Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interview

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A new role at the Serpentine Gallery is the latest chapter in Hans Ulrich Obrist‘s love-affair with London. Time Out finds out why he keeps coming back for more

  • As guest curator at the Serpentine Gallery in 1995, Swiss-born Hans Ulrich Obrist mounted ‘Take Me I’m Yours’, a show that was more like a jumble sale than an exhibition. Gilbert and George gave away badges and Christian Boltanski invited people to fill a carrier bag with second-hand clothes for a pound. The following year he presented ‘Life/Live’, a survey of artist-run spaces in Britain, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In 1999 he stayed at the John Soane Museum while curating ‘Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow’, for which he invited artists like Steve McQueen and Cerith Wyn Evans to respond to the collection. Now, after being involved in curating some 90 major exhibitions, including ‘Cities on the Move’ that came to the Hayward in 1999, he takes up a post created specially for him: Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery.

    ‘For ten years I was working freelance and travelling non-stop’, he tells me.

    ‘But since 2000 I’ve been based in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville, curating the programme there. Internationally, it’s a very open situation that goes beyond national boundaries; directors and curators move from one country to another, which has opened up the museum landscape.’ Isn’t there a danger, though, with curators moving from one country to another, that museum programmes become the same the world over? ‘It’s essential that there’s a strong local ingredient,’ he argues. ‘You have to have a mixture of protagonists from inside and outside to create a dialogue – a negotiation between the local and the global – otherwise institutions become homogenised.’ Hasn’t he chosen the wrong time to move here, just when the London art scene has lost its creative edge? ‘It’s very exciting to be here again,’ he insists, ‘because London keeps reinventing itself. There’s a new generation of artists’ spaces and galleries and London is an amazing laboratory for new architecture and design.’

    With Tate Modern dominating the scene, how does he see the role of public galleries like the Serpentine? ‘The question is more about relevance and vision. This has nothing to do with scale; it would be much simpler if it did. For the last year Julia [Peyton-Jones] and I have been discussing what an institution of the twenty-first century should be. It’s not about filling spaces, but intuiting what’s necessary and urgent.

    At a time when other museums are building new wings, we are building a new image; our extension will be through programming in concentric circles: the Serpentine, the park, the world. The gallery offers a very specific experience, because it’s a world within a world – a lofty space, which you walk to through the park. The change of momentum from slow to fast, and from noisy to as silent as a chapel is important; it works especially well for monographic exhibitions.’ I’m told that persuading artists to show in smaller public galleries can be difficult, because they are hoping to exhibit at Tate Modern. ‘You have to propose something that is context-specific,’ he explains. ‘At a certain time an artist needs a big retrospective, at other times they need a more focused exhibition. It’s a different story each time; it’s about establishing a dialogue. Flexibility is essential, otherwise everything becomes predictable; planning too far in advance is potentially deadly: it can make the programme very stiff.’

    He won’t divulge details, because the programme will be announced in the summer, but the first project is a pavilion with an inflatable canopy by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond which will stay on the lawn through the autumn. ‘There’ll be debates, performances, screenings and 24-hour interview marathons as well as a café,’ says Obrist, ‘to build bridges between art, architecture and design.’

    A Royal College graduate compared curating to writing an essay with artworks. How does he preceive the role? ‘I see a curator as a catalyst, generator and motivator – a sparring partner, accompanying the artist while they build a show, and a bridge builder, creating a bridge to the public. Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva proved that essay shows can be successful, but they have to be brilliant, otherwise they are in danger of using art to illustrate a text. You have to avoid a pre-written scenario. Great group shows are journeys that get written along the way; you don’t know the end point. ’

    How does the London art world compare with that of, say, Berlin? ‘The scene is no longer centred in one place, as it was in the past,’ says Obrist. ‘There’s a polyphony of centres and London plays a crucial role. Most cities have a centre surrounded by suburbs, but London has numerous centres: it’s the model of a twenty-first century metropolis.’

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