How have you managed, almost single-handedly, to drive the London art world’s curatorial paradigm since 2006?
I have a practice that I’ve always done …
The word practice evokes something purposeful, medicinal, diagnostic. Does your work have a diagnostic purpose?
I don’t know. In a way it is not a theoretical profession, not something that came out of academia. It is something that came out of practising, making exhibitions, working with artists. I’ve worked in the field since I was a teenager. When I started, the word curating was not used as often as it’s used now. Often people didn’t know what the word meant. This was pre-Internet, the Eighties. When I told my parents that I wanted to become a curator, they thought that it was a medical profession. They were very excited. We didn’t clear up that misunderstanding for a couple of years because it sort of created comfort.
Today curating is everywhere. If Joseph Beuys said everyone is an artist, now everyone is a curator. The Internet has had an effect, but so has globalisation. A recent article in the food section in a New York newspaper said that Chinatown feels like a museum where Chinese crab is being curated. Musicians and DJs are invited to curate music festivals and radio shows and playlists. The sociologist Mike Davis criticised Barack Obama by describing him as the chief curator of the Bush legacy. Through the Internet it has become obvious that something that has been occurring for the past hundred years is peaking. There is more and more data, the data is exponentially exploding, and there is also a shift between creating new objects and using what is already there.
So you are a manager of ideas?
That is one definition.
How do you ensure that ‘curators’ do not assume a mantel of self-importance?
The most important thing for me always has been that the most important people in the world are artists.
Obrist at Sir John Soane’s Museum among faces and objects he remembers from the year he spent sleeping there as a young curator while working on the first exhibition of contemporary art to be held in the building. ‘I used to retire to my room at night,’ he recalls. ‘It was so spooky! (especially with the sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I nestling in the basement).’
But people like you seem to be framing the institutional art discourse nowadays.
It’s not only about me. Every morning I read Édouard Glissant when I wake up, the poems and the novels of this man. I need him to give me strength to resist the homogenising thoughts of globalisation. It’s a way of resisting the pressures of a more unified experience of time and space. That’s what exhibitions do. They resist that homogenisation. In this sense it’s important that we think not about ‘fly in, fly out’ curating but about curating which is a much longer-term commitment.
Some people would claim that, given globalisation and the art-fair mania current everywhere, artistic production is essentially being metered by galleries whose curators are only out for short-term gains.
Yeah, but my activity as a curator has nothing to do with the market.
That’s an important point. You are off in a little universe on your own. Was that a purposeful decision?
Yeah. That was a decision I made early on.
To be a curator is to be a utility for these artists. I want my profession to be useful
You’ve never been a collector yourself?
No, no no. Collecting results in a system in which you have a lot of artwork. That’s the opposite of what I do. It’s not about ownership. What I do collect are recorded conversations with artists. That is not a collection but an immaterial archive.
You claim that artists are the most important people in the universe. Is this something that has happened recently, or has it always been so?
This is a very interesting question. What do we remember of previous centuries? Most of the politicians and the emperors have come and gone; art has staying power. It has a power to drive us through time. Artists are able to anticipate things in a way that a lot of us can’t. That’s why to be a curator is to be a utility for these artists. I want my profession to be useful.
You’ve been described as a junction-maker. Is that what you mean?
Yeah. J. G. Ballard mentioned the idea of the junction-maker. You can say that as a curator you make junctions between objects. You say, ‘This is an artwork that can be installed here,’ and then we make a decision about how artworks are placed or assembled. An exhibition needs to invent a new rule of the game. There is not only the rule of the game, there is craft involved in how it’s composed. You can also say that bringing together people is a form of making junctions. I, for example, bring together an artist and an architect, or an artist and a scientist, or a composer and an artist, and they do an opera together. That’s also curating.
Obrist, with the museum’s current director Abraham Thomas in the Picture Room at Sir John Soane’s Museum, views paintings and architectural models unveiled from behind 19th-century hinged panels. William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress is among the treasures.
It’s almost the role of an impresario.
Yes. I’m not an art curator. I curate literature, I curate music, I curate science. That’s what I learned from Diaghilev, the great multidisciplinary impresario with the Ballets Russes. He curated painting shows and got bored. In a way, with the idea of being a painting curator, there is a feeling that you need to go beyond that and do something that appeals to all of the senses. That is the core of my work, and it creates a permanent kind of surprise, hopefully.
You are located in the middle of one of the biggest parks in the world, you are a tiny outfit, yet you have made such a hullabaloo. Is that debilitating or exhilarating?
For energy it is very good because we don’t get overwhelmed by the really big things we do here.
And what of the architectural dimension to the Serpentine’s ambitions?
I was interested in architecture and often curated architecture. Julia Peyton-Jones, who was Director of the Serpentine before I came, invented the Serpentine Pavilion. The model was to bring architecture and art together. That brought Julia and me together in an interesting way. We started to do this experiment where we ran an arts institution in tandem.
You are distinctively different characters, and yet the arrangement has worked to good effect.
Yes, in a way, like Julia and I have said, 1 + 1 is 11. It’s a wonderfully complimentary kind of collaboration, and it’s very, very exciting. I would say also that because of globalisation it’s much more complicated to run an arts institution than it was ten or twelve years ago. It’s good to have two people.
So could you have done this if you’d stayed in Paris instead of coming here?
It is very specific to here. The way London connects to the world is so fascinating. It’s within an archipelago, and that’s another thing we can learn from Edward Lifson: the twentieth century was very much a quest for specialised centres. As he says, New York stole the avant-garde from Paris. You can’t say that the avant-garde today belongs to New York, or Paris, or London; that would be an absurd claim. We can however say that London in this new archipelago condition is very important because it is also a time when Europe is in danger of again having nationalisms, which are poisonous because they are a reaction against globalisation. You have people who embrace globalisation blindly, and that’s dangerous. Then you have people who reject globalisation and go back to nationalistic positions. We need a third way. That is our job. No matter what we do, we need to work on — there isn’t a word in English really. La mondialité is the engagement with the Other. If you are from an island, you need to change with the Other, to develop with the Other. It doesn’t mean that you lose your identity.
But why does London stand out in this connection?
It has many centres. It’s not like Paris, where you have one centre and then the periphery.
We should never predict the future... things can change so fast. The role of the futurist is the role of the artist
How much does technology have to do with this fusing of archipelagos? Because you’ve said that with new information technologies the human condition has been reshaped.
Absolutely. It will be interesting to see how information technology enters the world of exhibitions.
But if people have nothing to touch or own, will art continue to have value?
If you look at artists who work with the digital in a materialist way, they almost create a new form of materialism. There is such a verisimilitude in these avatars; you see every pore of the skin. It’s very visceral to make the digital almost HD, very slick.
Do you believe that London will maintain its archipelago position in the future?
We should never predict the future. I think we are looking at a post-planning condition, and things can change so fast. The role of the futurist is the role of the artist. In London at the moment, there is no end in sight. It’s much more central than if you were in the US; it’s difficult to go to the Middle East from there, to go to Asia, Central Asia or Russia. From here it’s relatively easy. It’s also interesting that now all cultures are in London. It is the only city in Europe that has this cosmopolitan dimension. The only thing that endangers it is that real estate becomes too expensive. The real estate bubble prevents creative people from staying. Nevertheless, London has incredible resilience. It always bounces back.
Was it always thus?
When I moved here in 2006, I didn’t find it as dynamic as it had been in the Nineties, because when I worked here in the Nineties, there were the YBAs, and there was this great energy. In 2006, art was good, but it was very global, and it was a bit more difficult to find a new generation of artists emerging. In the past two or three years, there has been a whole new generation of artists emerging who also work with digital media. Many of them are worth watching. It’s not only that real estate is so expensive that everyone emigrates; we have a new generation that pops up.
You’ve described yourself as someone who rose up from travelling as a student on night trains to see artists to become the most public voice of new creating. Was that your greatest achievement, or is there more to come?
My greatest achievement is coming from such small beginnings, you know? I never want to look back on what was achieved. We are only as good as our next project.
Main image at top: Hans Ulrich Obrist at rest in the Penguin Pool at London Zoo in Regent’s Park; the pool was designed in the 1930s by the Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin.
London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City, Author & Editor Hossein Amirsadeghi, Executive Editor: Maryam Eisler, is published by Thames & Hudson on 19 October 2015, priced ￡58 (hardback). All images are copyright Transglobe Publishing.
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