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Conversation  |  Art Curator, Critic and Art Historian

Hans-Ulrich Obrist

In Conversation with
Stephanie Bailey
London, 17 September 2014
Image: Juergen Teller
Image: Juergen Teller

Hans-Ulrich Obrist does not really need an introduction. He is, by all accounts, the art world’s most prolific curator, with a career that began at the tender age of 23, when he curated an exhibition in the kitchen of his apartment in St. Gallen in 1991, titled World Soup

. An art curator, critic and historian of art, he is Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London, not to mention the author of the The Interview Project, an extensive ongoing project of interviews featuring a gamut of artists from around the world, as well as the mastermind of the Marathon Projects, which take place annually at the Serpentine. In this interview, which took place at Art Basel in Miami Beach, Obrist considers the global nature of the art world.

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How do you perceive the expansion of the art fair format in the past decade when thinking also about the simultaneous proliferation of biennials worldwide?

Well, I think about David Deutsch and his wonderful book Fabric of Reality, which is one of my favourite books of our time, and basically describes our reality as one of many parallel realities. It is fascinating to think about how that is also true of the art world. We have more and more biennials, art fairs, museums – the whole structure has multiplied and I think this has to do with the polyphony of centres. I mean, when I entered the art world as a teenager in the late-eighties, there were very few centres. Now, even the idea of a “centre” seems so obsolete because we live with a polyphonic notion of an archipelago, today. And this idea of there being many different centres is what has led to this proliferation and it is something important when you step back and watch it from above. Of course, there is a huge number of biennales and art fairs out there. But if you look at it locally, it is just what has changed for that locality. What I want to say is that there are many positive sides to this phenomenon and I want to first go into the positive sides before then mentioning the dangers. If you look at many different geographies, the same is true of China as it is for my own country, Switzerland, a land-locked country with no view on the sea: In the nineties you had to leave. But now there is are these really dynamic scenes; artists travel a lot, but they use, for example, Switzerland as a base. So, in this polyphony of centres, artists are no longer obliged to go to the big centres. This is an incredible empowering for local contexts and that is a positive thing; it is possible to be local and global at the same time. Of course, the dangers of the homogenizing forces of globalization are there, which is why I read Édouard Glissant every morning when I wake up, and I hope to see more translations of his work.

I was going to bring up Glissant because I thought it would be nice to bring up the first exhibition your produced in your St. Gallen apartment, World Soup, in 1991, when thinking about the art fair as a global space. You once said Édouard Glissant gives you courage that one can actually enter into a global dialogue without erasing difference…

I met Édouard Glissant thanks to my friend Agnes B in the nineties and he had an immense, seismic impact on me as a persona, but also because of his thinking and obviously his idea of Moudialité and the different possibilities to engage with the forces of globalization. He said we can either reject them and retire into some strange localisms, which are very much defensive and make us lose the potential for a truly global dialogue and the generosity that implies, or we could embrace these global forces and then obviously succumb to these homogenizing forces, but this also not the way to go. That is why for Glissant mundiality is a daily negotiation between differences. That is why I have to read Glissant everyday: It would be easy to forget how important that is.

This idea of negotiation makes me think about the Sharjah Biennial and Art Dubai, both platforms that have encouraged and engendered discourses around local and global issues within the Gulf region and beyond. These events highlight the potential of the art fair and biennial as political spaces – spaces of cultural dialogue or political diplomacy. What are your thoughts on this?

The question is always about what does an event bring locally and globally and how it adds to a place. Of course, there can be both a local and global dimension, which definitely enhances the dialogue. If you look at the Middle East, both Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial have played a significant role in just getting artists, curators, collectors and different practitioners together. As Tino Sehgal would say, this is exchange. And having gone to Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennial since year one, I can see that it has produced real connections. For me, I’ve met many of the artists from the Middle East and have started to interview real pioneers – Etel Adnan, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, for instance, who are both important references for me now. I work with them a lot. At the same time, I’ve worked with a lot of emerging artists, like Sophia Al-Maria. So, yes – In the age of the Internet, we still need these encounters and these platforms; it is important to have these physical encounters because it doesn't happen online in the same way. 

How do you feel about the cultural crossover that take place in such spaces as biennials and art fairs? For example, sometimes art practices from outside of the west are criticized as being not sophisticated enough, and there is this issue about artists from various regions having to learn the language of the global contemporary or else risk being seen as amateur in comparison to work being produced in western scenes….

It is very arrogant to say this from a western point of view, as these are very specific contexts, and each has a history. There are very exciting older artists from previous generations who have not had the attention they deserve because the western art world hasn't looked at them. So again, while these events obviously help younger talents to emerge, they also counter this idea of amnesia. I mean, Rem Koolhaus, said amnesia might be at the core of the digital age because we have more information and we produce more memory. So our job as curators, and I suppose it is the same in every context, is to help emerging positions, but also protest against this forgetting. This is why the moment I went to the Middle East I thought it would be interesting to explore the older generations, who come from very sophisticated histories. This is why when I go to a place the very first thing I ask is who are the artists who have inspired the younger ones.

But these encounters with the emerging artists, or revisiting previous generations can happen in any context. I am driven by endless curiosity which is why I use all these platforms  –biennales, museum exhibitions, studio visits, art schools, art fairs – I use them all. It’s like a flânerie. I’m like a flâneur. The first time I came to Miami, for example – and I’ve actually never told this story – was in 2002. I gave a lecture on museums and then I walked to the fair, late in the afternoon early and it was quite empty. I strolled through the fair and all of a sudden I stood in front of a kinetic object by Jesús Rafael Soto. And at that time he did not have the art world’s attention – he was very famous in the sixties and seventies. By this time he was old and still lived in Paris and not many people would go and visit him. So the last day I was in Miami, I found his number while waiting to catch my flight at the airport. I called him, caught the plane, and straight from the airport the next morning went to his studio, had a very long interview for three hours, we made a book. All this happened from a chance encounter: my standing in front of this object and wondering why I had not known about it, or him. For me, it is very important to take all this research into account.

Are there any other experiences you had like this?

The first time the Abu Dhabi art fair happened, there was a little scroll I saw by Etel Adnan in a vitrine, which was the most amazing thing I saw in the entire fair. I immediately started my research on her and found out she lived in Paris. But I had lived in Paris 12 years and no one had mentioned Etel Adnan to me, ever! So it took me going to Abu Dhabi, seeing this scroll in a vitrine in an art fair and then going back to Paris to meet her. For me, Soto and Adnan are such important artists, but there was an amnesia in the context of where they lived, Paris, and they needed a detour. This is why we can never stop researching and why curiosity needs to push us. When you step out of your own framework of reference, you realize you have a different perspective, and that is what I’m looking for all the time: that shift of perspective.

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