Home as multiplicity: Community, belonging and ritual in art and life with Hans Ulrich Obrist
In conversation with Ellie Brown , January 25, 2024
— People, Art
For curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, new exhibitions and collaborative projects often evolve from conversations. In a world where the term “to curate” is stretched to its limits—whether for a social media feed, a dinner party, a shop layout—the notion of curation through conversation is the best way to describe how Obrist works. Since the mid-1980s, as a teenager growing up in Switzerland, Obrist has been talking, meeting, plotting, and planning with artists, as well as visiting exhibitions and studios nonstop.
Some of his formative visits with artists continue to shape how he works today. This is evident from reading Ways of Curating (2014), a book as much about curating as it is about the ideas and encounters that have shaped Obrist’s worldview. For example, a visit to the studio of Swiss artist duo Fischli & Weiss is described by Obrist as the eureka moment when he knew he wanted to curate exhibitions. One of the first was of Gerhard Richter’s work, whom he had met as a 17-year-old (a quote by Richter appears in this issue of Present Space). Meanwhile, the artist Aligihero Boetti had encouraged Obrist to ask artists about their unrealised projects—something Obrist continues to do. When Boetti died in 1994, Obrist decided to begin recording his conversations with artists, aware that his time with Boetti had been undocumented and would remain only memories. These are just a few examples of how his encounters with artists have, in turn, shaped the curator that Obrist is.
In 1991, Obrist staged World Soup, a group show in the small apartment he rented as a student in St. Gallen. Eager to exhibit works by Fischli & Weiss, Christian Boltanski, and others, he chose a space that he had immediate access to: the unused kitchen. Two years later, he staged another group show with a similar premise, this time in room 763 of the Hotel Carlton Palace in Paris. “I’ve always been interested in the blurring of art and life,” Obrist says to Present Space over Zoom. “I invited 70 artists to exhibit and create this Gesamtkunstwerk in my little hotel room, and they created very intimate works that artists would never do in a museum.”
Early exhibitions such as World Soup demonstrate a resourcefulness and enthusiasm for creating and curating wherever and however—this concept of staging shows in domestic settings is something that Obrist has continued to explore. In 1999, he staged Retrace your steps: Remember Tomorrow, a group exhibition with Cerith Wyn Evans, Steve McQueen, Rosemarie Trockel, and others at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. Before the architect and collector died in 1837, Soane had worked towards establishing the museum in his home. As such, Retrace your steps is an exploration of the notion of home as museum.
The experience spurred Obrist to stage more exhibitions in home museums, compelled by the thought of “all these extraordinary house museums that we could inhabit.” One such exhibition was The Air Is Blue, conceived in collaboration with Pedro Reyes. As the artist recalls to Present Space, “Hans Ulrich was visiting Mexico, and I told him, ‘There’s a place you should visit.’ I took him to Casa Barragán, which back then had just started to receive visitors.” This was the beginning of a series of artistic interventions in the home of the late architect Luis Barragán, staged between 2003 and 2006. Artists who participated in the project include Olafur Eliasson, Dan Graham, and Rem Koolhaas. House museums, Obrist says, are like “conversation pieces.”
Today, Obrist is the artistic director of the Serpentine in London, where he has worked since 2006. The gallery attracts shows by world-renowned international artists, with upcoming solo exhibitions in 2024 featuring Barbara Kruger, Judy Chicago and Yinka Shonibare. The recorded conversations he’s been making since the mid-1990s have been published in an extensive collection of books, while the archive of his interviews is now held at the LUMA Arles in France. As well as curating and writing about the art world, Obrist has also spent the past decade using his Instagram to share a series of Post-it notes handwritten by the artists he’s met. In autumn 2023, 100 of these notes—from artists, architects, designers, and entertainers—were published in Remember to Dream!, the first volume in a series of books that could be endless. “There are thousands of [notes],” says Obrist, “so there can be many more volumes to come.”
Photography: Ben Parks
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