June 2022 7 Min Read

Interview: Hans Ulrich Obrist

By Josh Sims

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss art curator, art historian and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London. Often described as one of the most powerful people in the art world, Obrist has been obsessed with art since he was a teenager, when he started travelling around Europe to meet artists and, he hoped, help get their art to a larger audience. He organised his first art exhibition, in his kitchen, when he was 23.

Obrist is also the author of The Interview Project, an ongoing series of conversations between artists, including luminaries such as Zaha Hadid, Olafur Eliasson, Jeff Koons, and Yoko Ono, amongst others. In addition to this project, Obrist’s work has tended to focus on how curatorial practice has evolved into its modern-day form. Throughout the years, Obrist has curated countless exhibitions, including exhibitions at the Venice Biennale and Art Basel.

Obrist is currently the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries and holds a central position in the art world.

We spoke to Obrist about his role as an exhibition maker, art between generations, and why we shouldn’t only view an artist for their market, but take a closer look at their work.

ACM: You once said that you “believe in art”. What do you mean by that?

HUO: There are many layers to it. In part it’s about how we decide to liberate society from short-termism – this idea that we live in a 24/7 society in which more and more things are based on short-term deadlines. In order to address the urgent topics of our time, to transcend that short-termism, I think that leads us directly to art. It’s hard for anything to last, and nothing does that better than art.

I worked on an exhibition of [Francisco] Goya’s paintings and etchings with the artist Michael Armitage at the Academia in Madrid and it’s extraordinary to see the extent of how they can be connected, say, to the many wars happening in our time. The other thing is something Gerhard Richter once told me, and that’s the idea that art is the highest form of hope. In a secular society, art often takes on the function that religion has had in previous times. And I’ve always felt very strongly that art and artists give me hope.

To Obrist, art exists both within and outside of time.

The other thing is that, as the artist Martha Rosler says, the future often flies in under the radar. Artists have antennae that allow them anticipate things. Now we also see more of an idea that first was put forward in the 1960s, about having an artist on the company board. I think then it was a utopian idea, but it was taken very seriously in Germany and the question of whether artists should have a seat at the table is being considered again now.

Why is it, as a percentage of the population, that so few people have any interest in art?

A couple of years ago I took a taxi to go to the Serpentine very early and the driver asked if I worked there and I said, “Yes, indeed.” He started to tell me a story of how he’d gone for a walk in the park with his daughter and she ran into the Serpentine Pavilion – it doesn’t have doors, which is kind of relevant – and one of the great things about museums and galleries in the UK is that so many collections are free. So I asked if they then visited [the gallery] and he was silent for a moment and then said, “No, that kind of place isn’t for the likes of me.”

We have to find ways in which art can appear in places where we expect it least – in hotel rooms, on a mountain peak, on a train, in a magazine, taking the show to the people. We need to find new forms of engagement for art. The Pavilion is that. Public art is art. Look at how the US developed these amazing programmes in the 1930s to bring art to every school, every post office, on murals. It’s interesting to think about that again today, in the way artists are, for example, experimenting with technology [such as] video games, which brings art to a new audience. We’ve seen that with [the artist] KAWS recently, where we had his work on the landing page of Fortnite and that’s being seen by 400 million players.

Art for the public – Obrist has worked over the years to try and find new ways to engage new audiences.

You see a lot of art. Does it ever make sense to talk about ‘good’ art and ‘bad’ art?

What’s important is that over the longer term it’s about how the art translates to the next generation, and generations not born yet. What will be relevant for them? We always want to go back to a work of art. I think that’s as true for a work of art as it is, say, for a book.

When we move house and we’re packing up – and I can barely move in my apartment for the piles of books, so we have to put some in storage – a decision has to be made about which books you want to keep, or keep near you, because you may want to read them again. The same goes for movies – the majority of times we see a movie and that’s it, done, but then there are those that you want to see again. [‘Good’] art has longevity. It’s not disposable.

Are we all artists, if we just make the art? Or are artists special in some way?

That’s a Beuysian question. In 1973, [Joseph] Beuys said that everyone is an artist because “only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build a social organism as a work of art”. He’s saying that there’s something positive in everyone engaging in an activity related to art. But then at the same time it’s relatively rare that an artist, like Goya, continues to resonate down through the centuries.

Do you ever have the urge to make art yourself?

I think my role is as an exhibition maker and that’s how I think about what I do, and to understand the forces that affect art I also need to understand literature, poetry and music. Those disciplines can come together in exhibitions.

Over the years I’ve realised that younger generations of artists have a fluidity of practice now – from poetry to architecture to installations, all these different fields. So while as an exhibition maker I’m anchored in the visual arts world, I try to connect all the dots between different fields. A lot of what I also do is make connections between people – that’s a form of curation. I once spoke with J.G. Ballard and he described what I do as being a junction-maker. But I’m also a kind of midwife, bringing on artists’ unrealised projects.

Why do we have these distinctions between different art forms at all?

I think it’s really interesting that there has been this strong period of separation through the modern age that moves towards specialisation. That wasn’t always the case. Look to Hildegard of Bingen, this extraordinary nun of the 11th and 12th century who was this major composer of the Middle Ages but also a writer, a poet, a healer, an early environmentalist. She’s been a major inspiration for me – I like the Hildegards who don’t think in terms of that separation. It strikes me as an important thing, more than ever, to make the connections, to enable connectedness and relatedness.

'I think my role is as an exhibition maker and that’s how I think about what I do, and to understand the forces that affect art I also need to understand literature, poetry and music.'

When you started out on your career there was no formal training for curators, so is that desire to make connections just innate to your personality?

As a kid I had this insatiable curiosity and I would go to see visual artists by night train all over Europe, and then I did the same with architects, then with scientists and fashion designers, and wanted to bring these people together. An exhibition often has a great freedom as a format. A large part of my job is, of course, to look and look and look, but also to listen. We need to learn to listen to each other again.

I grew up in Switzerland, a land-locked country, as [an only] child, [and] it felt a little lonely, so I think that urge to connect was always there. But over time I think it’s become apparent that that’s important for society. In this world of globalisation we need to find ways of resisting homogenising forces and come up with a different way of global dialogue. We’re more connected through tech now but, paradoxically, we can see we’re isolated in bubbles. Finding ways through all that is why I get out of bed in the morning.

Do you ever tire of art?

No, never! I’m very excited about the work I see and after 35 years still every couple of years you see a new generation emerging and thinking of what they do in new ways – seeing art in gardens, or farms, for example, and I find it super fascinating what that means to me as a curator. And out of the 3,000 or so conversations I’ve had with artists, you hear about all these unrealised ideas. Also I work with artists at the very beginning of their trajectory, which can make a huge difference.

Obrist is, unsurprisingly, an avid reader, with his past work often bridging the gap between art and literature.

One artist reminded me, too, that it’s important to revisit forgotten artists of previous generations and that’s become more important in a visual age, in which we have exponentially increasing amounts of information but not necessarily more memory.

[The historian] Eric Hobsbawm said we need to protest against forgetting. Look at [the artist] Louise Bourgeois, who started to become famous at the age of 85. We need to just go from city to city and ask if there is an artist that needs more attention. There are so many aspects of art history that have been neglected.

Are you in awe of artists, or is it important to maintain critical judgement?

I think it’s both. It’s important to always question and always challenge, but of course I’m in awe of artists because it’s one of the most difficult things to create art that can create meaning for so many people over so many centuries. I have huge admiration for artists. But I remember the first time I visited Gerhard Richter in his studio – I was about 17 – and he was doing his October paintings, about Baader-Meinhof, history paintings about a specific moment in German history, but I realised how they clearly also transcended the moment we were in. They were very specific but also eternal. That was the first time I felt that with a living artist.

Obrist’s thick black frames have become an instantly recognisable part of his style.

Do you think the art world has been tainted by money?

The discussion of art’s monetary value takes up a lot of space but I always felt that my role is to talk about everything but the money. It’s about creating space for artists and discussing why society needs art. I think it’s important to focus on that. Sometimes [it can be frustrating] to hear an artist discussed for their market, not for their work.

You don’t collect art yourself. Why not?

No, I don’t collect. I have an archive of a lot of recordings and films, and I’ve written a lot, but I have a very nomadic life and I’ve always lived in small apartments. I have the greatest respect for collectors who do it systematically and it’s super important, but that’s another activity, I think. For me, it’s not so much about ownership as sharing. I make exhibitions to share them with the world.

You always travelled most of every year and have described this as your ‘school of seeing’. Is travel still educational for you?

Travel will always be a very important part of my life, but I think we have to always rethink our approach to travel. When I was younger I would travel a lot on night trains around Europe, before they were [phased out], and I love the idea of waking up in a new city. We need to bring night trains back – and only a much higher carbon tax for flying will do that.

“I always felt that my role is to talk about everything but the money. It’s about creating space for artists and discussing why society needs art.”

Now I’m making fewer, longer trips. But there’s nothing more productive than a night on a train: for the rhythm, and as a way of encountering people, having philosophical conversations – some of my best friends I met on night trains – for their romance, for the efficient use of time. You don’t have to travel the day before, as with flying, with all the stress. You don’t need a hotel. You wake up at your destination.

Our thanks to Hans Ulrich Obrist for taking the time to speak with us about art and curation. Photography by Ollie Grove.