Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Interview in a fast-moving taxi

Sergej Timofejev


We are standing with the curator and art historian Kaspars Vanags at the Riga airport near a special stand that the Riga Biennial of Contemporary Art has exhibited in the arrivals hall; after all, during the last days of May hundreds of the Biennial’s visitors arrived here. But this time the nameplate on the stand has only one name, “Hans-Ulrich Obrist”. Here he is coming out with the rest of the arrivals of the Brussels flight (as it turns out, he came to be on it having departed in Rome). We get inside a taxi and start driving towards the city to different spots of the RIBOCA1, which our guest has come to see. At the same time, I take out two voice recorders (the second one is there to record a backup in case something happens to the first). The thing is, Obrist agreed to give an interview on one condition - it has to be in the car driving from the airport to the city.

Therefore I sit with Hans-Ulrich in the back and Kaspars sits with the driver in the front, and during those 40 minutes that we spend in the car we actually manage to discuss some important things. Interview on-the-go is a very typical thing for Obrist, and besides, he speaks in whole blocks and the questions only show the way in which entire blocks of text, thoughts, stories and names are built.

The ability to control the fullness of a moment, the skill to live through the maximum amount of information that interests you: both traits are incredible but not so rare among, say, technical geniuses. But here we have a man with a completely different mindset and a different passion. Probably no one has seen as much contemporary art as Hans-Ulrich Obrist has. And he still enjoys it almost as a child who chose a life where he only eats sweets and at the same time feels great doing it. And it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world doesn’t interest him, the ethical and social aspect of art is important and valid to him. But that feels like an extra wing of a building on top of the clear and genuine awe.

Obrist is one of the most influential curators in the contemporary art-world. He is a man who not only invented and held many of the most unthinkable and revolutionary exhibitions for their time, but he also wrote several books on that subject (it’s worth mentioning the recently translated into Latvian “Kūrēšanas veidi”). Art and ways of its representation that leave the usual frames and formats is Obrist’s signature style, his own personal Museum In Progress. It seems that lately he has found not only the visual art sphere restricting, but even the planet Earth. Perhaps an exhibition on Mars, why not? Of course if only the next morning he could fly to Venus on the first flight…

Let’s start our conversation with something very basic. How did this day start for you?

Yesterday we opened this show last night in Rome, at Villa Medici [shows programme for ‘Take Me (I’m yours)]. It was a nice return for me – I was a curator there from 1999 to 2001, and I curated shows about the city, the garden, Rome there’s very much the idea that you invent the future with fragments from the past. I also often lived at the Villa Medici during these three years, around the turn of the millennium. Then I worked in Paris, moved to London, and I didn’t really return to Rome much. But now there’s this exhibition, Take Me (I’m yours), which is a very old show of mine – it’s actually the first show that I ever curated for the Serpentine gallery, in 1996. It’s a show in which the visitors are allowed to do what they are usually not allowed to do in exhibitions, namely, they can touch the objects, they can take them away, they can install them in their home, etc. The idea was inspired by Félix González-Torres – it’s all about interaction and participation. The entire exhibition is a kind of take-away. It was done in close collaboration with the artist Christian Boltanski, and was designed by Martino Gamper.

The opening was last night, and my personal rule is to always take the very first opportunity to leave a city the next day, so I was on the first flight this morning out of Rome, at 6:20 am, to come to Riga and see the Biennial.

And how do you usually start your day, that is, when not travelling?

When I’m in London, I go running. I have a coffee and read the newspapers, but I always read a little bit of Édouard Glissant. He is the most urgent writer for me of the 21st century. He was a very close friend of mine who passed away a couple of years ago. He was a poet and philosopher from Martinique who understood early on that the forces of globalization are also, of course, affecting the arts. This is not the first time that the planet is facing globalization, but it is the most extreme form of it that we’ve ever experienced. It leads to all kinds of homogenizing forces, which means that not only are cultural phenomena at risk of disappearing, but so are languages. Susan Hiller did a beautiful film where she shows how languages disappear; Umberto Eco and Etel Adnan pointed out to me that handwriting is at risk of disappearing in the digital age. Which is why, every day, I post handwritten notes and doodles on my Instagram account. This account is about celebrating individual handwriting and doodling. Species are also disappearing – last night at dinner, A.S. Byatt, the great English novelist, asked me: When is the last time you saw a centipede? At the end of the day, as Elizabeth Kolbert says, even our own species is at risk of extinction.

Yesterday I was in Italy, and of course there’s a great political crisis going on there right now – the extreme right and populist parties are forming a government, and Glissant understood early on that there is a risk of a backlash, a counter reaction to globalization, which could be even worse. It would lead to a lack of tolerance, a lack of solidarity, to new forms of nationalism, to new forms of racism...if one opens the newspaper now, you see it’s all over the world. He predicted this and said that we need to resist a homogenized form of globalization, and we need to, at the same time, resist these new forms of populism, and we need to find what he calls mondialité – the possibility of embracing a global dialogue. He said that, coming from Martinique, the fact that there were other islands with whom he had a dialogue was not a threat to his identity. On the contrary – the dialogue between Martinique and the other islands made his identity richer. We need to understand that our identity can become richer through exchange. But the exchange must be respectful and not erase differences. For me, mondialité is very much a toolbox; every day I read a poem or a few lines from Glissant, and all of my exhibitions are applications of that. For example, Take Me (I’m yours) is a case in point. It started in 1996, it’s been on the road for 22 years now, but every time it goes somewhere, it evolves with strong local research, which means that it’s locally anchored. For instance, in Villa Medici we worked with the residents of the Villa, we worked with the history of the Villa – Boltanski compiled a list of all of the artist residents who have lived at the Villa since the 18th century. We also researched other local artists who have worked in Rome and in Italy...we found out that Gianfranco Baruchello, who is now in his mid-90s, had worked on the theme of generosity, and that is what this exhibition is kind of about.

When I wake up in the morning, I want to find out what kind of contribution I can make to the world. There are some very big issues in the 21st century, and I think that with every exhibition that we do, we have to try and make a contribution...I already mentioned extinction, and we may take climate change into account, but we live in a society which is increasingly suffering from inequality. The inequality is particularly extreme in big cities. An exhibition like Take Me (I’m Yours) is art for all – it proposes great artworks for everyone; everyone can have their apartment in an exhibition. Hopefully this a contribution to having less inequality in the world. I firmly believe that contact with art can change people. It can be transformative, so I want everyone to have this possibility. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist  at the exhibition “Where Does Poetry Come From?” (a part of the parallel programme of RIBOCA1)

The amount of information and the speed at which we’re getting it is increasing almost exponentially with every year. Can you keep up with this, or are you already so quick to react that it doesn’t really affect you?

I think it’s very much about different tempos. Venkatesh Rao has this wonderful blog,, in which he says that contemplation without action is quite meaningless, whereas action without contemplation is baseline. So, we always need both, contemplation and action, and I think it’s about changing tempo. I am, on the one hand, very fast by nature; I speak fast, especially for a Swiss – when I was growing up, they said I should go to Germany or Italy, where everyone speaks fast; so I never learned to speak slowly. But in terms of tempo, I think it is important to introduce moments of slowness. We were speaking about my day – there are always moments in my day when I meet with artists, architects, philosophers, and I have a conversation with them. This is very much the centre of my day, and at that point all phones are switched off and I focus on the conversation. At these moments, I often forget about time, and then no one can reach me for hours. It’s about finding different tempos, and again, about finding a notion of time that is not homogenized. It’s about having different temporalities – having fast lanes and slow lanes. This is true not only in terms of our lives, but also for the medium of exhibition and for museums. In museums, there are moments when you want to calm down and slow down, but then there are moments when you want acceleration. We want radically experimental laboratories, but at same time, a moment for, as Cedric Price said, ‘producing the harvest of the quiet eye’; we want to have both. Each day has an automatically different tempo; we need to inject moments of de-linking, and also moments of slowness into our days.

My life is quite accelerated. I have to go to a lot of different cities, which has to do with the fact that I believe that my role is to make junctions. It is to bring people together, to make contact zones. I make contact between artworks and people, and for that, I need to travel. I mean, I do a lot of cyber-introductions; one of my favourite activities is to introduce people by e-mail or WhatsApp or WeChat. Curating is not only the bringing together of objects, it’s also the bringing together of people. Nevertheless, it still works best if done physically.

I grew up in a monastery town which had a monastery library. I’ve always liked this idea that monks migrated from one city to the next and brought all of their knowledge along with them. Of course, I work at a different velocity than the monks, but I like this idea of Chris Marker’s ‘art pilgrimage’. I like to bring all of my knowledge, all of my contacts, to a city. I like to give lectures and everything that I can of myself, and, at the same time, gain new knowledge – and then move on to the next city. It is almost like an analog internet. When I started, in the 80s, there was no internet. So I was like an analog internet. As a teenager, I would travel by night train and meet all of the artists I wanted to meet in a city. Then I would go to the next city and tell the artists there about the artists I had seen in the previous city. There was a time when all of this information was not necessarily on line.

Going back to the question of physically speaking quickly – when you talk, do you think as you talk, or have you already thought everything out beforehand?

That’s an interesting question. As my mode of activity is based on conversations, I don’t really give ‘speeches’ in the sense that I have a preformed idea of what I’m going to say; instead, it is very reactive. The 20th century was all about manifestos – as the poet Etel Adnan has said, it was often about very loud and masculine manifestos, but the 21st century could be more about the feminine quality of listening. A lot of my conversation mode has to do with listening, with feedback loops. And that’s how all of my ideas for exhibitions come out of conversations. Like this show that opened last night and that’s been on the road for 22 years – it started out as a conversation with Christian Boltanski. All of my ideas come out of this conversation mode; I don’t come up with ideas when I sit alone in my study and think. My entire being is deeply set in conversation.

There are certain things that I always repeat, no matter who I am with – like when I mentioned Glissant earlier. I think that the whole world should have translations of the works of Édouard Glissant because then we wouldn’t have these political situations like we have now in Italy. Glissant is like an antidote to all of that. I am on a mission to get his works translated. We did a big exhibition with my friend Asad Raza on Édouard Glissant – we translated texts by Glissant and distributed them, we made an exhibition in which people could experience Glissant, and which is now touring the world… It’s not a manifesto, but it’s a belief that I think that the world needs right now. It’s almost homeopathy.

Edouard Glissant. Courtesy l'Institut du Tout-Monde

In an interview you once explained how the word ‘curate’ comes from the Latin cūrāre, meaning to watch over, attend’. In Estonian (not Latvian), the similar sounding word kurat means ‘devil’. In your experience, is there a dark side to curating?

There is a lot of responsibility involved in, first of all, not instrumentalising art. The dark side of curating is when it is about manipulation and when curators instrumentalise art for their own purposes. I would never squeeze an artist into a box. I start by finding out the artist’s desire, what are their dreams, their unrealised projects – what, within the parameters of society, an artist can’t do. One dark side of curating would be to override the artists, to instrumentalise them, and that sometimes happens. That’s bad. 

There is also an illusion that the curator has power, which is also a danger. We should never forget that the only power lies within art. The reason I want to be with art, support art, and why I enable art, is that that is what is going to survive our time. If you look back now – the other day I was in Madrid, at the Goya chapel, and we can look at Goya today, but not even remember the politicians of that time...we don’t even remember the kings, but we do remember Goya. And we can connect his paintings to what is happening today in Syria, in has a high relevance for now. Art will survive us all.

The dark side of curating is if there is a delusion of power – if the curator suddenly thinks that he is more powerful than the artist. That is ridiculous. As my friend Peter Fischli, the great artist, always says, no one has ever visited the grave of a curator. Being a curator is not about power; it is about being useful. The power of a curator is only in his or her usefulness for art. 

The medical connection of the word cūrāre, at this moment when the planet is being destroyed, is interesting in terms of the idea of healing. We will be doing an exhibition of Emma Kunz at the Serpentine. She was a healer who discovered the healing quality of a specific rock, and she organised visits to this cave and grotto and made a powder from this rock. You can find it today in pharmacies; as a child in Switzerland, my mother would by this cream and give it to me when I wasn’t feeling well or had some pain. It was invented by an artist who discovered the healing qualities of this rock. Then, she started to make drawings with a pendulum following the energy stream of the rock. We’re going to do an exhibition on healing related to that, with this notion of cūrāre – an interesting aspect today, when the planet is being destroyed. It goes beyond art.

We spoke before of Latvia’s ambassador [to the UK, Baiba Braže], and that I am really here because of her enthusiasm. When I grew up in the 90s, as a young curator, I met Uli Sigg, the Swiss ambassador to China. He created such an enthusiasm for Chinese art and brought Chinese art into the embassy. I think that embassies have great potential and are not used enough as a force to promote culture. It’s very rare that people who are ambassadors understand the importance of culture. Very often they are just bureaucrats who don’t do anything… Uli Sigg was the reason that I became so engaged in China. So it’s amazing that [Latvia] has this ambassador in London who is a cultural force. All of our embassies should be like that – it is a model for the rest.

It is my belief that we have to bring culture into society, and art into politics. At the Serpentine we are very involved with the legacy of the artist John Latham who, with Barbara Steveni, founded the Artist Placement Group; he said that every organisation should have an artist in residence – every ministry, every mayor, every big corporation. That could be an interesting thought for Riga. Fifteen years ago, the mayor of Manchester wanted to reinvent Manchester, so he went to the great artist of the city, Peter Saville, and asked him to help. Saville became the artist in residence and said that there should be a festival – which would then go on to become the Manchester International Festival. Everything there is new and it must have its world premier take place there. At the end of the day, this put Manchester back on the map again – all because of an artist being close to the mayor. 

It’s a great model for the future. We need to not isolate culture; we need to bring art into the core of society. That is my aim. It’s another reason why I get out of bed – why I got up at six this morning.

I know that when you first meet an artist, you often ask them not what they’ve already done, but rather about their unrealised dreams. I’d like to ask you the same question – do you have any unrealised dreams that you still think about?

Just like with an architect, a lot of curator projects go unrealised. I have archived many unrealised projects by artists, and I have an idea to someday do a big exhibition of all of them – to bring awareness to these thousands of projects. Even though I hope to do this one day, it still hasn’t happened – it’s like under ‘a spell’ of some sort.

I’m also interested in doing more operas. I did Il Tempo del Postino with Philippe Parreno; an opera is like a group show. I’ve always been inspired by Diaghilev, the Russian impresario...he is one of the reasons I became a curator. In the Ballets Russes, which he founded, it was like music meets literature meets art. We did a lot of that in Manchester, and now we’re doing it with Alex Poots and his new organization, The Shed, in New York, so more of these kinds of projects will be realised… We’ve invited Arvo Pärt, who has composed music for Gerhard Richter, and Gerhard Richter has made paintings for Arvo Pärt… and Steve Reich, who has also composed music for Gerhard Richter. The music of Pärt and Reich will be in two different rooms with the artwork of Richter – that’s a project that hadn’t been realised, but now will be. There are many, many more projects like this.

There are a couple of people I’ve always wanted to work with, such as Jean-Luc Godard.  

What would you like to do with Godard?

I suppose an exhibition, because he himself curated an exhibition for the Pompidou in which he really experimented with the collection and with film. My medium is exhibition, so I have lots of unrealised ideas in this field, but then the question arises as to how we can go beyond the temporality of the exhibition – do more long-duration things. Some of the shows that I do, like Take Me (I’m yours) and do it are like algorithms which keep evolving and changing. They are always alive and changing, but they appear and disappear; I think it would be interesting to have some permanent places – an exhibition that would evolve, but would also have a permanent presence.

Hans Ulrich Obrist (in the middle) with Serpentine Galleries CEO Yana Peel,  founder and commissioner of Riga Biennial Agniya Mirgorodskaya, the Latvian Ambassador to the United Kingdom Baiba Braže and art historian and curator Kaspars Vanags. Forming the Baltic Way in front of the Dutch artist’s Erik Kessels work "Chain of Freedom" in Riga. Photo: Inese Dabola

So, not a museum…?

It would be more like an exhibition but with a different time horizon. So, that’s still unrealised.

I suppose a palace of unrealised projects would be great – a building where you could see all the dreams of artists. That would be cool.

I’d like to do an exhibition on a different planet. I’d like to curate a show on Mars – that’s still unrealised [chuckles]. Maybe I should team up with Elon Musk… Jefferson Hack and I have developed a project with NASA, so, doing an interplanetary exhibition is clearly an obsession.

I think my biggest unrealised project has to do with urbanism and the Serpentine we have a pavilion every summer, and that had always been my dream – to commission a work of architecture. But to curate a whole city would be interesting – what would a city made and run by artists look like? Not necessarily a master-plan eco-city, like in Abu Dhabi or Brazil, but more of an archipelago of artist initiatives that could form a new city. It would be a city in which lots of artist would also live. That is kind of my utopia – to do a city either on Earth or another planet. That would be the ultimate form of curation.

I’m also interested in this idea that it not be only top-down; a lot of urbanist plans have been top-down, like with master plans, but I think it would be interesting to do it as an ‘up-plan’ – how could we introduce self-organisation? My shows do this, but how could this be applied to the format of a city? This is my biggest unrealised project; I haven’t yet found a context where I could do a city. I think a lot of artists are interested in the idea of having a sustained presence in a place where they can also spend time. It would be very exciting to have a city built by artists – something like that has never existed. All of the cities have always been built by urbanists and architects...yeah, an art city!

Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Photo: Kristīne Madjare