‘DO IT’ is not only the title of an exhibition that Hans Ulrich Obrist curated in 1997, but it also sums him up. The Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects for The Serpentine Gallery is one of the most prolific, hands-on, art curators in the world, who merges science, architecture and literature into his work. He is the founder of the breakfast club ‘Brutally Early Club’, where people from the arts meet people in science, architecture and literature professions at 6.30 in the morning. “If you want to understand the forces that are effective in visual arts, it’s important to understand what is happening in other disciplines”, as Obrist quoted the art historian and museum director, Alexander Dorner, in a story in our fourth edition of 200% (“Expanding the Notion of Curating”), as to why Obrist has such close ties with other disciplines.
For that story Obrist provided us with lots of interesting material that didn’t fit into the subject of our story, but is still worthwhile sharing, for example, his obsession for the titles of his exhibitions, different schools of titles, inter alia, titles of Gerhard Richter, Gilbert & George and Damien Hirst, and whether the relationship between an artist and a curator may be comparable with the relationship between a novelist and his editor.
In this interview, Obrist gives his viewpoints on these topics, and also discusses what he considers have been the major developments in the art scene, and what museums could do with all the hidden treasures they have in their vaults that can’t be shown to the public due to space constraints.
200%: How do you come up with the titles of your shows?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: For my house museum shows the artist Douglas Gordon invented the titles: ‘Retrace Your Steps, Remember Tomorrow’ for the Sir John Soane’s museum, ‘The Air Is Blue’ for the Luis Barragán show in Mexico, and ‘Ever Still’ for the Lorca Show in Granada. For the other shows I came up with the titles in dialogues with others.
‘Cities On The Move’, which I co-curated with Hou Hanru, was inspired by a conversation we had with the Italian philosopher and politician Massimo Cacciari. ‘Do it’ was a collaboration with Bertrand Lavier and Christian Boltanski. ‘Utopia Station’, was a collaboration between Molly Nesbitt, Rirkrit Tiravanija and myself for the 50th Venice Biennale. Molly and I had worked on an exhibition ‘Utopia’ and Rikrit worked on ‘Station’ and our ‘Utopia’ and his ‘Station’ became ‘Utopia Station’, so very often my titles are shared space.
Titles are key; they can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If we call a show ‘Cities On The Move’ or more recent our Serpentine Show ‘Indian Highway’, which I co-curated with Julia Peyton-Jones and Gunnar Kvaran, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that these shows are going on tour, which is what they did. Thus, titles are more than titles: they are a production of reality.
200%: The titles of your shows are usually very short. Is there a reason for this?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Yes, Gerhard Richter told me that titles should be iconic, normally very short. When we did the show in the Nietzsche Haus in Sils Maria, where Nietzsche wrote ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’, I suggested ‘Circulus vitiosus pictus’ instead of ‘Circulus Vitiosus Deus’ (Nietzsche’s Ethics), but Richter said “no, that’s too complicated. In a few years, it is not going to be good”. The longevity of a title is also very important. A title has to work in twenty or fifty years, and Gerard asked me “where is this show?” and I answered “Sils Maria” and he said “too long” and he reduced it to ‘Sils’, which became the title of the show. We then applied this methodology to the next book we did together, which was Gerhard Richter ‘Text’. The working title was ‘The Daily Practice of Painting’, and at some point Gerhard asked me “what is it, as a matter of fact”. I replied “It’s text, it is your writings”. So we called it Gerhard Richter ‘Text’.
Ever since, I have applied this methodology to some of my other shows. When I did the show at Hotel Carlton Palace, we just called it ‘Hotel Carlton Palace – room 763’, the room in which it actually took place. When I did a show in the Zurich drainage museum [Museum der Stadtentwässerung], I called it ‘Cloaca Maxima’. I also liked the titles of Pontus Hultén shows. When he did his big blockbuster shows he called them ‘Paris-Moscow’ or ‘Paris-Paris’. Titles have always been an obsession for me.
200%: Besides Richter, are there any other artists who you think are ‘good’ in titles?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Ed Ruscha, Martin Kippenberger and I was always very fascinated by the titles of Gilbert & George (G&G). I met them at the same time that I met Christian Boltanski, Fischli Weiss and Gerhard Richter – at the very beginning of my trajectory as a teenager when I was 18 years old. G&G would always come up with these amazing titles. I thought it would be nice to do a book on all G&G titles and I had many years of conversations with them. Finally, last year, they agreed to do a book, that they would also design, ‘Art Titles 1969-2010’, in collaboration with Inigo Philbrick and me. It’s a bit of a ‘user manual’ for people in search of titles.
G&G had this idea to print the titles in the book twice: in chronological and alphabetical order. [Obrist reads from the Foreword of the book] “G&G likened their evolution to a pilgrimage; invoking John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim's Progress’ as a model of their desire to continually and uncompromisingly discover life anew”. Thus, titling for G&G in their artistic practice is a question of ‘one thing after another’. [Obrist continues to read from the Foreword] “With each idea following intuitively from what has just been named. Their art is above all an attempt to take what is at hand and to make of it what they can; to search amid everyday life for ways to invent what Raymond Roussel might have called ‘wily stratagems’ performative gambits, to form pictures and exhibitions from reality.” When you read the book, it feels a bit like a rap and they want the reader to read it aloud.
200%: What do you think of the titles of Damien Hirst’s shows, for example, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, ‘Romance in the Age of Uncertainty’, and ‘Towards a Better Understanding of Life without God aboard The Ship of Fools’.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: They are great titles. His titles are the other side of the spectrum as they are long, but interesting ominous loops. They are somehow between a music song and a poem. I’ve also been inspired by music songs. I did this other show ‘Take me (I’m yours)’, which was inspired by a music song of the band Squeeze. It actually was my first show with Julia Peyton-Jones at the Serpentine Gallery.
200%: You don’t consider Hirst’s titles pompous?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: No, I don’t think they are pompous. It’s a very different type of titles. I’ve been more of into iconic, short titles but I think Damien has invented his own sort of title. I think they are quite enigmatic and they make you think.
200%: How much is the relationship between an artist and a curator a bit like the relationship between a novelist and his editor? Is it a curator’s job to tell an artist ‘This is good... this needs more work... this should be thrown in the bin?’
Hans Ulrich Obrist: In the literary world often an author works with one editor. I think in the art world, though, there is more a promiscuity of collaboration, because artists are collaborating with different people; curators, galleries and have dialogues with critics, so I think it’s more polyphonic in the art world. When editors are telling me about their extreme proximity with their authors and how they speak all the time, it reminded me of certain relationships I have with certain artists that have sustained over a long time.
200%: What have been major developments in the art scene since you started as curator?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: We’re in a situation where you have a polyphony of voices in museums and people with all kinds of different approaches; it’s more trans-national. Now, a museum director works in other countries. I think that’s an opening up and that’s our task in the art world as the forces of homogenization are also at stake in the world of art. Maybe we can dedicate this interview to the memory of Édouard Glissant as he was such an amazing visionary in terms of “mondialité" and "créolisation” to actually show us ways how we can engage in a global dialogue to produce differences and avoid the homogenization of languages. I believe that there should be a pluralism and a variety of different museum approaches. It’s important that Shows are not only curated by professional curators but also by artists. Last year, Julia Peyton-Jones and I, asked the industrial designer, Konstantin Grcic, to curate a design show at the Serpentine Gallery – these unexpected curatorships can lead to very unexpected shows.
What is also interesting, is that, to take as a positive sign, is the move from the art world that used to be a very limited field. Previously, it was only the Western art that was considered; what has happened over the last 10, 20 years, is extraordinary; China, Middle East, Latin America and all these powerful strong art scenes, are finally gaining credit and entering museum collections and museum shows. There are also more curators and artists from these geographies who start to play a role. We have a greater variety now. The art world used to be much smaller. When I started in the 1980s, you had less curators and they often had a local monopoly and, now, no-one has a monopoly.
Within curating I notice there is a lot of re-visiting of positions from the past. Ten, twenty, years ago curating was all about the ‘new’ and there was an excitement of finding new artists; now, there is, again, an additional layer to that which is memory. I see more and more curators being interested in artists from previous decades, undigging sources that help us to invent the future.
200%: Do you have a solution as to what museums could do with all the hidden treasures they have in their vaults that can’t be shown to the public due to space constraints?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Museums can only show a little bit of what they have, and even if they do an expansion, and double or triple their surface, it is still is a very small percentage of what their collection includes.
I think it’s interesting to return to an idea of the architect Rem Koolhaas for the expansion of the MoMA, which must have been 10 to 15 years ago, but it was turned down (MoMA decided to adopt Yoshio Taniguchi’s concept). Koolhaas’s project was actually that the museum would have different parts, not only the physical part, the display of art, but that the viewer would also have the possibility to see parts of the storage e.g. accessible digitally.
One of the things that is very fascinating in the world of curating is that when I became a curator my relatives thought it was a medical profession, as it was so obscure, they had no clue what a curator was: today, though, the word curating is used everywhere. It’s used on the Internet, used by blogs: websites are being curated, the TED conference is being curated. From this point of view one can obviously say if Joseph Beuys says “everyone is an artist” could we say, 40 years later, “everyone is a curator”? Now, that doesn’t mean that an expertise disappears, because obviously museum curators have a life-long expertise – as a scholar, as a researcher, as a profession of how to install a show – and that is something we need in the future, as we need experts in all fields. It is, however, very interesting that, in addition, you could say there could also be the idea that every viewer is a curator. Actually viewers, through the digital connection, can go to the collection, they could put together their own display, and there could be all kinds of alternative proposals of use; you could then digitally, view other things than you see in the space that I think is not yet used so much, which I think has huge potential for the future.
Interview conducted and written by Thierry Somers.
Additional contribution by Marie Drysdale.
Picture: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Photographed by Juergen Teller
© Juergen Teller