BREAKING DOWN SILOS OF KNOWLEDGE. Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator and interviewer. He is the Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries in London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He has curated more than 300 shows since his first, “World Soup” (Küchenausstellung –The Kitchen Show).

Hans Ulrich Obrist, you were born in 1968 and organized your first exhibition in your kitchen in 1991 when you were studying politics and economics. Why have you dedicated your life and career to curating contemporary art?  

It’s an interesting question. I always believed in art since I was 17, but it’s a long story. I met Gerhard Richter the German painter, and he told me that art is the highest form of hope. That’s why art, because it has to do with hope.  

What has changed in your life since you were 17?  

Everything and nothing. I visit artists every day in their studios, and I help them to realise their projects. Many things have changed since I did my kitchen show. At that time there was no internet. It was before the digital age, which I think is a big change.   

Also for art?        

At the Serpentine Gallery in London, we have a program of new experiments with art and technology, and also with artificial intelligence. At the moment we have an exhibition of the Chinese artist Cao Fei. This exhibition in collaboration with the technological company Acute Art somehow goes back to the kitchen. The most important point for us at the Serpentine is that we are of course concerned primarily for the health and safety of our staff, visitors and artistic community. As such, we are holding on any decisions around changes to our forward physical programmes. We have made both the current exhibitions Cao Fei and Formafantasma available in different ways online, working in collaboration with partners such as Nowness and e-flux. This will include a new platform for East Asian artists affected by the current crisis with an 8 week programme of film, video and animated works online evolving from Cao Fei’s exhibition.

“Art is the highest form of hope”

Cao Fei, Nova, 2019, Video, 109’. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

Hans Ulrich Obrist, what is art today?  

We work with many different generations of artists, including young artists, and facilitate their beginning. At the same time, we live in an age where we are inundated by information. That does not mean that we have more memories, because amnesia is very much at the centre of the digital age. There is a lot of amnesia in information society, which is why we have the protests against forgetting. This is why, alongside emerged artists, I often show pioneers that did not have the visibility they deserved. That’s why we recently organized an exhibition of Luchita Hurtado titled ‘I Live I Die I Will be Reborn’ at the Serpentine’. Luchita is 99 years old, and she was connected to surrealism and early environmental art, but she has never before had an exhibition in a museum. It was necessary also to show Luchita Hurtado next to young artists. This exhibition has now moved to LA, and you can see it on the LACMA website.  

Why do you say that artists are the most important people?  

Because artists are very often an early alarm system. As Marshall McLuhan said: “Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is happening to it,” pointing out new developments in times ahead and allowing us to cope with them. Also art is of course a portal which transcends, to open up new languages, like for example the artist Ian Cheng whose exhibition ‘Emissary in the Squat of God’ I curated and which just opened at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Madrid. Ian Cheng is working on simulating life and he is creating new languages which prove artwork is a central nervous system. 

What happens with the Corona virus and art?

We are all under shock in these dramatic circumstances. First and foremost it’s about saving lives and livelihoods now. Then we can of course also think about art and how art can work in self-isolation. At the moment so many museums are live streaming and it leads to enormous digital consumption and it is important to think about how we can do things off and beyond the screen. Challenging the passive consuming of the viewer. It’s interesting that many people of the last days Instagrammed and tweeted my ‘do it’ project, a project from the 1990 which I started then and which are artists’ DIY instruction for home use – but also instructions of what we can do for someone else, which is so important in current crisis. The Serpentine has always programmed beyond the Gallery walls. From digital commissions to a long-term programme that addresses ecology, to embedding artists in communities to enact social change, to being a platform for artists through our Marathon and Live programmes. Our current online exhibition Catharsis by artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen is a work that ridges technology and nature, immersing audiences in a digital simulation of an old-growth forest, offering calming effects of forest bathing via a livestream at Jakob’s project connects to the park and the trees and of course in times of self-isolation the park is very important and we will think more about art in the park.

How can artists be supported in these times?

It is a worrying and precarious time for artists and for everybody. It will be our collective role as public institutions to support artists and the role of culture at this time. As Ben Okri said recently, “We need art to remind us why life is worth living. We need art to reawaken our sense of the wonder of being, to remind us of our freedom… When we least expect it, we manage to be more than ourselves. And the heart of this is imagination. What we can imagine, the will can achieve.” Art institutions can be a tool for bridging geographies, ideas and ways of life. When they avail their platforms to artists, the most dire problems of the world can be understood with honesty and hope. I feel that we have to look at the Roosevelt Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) which aimed at providing work for artists in a challenging climate.

I was friendly with the late Helen Levitt and found today all the notes of what she had told me about PWAP, how to establish democratic methods of government art patronage to decentralise artistic activity and to thinking about a close interrelation between the artist and the social environment.

Curating is connected to curiosity

Hans Ulrich Obrist, dramatic circumstances obviously happened before, and often have inspired artists?  

In fact this goes back to your first question. You asked me what changed since 1986, and one thing that has dramatically changed is the environment. We are living in an age of ecological disaster, and the extinction of many things, like languages for instance. I think that many artists have addressed and anticipated this. It is why at the Serpentine we have the general ecology project, and we are showing artists’ projects and campaigns connected to ecology and this is my answer to your question. One example of an artist who warned us of the ecological disaster early on was Gustav Metzger, the German artist who died a few years ago, exiled in London since the Second World War. He said that artists can create works that address the urgent dangers of society, because in the art world they can use their power and energy to wake up the rest of the planet. The reason I mention Gustav is because he talked a lot of the danger for the world becoming out of equilibrium because of climate change. This leads me to a very interesting book by Laura Spinney called “Pale Rider”, a book about the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. The climate can affect the emergence of a pandemia.

You are a curator, and you wrote a book called ‘Ways of Curating’ about being a curator, but now you are also an interviewer. Why?  

I think it’s very important to listen to artists, to other people, to the planet, to the trees. To listen to each other. My conviction that it is important for our time to listen is the point of departure of my interview project which was inspired by something the wonderful poet and artist Etel Adnan told me. Etel said that the 20th century had a lot of manifestos, proclamations, declarations. At our time it is important to listen, to each other, to other species, to planets, and this is the beginning of my interview project. I also think that the motor, the engine, is curiosity. Curating is connected to curiosity. I think that my interviews project is so far 4,000 hours – and it is because I want to share my conversations with artists with other people. It has to be with the idea of generosity, that anybody can hear the words of these artists. Maybe the idea is to give to people a toolbox.  

Do you consider the interview to be an art, a literary genre?  

I hope that my interviews with artists are useful for readers. It’s a daily practice.  I am building an archive.

Did you ever want to be an artist yourself?  

No, I always wanted to work with artists. I was born in May ‘68, in Zurich not in Paris. They also say I was born a second time in May 1985, again in Zurich, when I visited the studios of the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss and saw the making of their extraordinary art work ‘The Way Things Go’, which is an amazing film of chain reaction. This was the day when I wanted to work with artists and to be a curator.

Cao Fei, Nova, 2019, Video, 109’. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with the Lebanese-American poet, essayist, and visual artist Etel Adnan

Formafantasma, stills from Cambio: Visual Essay, 2020. Green screen in Bosco del Chignolo, Montemerlo, Italy Courtesy Formafantasma. Photo Credit: C41

Formafantasma, stills from Cambio: Visual Essay, 2020. Green screen in Bosco del Chignolo, Montemerlo, Italy Courtesy Formafantasma. Photo Credit: C41

Ian Cheng BOB, 2018 Serpentine Gallery, London: March 6 – April 22 2018 Courtesy the artist, Pilar Corrias London, Gladstone Gallery, Standard (Oslo); Photo by Andrea Rossetti

Cao Fei, still from The Eternal Wave, 2020, virtual reality. Courtesy of the artist and Acute Art.


“The role of the curator is also to bring worlds together”

Hans Ulrich Obrist, do you think that contemporary art lasts?  

From May 17th to mid-August there is going to be an exhibition of Goya at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, and I am writing a spec at this very moment about Goya. It is art that you remember from the time of Goya, more than anything else. You remember Goya more than any politician. Great art can last. As Mario Merz once told me, it is very difficult to last, but the great artists of our time will last, like Goya. What will be remembered of our time will be the artists and the art. Certain artworks will be seen to transcend their time and become more relevant.  

After many years do you still like your work as a curator?  

Yes, absolutely. I think the role of the curator is also to bring worlds together, and the media of the exhibition allows you to do that. It brings together architecture, design, art, music, literature and cinema. And this is my work. At the moment we have an exhibition in London on the Italian designers known as Formafantasma, the duo Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin. It brings together objects, films, artefacts. It is a resolution of a relationship with trees and the theory of what is special about design and sustainability.  

In other words can you say that your definition of being a curator is eclecticism?  

I would say that if we want to address the big challenges of our time, like ecology, it is important to go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge. My work is about breaking down silos of knowledge.

Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist © Brigitte Lacombe

With thanks to Serpentine Galleries for the images.