I WANT TO CREATE JUNCTIONS. Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss art curator, critic, and art historian who lives and works in London where he is Artistic Director at Serpentine. Obrist is the author of The Interview Project, an extensive ongoing project of interviews, and is also co-editor of the Cahiers d’Art review.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, you started your curatorial life in 1991 with The Kitchen Show in the kitchen of your apartment at Schwalbenstrasse, and since 2006 are the artistic director of Serpentine in London. What has changed during your career? 

Everything and nothing in a way. I initially started to work outside art institutions and was interested in showing my exhibitions where one expects art least. I did a show of Gerhard Richter in the Nietzsche House in Sils-Maria. As Robert Musil says in the beautiful book, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, art can appear very unexpectedly. Over time, I started to also work in museum spaces, initially at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and then at  Serpentine. Over the last 15 years since I am at Serpentine a lot of things have changed, and we have created completely new departments in the organisation to reflect that.  

For example? 

Technology has been a major vector of change. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, and that changed so many things, not only for art but for all aspects of society. Over the last ten years, we started new experiments bringing artists together with technology. There is an entire department with five curators and the chief technology officer, and doing exhibitions of video games. Today, the field of video game is bigger than the fields of music and cinema together. Many artists are working with video games as a broad building. It has also become very important for exhibitions and art institutions to address the environmental emergency. We appointed at the Serpentine, also many years ago, Lucia Pietroiusti as Head of Ecologies, and have constructed a whole department around that. Many of our projects at Serpentine address questions of sustainability, of environment, of the extinction crisis. That came out of a dialogue with the artist Gustav Metzger.

It’s very important that we have a more inclusive art history.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Serpentine Pavilion 2024 designed by Minsuk Cho, Mass Studies. Design render, exterior view. Photo © Mass Studies Courtesy: Serpentine

Hans Ulrich Obrist, at Serpentine you work both inside and outside with the famous annual pavilions? 

That is a third aspect, beyond exhibitions, because at a certain moment I realised that as Lina Bo Bardi, the visionary Brazilian Italian architect, said, “The insides are on the outside.” With the museum it’s very important that we don’t just show art in an exhibition space behind doors, but that we go with art into society. The pavilions we build every year at Serpentine have no doors, they’re in the park, like public art. Visitors can experience these pavilions and often stumble upon them.  

How do you choose the architects and artists that you show at Serpentine? 

There are several layers for us and our teams to select the artists. We want to address urgent aspects of our society and of our life today, but we always have to think also, how is it going to translate into the future? How is it going to transcend our time? There are always these two considerations. On the one hand we work with emerging artists, to give them a platform for the first time. And at the same time, amnesia is very much at the core of this digital age, so we also are pursuing the protest against forgetting of Eric Hobsbawm, and we show pioneering artists whose work hasn’t had the recognition and the visibility it deserves. It’s a transgenerational program and tries to instigate trans-generational dialogue.  

As the world of contemporary art becomes more and more global, do your choices of who to show become more difficult?  

When I began as a student to come into the art world in the late 80s, I felt the art world was too limited in its focus, almost exclusively on Western art. With all our 90s exhibitions, like Cities on the Move – a big exhibition on Asian art and architecture and urbanism – we wanted to celebrate and make visible a multiplicity of centres. The whole complexity of working within globalisation has been addressed by no one better than by Edouard Glissant, and when I came across Glissant he became my mentor.  

Glissant the poet, the writer, the public intellectual? 

Yes. He wrote my one of my favourite novels, Sartorius, where there is no genealogy but everything grows out of relation.  Really early on he addressed the potential of global dialogue, but also the dangers of homogenised globalisation, and, for me, it has been a toolbox of thinking about that. We continue this conversation with Bernard Stiegler, who said that the question is also, how can we be local without being localist? but initially the great inspiration came from Glissant. In the last couple of years I’ve been very inspired by Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a great philosopher and intellectual from Senegal, who teaches in the US. He has just published an incredible autobiography, which I recommend, called Le Fagot de ma mémoire. It came out in French, not in English yet. In this book, he’s obviously following up on Glissant, but he’s also talking about the fact that we live in a world which is more and more fragmented, and the question is, how can we bring things together again?  

Are the criteria for choosing artists no longer strictly meritocratic, but also criteria of gender or colour? And if so, is this dangerous for the world of art? 

It’s very important that we have a more inclusive art history. In 1985 I went to visit Rosemarie Trockel, the German artist, and she told me then that there is an entire art history of extraordinary women artists who have not had visibility. Back then, the only living contemporary woman artist who had lots of museum shows was Louise Bourgeois; maybe Louise Nevelson had a very few. Rosemarie said, there are so many artists, like Maria Lassnig, Carla Accardi, extraordinary artists that had little visibility in 1985/6/7, and she basically said to me, this is your task as a curator. You should celebrate these extraordinary women artists who haven’t had visibility. This is one of the things that I’ve done ever since.   

You have applied the Rosemarie Trockel methodology? 

Yes, I’ve organised the first big retrospective of Carla Accardi in Paris or Maria Lassnig at Serpentine, Faith Ringgold, Luchita Hurtado, Etel Adnan, all these extraordinary artists. Look at Etel Adnan, the Lebanese poet and writer and visual artist. Until very late in her life she didn’t have recognition, and the same thing is true for many artists who are not part of the Western canon who have done works of decades and decades of importance. Their work needs to be recognised, and it’s a very important part of our work to create this more inclusive art history.

“Art is the highest form of hope.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist, you have done this when you were the curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne and then in your position as the artistic director of Serpentine?

With CEO Bettina Korek and the teams at Serpentine, we have the opportunity to make solo shows of these artists. I mentioned already Lassnig who we did at Serpentine, or Faith Ringgold, but a more recent example is Kamala Ibrahim Ishag. She has created an extraordinary work, completely timeless and, at the same time, it’s also very deeply connected to history. A painter from Sudan, who is now in her 80s and has done decades of wonderful work which has never been given the honour or the visibility of a museum survey. We did that at Serpentine. There are so many extraordinary artists who are not part of the Western canon who have amazing merits, and it’s our job as a museum to rectify this and create a more inclusive art history.

In the 20th century, there were many movements like modernism, surrealism, futurism, abstract, conceptual pop art, arte povera and so on and so forth. As this is not true anymore, are artists lonely and a bit lost in a great world of art which has no centre?

I’m from Zurich, the city of Dadaism, and we have less movements like Dadaism today, but at the same time I don’t think that artists are lonely. We have a new generation of artists. I am working together with Isabela Mora on a project with Precious Okoyomon which in February opened for the Rebaudengo Foundation in Madrid. We have also featured them at Serpentine through our Park Night programme. Precious Okoyomon is an example of a new generation of artists in their early 30s who have made an amazing contribution to poetry but work also on very multi-sensory installations which involve animatronics, plants, gardens, and music. We have a lot of new ways of artists trying to bring things together again in a very fragmented world, creating new constellations which go beyond the fear of  pooling knowledge.

And this is what is needed in the world of art right now?

I always ask myself what is missing, and what is missing today is a new Black Mountain College. I really want in the next year to come up with a new Black Mountain College. It was such a wonderful example of a school which bought together the humanities and science. You had engineering. You had Buckminster Fuller as an inventor. You had Einstein‘s collaborators. You had John Cage. You had Rauschenberg, Twombly, Dorothea Rockburne. Over the last couple of years I have been visiting Susan Weil and Dorothea Rockburne, the surviving members who were part of the Black Mountain College, and also looking at other models of such schools. When I was teaching art in 2000 in Venice, we combined our seminar Arc en Rêve, Bordeaux with Stefano Boeri, the architect. So we created one seminar, art and architecture together. That created such an extraordinary constellation in lives of the artists and lives of the architects, not separated, but together. Our first student was Tomás Saraceno, who had a show last year at Serpentine. He transformed Serpentine completely. For me that seminar with Stefano was almost a sketch for the school I want to invent. I really believe that the world needs a new Black Mountain College, because that’s what that new generation at the moment is looking for.  

Didn’t you once say that you believe that artists are the most important people on this planet?  

Artists are among the most important people. We have got many visionaries who could contribute to society in different ways. I don’t want to create a hierarchy here, but art, as Gerhard Richter says, is the highest form of hope, and that is something very important today. Artists create something which can be relevant for generations and generations to come. Artists, in that sense, work for us. They work for the present, but they also work for the future. I was thinking a lot about Goya when we worked with Steve McQueen at Serpentine last year on the Grenfell project, Steve McQueen’s protest against forgetting the Grenfell disaster. It was and is an extraordinary work, very much more than an exhibition. He created a memorial for the people who passed away in that Grenfell disaster and created a debate with his work. Like Goya, but also Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, art can create a very public debate. But at the same time, we can revisit that work centuries after. 

Is this what your project that resulted in the book Les Conversations du Louvre is about? 

I did this project last year with the director of the Louvre, Laurence des Cars, and Donatien Grau, who is in charge of contemporary art at the Louvre. They knew that when I, as a teenager, came first to Paris, Pierre Schneider’s Louvre Dialogues book was almost like a guidebook for me to the Louvre. Pierre Schneider was one of the great experts in Matisse, and had walked through the Louvre with Vieira da Silva, Giacometti, Barnett Newman, some of the great artists of his epoch in the 50s and 60s, and he asked the artists to see the Louvre through their eyes. My unrealised project was to one day redo this Pierre Schneider book for our time, and last year Donatien and the director Laurence des Cars asked me to do that. I would go to the Louvre on days when the Louvre was closed, so we were alone, and would spend several hours with Daniel Buren in front of Paolo Uccello, or with Anselm Kiefer in front of Rembrandt‘s self-portraits. We would spend a whole evening with Simone Fattal to look at the oldest works in the Louvre, Middle Eastern sculptures that Simone Fattal  was very inspired by. I would spend a day with Barbara Chase-Riboud, who would take me to the Egyptian section. The future is very often invented with fragments from the past, and art not only gives us hope in the present but also is a toolbox to invent the future; which is why art is so important.  

You did many interviews with artists, and the interview in itself is a kind of genre? 

It is a genre, and I have always been very inspired by reading conversations with artists. As a teenager I did my own musée imaginaire, a postcard museum in my room in my parents’ apartment, because our school was very close to the clinic where Aby Warburg was treated in Kreuzlingen by Professor Binswanger. Aby Warburg wrote his book about the Hopi snake ritual during his stay in the sanatorium earlier in the 20th century, and as an adolescent, for me to pass by every day the clinic where Warburg was treated made me early aware of the Warburg Mnemosyne Atlas. I created my own atlas with postcards, and then started to buy a lot of books, and after having read a lot of books on art history at a certain moment I came across Vasari. His book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects  prompted in me the idea that as a teenager living in Switzerland, Wow! I could actually meet, like Vasari, the historic figures of our time. That prompted me to do studio visits, and I read interviews like Pierre Cabanne with Marcel Duchamp, Brassaï with Picasso, not just interviews as one-offs but these infinite conversations where one talks to an artist again and again, as you have done so beautifully with Penone.

You mean my book with Penone titled “474 risposte”?

Yes, we’ve all been very inspired at Serpentine by your Penone book and you spoke to Penone many, many, many times.  We are going to work with a project with Penone for next year, both in the park and in the gallery, both inside and outside. For me, as a student, to read Brassaï/Picasso and to read interviews with Beuys was hugely inspiring, and out of that I started to think I should maybe record my studio visits, because I travelled by night train and made many studio visits and that’s how these archives of now several thousand hours started to grow. I always learned so much about artists by listening to them, and it’s not only about their own work, but it is also about their references. Artists tell me about other artists, like Rosemarie Trockel would send me to visit all these pioneering women artists. Artists would send me to other artists, in a chain reaction. Hopefully what makes these conversations inspiring is that it’s almost like looking into the mind of an artist. I would revisit the same artist often, again and again, so it became an infinite conversation.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
Hans Ulrich Obrist

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, States of Oneness © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 2022. Photo: George Darrell, Courtesy Serpentine

Hans Ulrich Obrist

ETEL ADNAN. Erquy. Textes de Vincent Broqua, Yves Jammet, Hans Ulrich Obrist. Galerie Lelong & Co. © The Estate of Etel Adnan.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Pollinator Pathmaker, Serpentine Edition Garden, 2022. Back to Earth exhibition at Serpentine North (22 June – 18 September). Installation view. © readsreads.info. Courtesy Serpentine.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

2023 LUMA Arles: Agnès Varda / Hans Ulrich Obrist Archive – Chapter 3. Copyright LUMA Arles Arthur Fouray

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist by Lukas Wassmann 2021

It’s fascinating, but very often by talking about things in conversations one can make them happen. It’s about production of reality.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, importantly, these are the very words of the person that you interview, a real document. Any future biographer of a famous artist will have to look at or to listen to such an interview.

That’s totally true. And, if we do have conversations with great artists, the artists become mentors, and I hope that also for the reader that can somehow work. I remember, I went to see Helen Levitt, the late photographer and filmmaker, in New York. She was almost 100 years old, and I was in her apartment. It was a winter day, a bit cold, and the conversation was with her, her cat, and me, because the cat sat on the middle of the table. All of a sudden she said, today, I don’t feel like talking again about photography – because I, of course, went to interview her about her photography, because she was one of the 20th century’s great photographers. She wanted to talk about something completely else, and she wanted to talk about what happened in the 30s with the Roosevelt plan, the New Deal and the incredible public art projects the Roosevelt administration did. And all of a sudden that became a whole new chapter in my research, and it opened a whole new field, just as all these artists telling me about the Black Mountain College and about different other experimental schools encouraged me in that direction.

The interview is a serpentine trip that takes you into the unknown?

Yes, it’s completely serpentine, very often non-linear. It can take us into the unknown. It’s a journey, but also it has a lot to do with the production of reality, because I’m always asking artists about projects they haven’t been able to do, projects which are too big to be realised, or dreams, or projects which have been self-censored because maybe one doesn’t dare to do a project. And very often, later on we can then find ways to realise these unrealised projects. The other day I was having a conversation with Gabriel Orozco, the Mexican artist, and we were talking about his social sculpture in Mexico, a masterplan he has created to connect different parts of the cities with a bridge. His is a very rare project where an artist was invited to do a big urbanistic project, and I asked him at the end, now that his very big project is realised, what are his unrealised projects? And, he said his unrealised project is to create a residency for younger artists where they can work in an environment of a different language, of a different country. They can choose a location and have a residency in a place they always wanted to work in, and through that, step outside their usual framework. For young artists, that can be very important. Now this residency project is going to happen. It’s fascinating, but very often by talking about things in conversations one can make them happen. It’s about production of reality.

Is this part of your role as a curator?

As a curator and as a museum director, my work only makes sense for me if I’m useful to art and to society, to the museum and to the world. One of the ways we can be useful is by helping certain things to happen, by enabling them. Conversations in that sense can be about production of reality, because very often it’s because we don’t know that somebody wants to do something that it doesn’t happen. We know a great deal about what architects want to do, because they always publish an unrealised project. We don’t know about all the others, about novelists or poets or writers who want to have their unrealised project. So conversations are in that sense also about actioning things, about making certain things happen, and then it’s about making junctions. In conversations I would always put in relation what somebody told me to what other artists told me before, and this creates junctions. It creates a rhythm of some sort.

What is your job when you curate and consult with institutions like the LUMA, Maja Hoffmann’s new cultural centre in Arles in the south of France?

I’ve been in very intense dialogue with Maja Hoffmann since we met each other 30 years ago. About 15 years ago, Maja started a think-tank about a new interdisciplinary art institution she wanted to build in Arles, where human rights and environmentalism would come together. She put into the think-tank three curators and two artists (Tom Eccles, Beatrix Ruf, myself, Philippe Parreno and Liam Gillick). We have many meetings to help her think what this institution could do. It focuses not only on exhibiting work but also on production, and it also focuses on transmission. It focuses on the environment and environmentalism. LUMA has also a very interesting design dimension, where designers and architects can work with new materials. It’s basically a place for experimentation and artist residencies. As advisors, we have to think about this.

Do you also create exhibitions there?

Every year, I curate an exhibition at LUMA Arles connected to the interview archives. This year is Agnès Varda. A lot of these interviews are filmed, because Jonas Mekas in the 90s told me, why don’t you just put the camera on the table and film some of these conversations? I’m not a very gifted filmmaker, but I just would put a small camera on the table so we have a trace, and the films can today be shown. We showed all the interviews I did with Agnès Varda. She’s the great pioneer of Nouvelle Vague and one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century, and she was invited to film festivals her entire life and won almost every award you can imagine, including the Oscar. But she was never invited to an art Biennale before, so along with Rirkrit Tiravnija and Molly Nesbit we invited Agnès Varda to participate in Utopia Station in the Venice Biennale. I will never forget. She said we liberated her because her entire life she dreamt of doing something outside the format, outside the box. At a certain moment Agnès Varda said, ‘this is a different format. So far, I’ve only been able to do feature films or court-métrage. These are the two only things I can show in a film festival. But my dream was always to do multi-screen environment and multi-sensory installation. I want to do a show on potato Utopia. I’ve always photographed potatoes, but I want to have real potatoes in the space. I can’t have real potatoes in a cinema.’ So she wanted to have a field of real potatoes. She wanted to have three screens. In a cinema she can only have one screen because that’s the deal, and so all of a sudden she was so excited. She came to Venice disguised as a potato. She was wearing the costume of a potato. She was already in her 70s then, and was walking around the Venice Biennale as a potato in her field of potatoes, projecting the film. And she kept saying, you guys liberated me. I now want to do art installations. And so for the rest of her life, the last 20 years of her life, she did this extraordinary job on the cinema. She did little architectures of cinema for films. She did installations of her films, multi-screen installations. So in Arles, and this is still ongoing until May, we did an exhibition of my interviews with Agnès Varda where we developed this idea and discussed her coming more into the art world, and then we show all the work she did over the last 20 years in the art world. The exhibition which I curated with Arthur Fouray connects the conversation project to the exhibition project, which I haven’t done before.

Do the artists of nowadays react to and portray current events directly, as Picasso did with Guernica, or more obliquely?

I mentioned the example of Steve McQueen‘s Grenfell piece that we showed last year at Serpentine, and I was at the recent London premiere of his film Occupied City, about Amsterdam. Steve McQueen very much addresses big historic and political topics of our time, but at the same time also transcends. He is able to look at that in many years and then connect it, as we can today connect the work of Goya to our time, so it transcends its time. The same thing is true for Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof work, which is deeply connected to a very specific German history and at the same time can be seen also in relation to a different time.

Another one is Philip Guston and the Ku Klux Klan?

There are many different examples, but there are also artists like Matisse, who painted flowers during World War II. Etel Adnan has written one of the most important books on the civil war in Lebanon, called Sitt Marie Rose, which has just been republished by Gallimard in French. She has written many books deeply connected to the politics and the history of our time and, as Matisse painted flowers, in the last few months of her life she just painted the birds which passed by her window. Sometimes Matisse/Picasso is an either-or situation, but sometimes you have artists who do both.

Sometimes art is inspired by politics, sometimes not. It doesn’t mean that this artist is less important than the other, or vice versa.

Exactly. We can never prescribe or define how art has to be because the future flies always in under the radar, and there will always be artists who surprise us. There’s the famous ‘Etonne-moi!’ between Cocteau and Diaghilev that continues to be the case. We can never predict the future of art, but we can look at the  extreme present, and all these different ways of living and of working exist. It’s fascinating how I’ve recently seen in the studios more drawings than ever before. The lockdown created a very beautiful new intensity of drawing in the digital age – not drawing with the computer, but hand drawings and sketches and doodles and all of that. The old medium is not disappearing, but there is a new parallel reality.

At the same time there are new mediums?

New mediums arrive and new forms of expression, new possibilities for artists. Nam June Paik, the Korean artist, early on used television in a very unusual way. He did a candle in the television. We have today artists who use AI and who use videogames. I’ve done a big exhibition last year that is an overview on what artists today do with videogames. You have many different ways how artists worked with videogames, because video games allow artists to build worlds, and art has often been about world building. You have video games which are more mission driven which we showed in the exhibition, but then you have also video games which very much appeal to a multisensory experience. The same thing we will see now with artists using AI, and to map that is an important part of my work. But that doesn’t mean that drawing or painting or sculpture disappears. It’s just an additional parallel reality.

The world is going into AI, but still is coming back to pencils and fountain pens?

I’ve done a new book with Heni about my Instagram, because on my Instagram I celebrate every day handwriting. In my conversations with artists, very often, strangely, I’ve been given tasks. Right from the beginning. Alighiero Boetti gave me the task to ask artists about their unrealised projects. Rosemary gave me the task to show pioneering women artists who haven’t had exposure. When I had my last visit with Umberto Eco, locked away from his huge library he had a little place in the back where only he had the key, and there he kept the medieval codex, the medieval handwriting, some really old manuscripts. He showed me these very old locked away books and when I left the house, it was the last time I saw him before his passing, he looked at me and he said, ‘listen, we have to save handwriting. Handwriting disappears. I’m too old to do this, but I’m giving you this task for your generation. You need to save handwriting.’ I was for a long time quite puzzled because I thought, I’m really not competent to do this. How could I save handwriting? Or how could I contribute maybe, to be humbler, not save handwriting, but to contribute to save handwriting? And then I had this idea that this could be my Instagram account, because everybody wanted me to do Instagram, but I didn’t want to do selfies. I didn’t want to photograph my meals. I didn’t want to photograph my trips. But I suddenly thought, I am with a lot of artists and writers and it would be beautiful to have them handwrite the sentence and then post it on my Instagram. The book is about 100 handwritten sentences by artists, by architects, by poets, and it’s a celebration of handwriting. This is also bringing different things together, because obviously Instagram is a new format and handwriting is very old, so that I use Instagram to celebrate handwriting is almost an oxymoron. I like oxymorons.

Did you ever want to be an artist yourself?

For me it has always been about enabling artists, about working with artists. When I grew up in the studio of Fischli Weiss, the Swiss artists, I just thought I want to work with artists for the rest of my life. I want to be useful to artists. For me it’s about building the archive and doing exhibitions. My initial vision was to reinvent the medium of the exhibition, and we did that with shows like Laboratorium and “do it” and shows which became almost like evolving systems over many years. And then around 2000 to 2004 I started to think maybe the time has come to not only reinvent exhibitions, but also think about how one could reinvent an institution. That’s when I started to take more responsibility institutionally, initially in Paris, and then became co-director and later artistic director of Serpentine. We started to think about how could one reinvent an institution with these different new departments, technology, ecology, civic, all of that I mentioned at the beginning, and my vision is to also come up with a new Black Mountain College. I think a lot about the future, and we have a big crisis of education. The UK government has cut education dramatically. I don’t know about Italy.

Education is being cut everywhere, especially the humanities.

This is a catastrophe for society, because many great practitioners from all disciplines, not only artists, grew out of dynamic art schools. If we want to do something for the future and for the next generations, the next task is to come up with new schools. Which is why I now want to reinvent the format  of a school and come up with the idea of a new Black Mountain College. It’s also about bringing art more into society, bringing artists to the table of where decisions are made.

All of this is your métier of curator?

I don’t really mind how this profession of mine is called. I’m very determined and driven to do what I do. At a certain moment it was described as curator, but in the meanwhile the word curator is a bit empty, because even shop windows and flower stores and restaurants are being curated, so it’s maybe not a necessarily useful word anymore. The French word commissaire I never liked because it’s quite policing and top down, whereas my way of curating has always been both top down and bottom up. Maybe we need a neologism for what I do. My practice is not the practice of an artist; but it is in a way. When I talked with J.G. Ballard, he was telling me that what I do is a kind of junction making. In a very fragmented world, I want to bring things together. I want to create junctions.  

Hans Ulrich Obrist, thank you very much for your time.

Lead Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist by Elias Hassos, Courtesy Serpentine.

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