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Hans-Ulrich Obrist - Biography

Hans-Ulrich Obrist (b. 1968), the Swiss curator who began his work in his kitchen, was named art’s second most powerful figure in 2010, by Art Review, after being its most powerful the previous year. Obrist joined the Serpentine Gallery in 2006, as Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes, and the Director of International Projects. Prior to this engagement, he served as the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, since 2000. Before arriving in Paris, Obrist was curator of Museums in Progress, Vienna, from 1993 until 2000. In all, since 1991 Obrist has curated over 150 exhibitions internationally. Along with his curatorial work, Obrist is “the artworld’s Studs Terkel – its default oral historian – with his interviews taking forms ranging from a video exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale to Volume Two of his mammoth Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews book series”, and a man who has “turned curation into an art”.

In spite of his meteoric ascent, Obrist, does not fully acknowledge the preeminence of the curator, claiming, in an interview, that he, as a curator, is no more than a ‘utility’, and that “it is not curators or collectors who set the art-world’s agenda, but artists themselves”. Obrist has long advocated taking art outside the boundaries of museums and galleries. Beginning in his kitchen, Obrist has held shows in monasteries, airplanes, power stations, Kensington Gardens, and even in Friedrich Nietzsche’s home in Sils-Maria. “To keep art stimulating, it's important to open it up to new horizons, which includes showing it in unexpected contexts,” he says, condemning the traditional museum experience as “like being on a ski piste: go left, go right… It's too linear, too homogeneous.”

While at Serpentine Gallery, Obrist has instituted annual Serpentine Marathons, in which he invites 50 artists, philosophers, architects and etc. to give short consecutive presentations on a given theme. In 2008 it was the Manifesto Marathon, which dwelt on the future of art and society, while in 2009 it was the Poetry Marathon, by which Obrist attempted to re-establish the lost intimacy between art and poetry. In 2010, it was time for a Marathon on Maps, which sought an answer to how maps are read in the twenty-first century, that is, how we chart our movement in the present, and how it inscribes us. The Map Marathon is, to some extent, an homage and extension of the British Library’s Magnificent Maps exhibition, which exposed the question of maps as between art and scientific record. As befits Obrist’s musings on art beyond the confines of the gallery, the latest installment of the Serpentine Marathons was held at the Royal Geographical Society.

Obrist curated Take me, I’m Yours (Serpentine Gallery), which endeavored to reconstruct the relationship between a work and its viewer, by proposing that art is a cultural activity, and consequently functions in a manner not all that different from more mundane and even banal everyday activities. Obrist argued that with the subtraction of normal barriers and boundaries associated with the exhibition of art, the viewer’s experience of the work is purified, and his access to it increased. The exhibition included the works of Douglas Gordon, Christian Boltanski, Wolfgang Tillman, Fabrice Hybert and Franz West.

Citites on the Move, was a meditation on the city, as the locus of conflict; between the processes of urbanization and traditional social structures, within a globalized liberal consumer economy and ‘this new totalitarian power of hypercapitalism’. Obrist’s concept for the exhibition was tainted by Rem Koolhaas’ observation that “this new urban growth is bringing about a kind of Cities of Exacerbated Difference, which ‘is not the methodical creation of the ideal, but the opportunistic exploitation of flukes, accidents and imperfections’”. The argument claimed is that rapid urbanization and globalization of late-Capitalist market economy, including mass media and communication technologies, are coinciding with the disintegration of all “established notions of boundary, nation, identity, morality …”. Within this conflict a certain consequence arises, which to Obrist’s mind is as frightening as it is ironic, namely, within this cultural, or multicultural, inundation, traversed and supported by ‘transgression’, ‘individuality’, and ‘liberation’, a certain horror vaccui reveals itself, as does a new form of scantly clothed homogeneity - a group of selves each as empty as they are indistinguishable from one another. In such a social space, Obrist argues, “Culture, or creative activities, including art, and especially popular culture and media, are being deliberately sterilized into commonly acceptable and profitable formulas.” He continues: “All this actually means an indirect, invisible and almost "comfortable" censorship and deliberated reduction of spaces for non-commercial cultural activities. Especially endangered are those for experimental activities and critical voices. On the contrary to the boom of new skylines full of high rising buildings and commercial spaces, artists and intellectuals are losing spaces and infrastructures for creation.” Staring this monstrosity in the face, Obrist calls on artists to “invent alternative ‘sub-spaces’ or non-institutional ‘artist-run-spaces’” designed to simutanesouly prevent co-optation, and thereby save art’s social function, and, thus, art itself.

In 1995 Obrist was one of five curators selected for Manifesta 1, a Europe-wide nomadic exhibition, conceived as a response to the tragic political changes in Central and Eastern Europe following the fall of the wall. Manifesta 1 was interdisciplinary and cross-cultural, in so far as such an approach was a reflection of then current artistic concerns. Moreover, an emphasis was “placed on inclusivity, rather than exclusivity, and on collaboration between artists and theoreticians, rather than on factional representation, competition, commercialization and prizes. It was to be a process, as much as a product…”.

Obrist also curated Uncertain States of America: American Art in the 3rd Millennium, Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland. Together with his co-Curators, Daniel Birnbaum and Gunner B. Kvaran, Obrist announced the exhibition’s statement as: “These are the Uncertain States of America where nothing is fully possible to predict and where surprise is always around the corner”. Although the exhibition consisted of over 40 young artists, and more than 120 works, there was an intentional common link, namely, a certain narrative art, which was conscious of its historical context, and expressed an articulated social and political consciousness.

In 2010 Obrist curated Map Marathon: Maps for the 21st Century, at Serpentine Gallery. The submission criteria were purposefully simple, namely, an answer to the question ‘how does one perceive a map in the twenty-first century?’. The exhibition directly follows from Obrist’s book, Formulas for Now, which responded to the ‘urgent need to chart this first decade of a century characterized by increasing displacement, migration, and globality’, or more generally, to the question ‘what is now?’.

Even with Obrist’s escapades beyond the gallery, and his innovative curations, perhaps his most original work is his Interview Project. By his own account, Obrist’s obsession with interviews, or conversations, was triggered by two conversations he read as a student, between David Sylvester and Francis Bacon, and between Pierre Cabanne and Marcel Duchamp. "These books somehow brought me to art," he has said. "They were like oxygen, and were the first time that the idea of an interview with an artist as a medium became of interest to me. They also sparked my interest in the idea of sustained conversations—of interviews recorded over a period of time, perhaps over the course of many years; the Bacon/Sylvester interviews took place over three long sessions, for example." The archive of interviews thus far consists of over 2000 hours of recording, and has begun to be published in two volumes, Interviews: Volume 1 and Volume 2, while the longer conversations, with figures such as Robert Crumb, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, John Baldessari and others, are being published singly, in ongoing series of books entitled The Conversation Series.

In addition to his curatorial positions and duties, Obrist is a regular contributor to Abitare Magazine, Artforum and Paradis Magazine, as well as the editor of 032c Magazine. He has also lectured internationally at both academic and art institutions, including his alma mater, the European Graduate School, as well as the University of East Anglia, Southbank Center, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and at the Architectural Association School of Architecture.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist was a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he taught an Intensive Summer Workshop.