were asked to leave with an object from the exhibit became the model for the Jewish Museum‘s version (bearing the same title) that is on through February 2017 and was referenced in this MolaPola post (Obrist helped organize the second incarnation alongside the JM’s Jens Hoffmann). At the time the original was held, many considered the design of Take Me (I’m Yours) refreshing, breathing new life into the British art scene and challenging the notion that art is simply meant for remote, passive consumption. It was also held in 2015 at the Monnaie de Paris. His next brainchild was 1997’s “do-it,” an ongoing program that seeks to make exhibits more flexible and open-ended. “Do-it” consists of instructions set out by artists for anyone to follow and took place in 25 cities across North America; the arrangement is presently being renewed and expanded for its 20th anniversary (you can find outposts here). More recently, Obrist was co-curator of EXPO 1: New York at MoMA PS1. As stated by Artist Pension Trust (APT), Obrist has cultivated over 150 exhibitions internationally since his initial Kitchen Show.

Fun Fact

Obrist is a polyglot (he speaks five languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English) and a big fan of Russian “impresario” and originator of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. As someone who spent a lot of time as a young dancer studying exotic costumes from Diaghilev’s productions, I have an appreciation for Obrist’s recognition and idolization of his genius. Obrist characterizes Diaghilev as a “junction-maker,”  and aspires to be one himself. In 2006, he helped start the Brutally Early Cluba group open to the public that sporadically gathers in New York, London, Berlin, and Paris for informal conversations at 6:30 a.m.

Latest Efforts

In 2013, Obrist and Simon Castets, Director and Curator at the Swiss Institute, began 89plus, a “long-term, international, multi-platform research project” that examines a generation of artists born after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The organization has had residencies at and partnerships with the Park Avenue Armory in New York and the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, among others; collaborated on different festivals; and held screenings and shows. Furthermore, in 2005, Obrist conceived of “marathons,” public events that happen over 24 hours. The Interview Marathon transpired in 2006 at Serpentine Galleries (Obrist was joined by Koolhaas), followed by the Experiment Marathon in 2007, the Manifesto Marathon in 2008, the Poetry Marathon in 2009, and the Extinction Marathon: Visions of the Future in 2014. Contributors range from artists like Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin, and Olafur Eliasson (one of my favorites) to writers such as Nick Laird and James FentonKim Gordon and physicist Neil Turok have also been involved. 89plus has done its own marathons, too.

Check Out

Two videos: first, Obrist and Jens Hoffmann debating “Unorthodox Exhibitions” at the 92nd Street Y in 2015; second, Obrist delivering the keynote speech at Creative Time‘s October Summit in Washington—


Thanks for reading the third post of the new MolaPola series, Curator of the Week. Next up are Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Franklin Sirmans. 

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