Hans Ulrich Obrist

Artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries and instigator of global, networked art projects

Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director (he had a title change this summer, following the departure of long-serving director Julia Peyton-Jones) of the Serpentine Galleries, a midsize kunsthalle-type institution in one of London’s Royal Parks. But that tells you very little about what it is this Swiss curator actually does. When Obrist last topped this list, in 2009, we quoted the opening point of the curatorial statement from his Beijing Mini-Marathon of ideas: ‘Don’t stop. We never stop.’ And he singularly has not. He is famous for ignoring traditional constraints of both time (he works near constantly and famously founded the Brutally Early Club, an open-to-all discussion group that meets at 6.30am) and geographic place (he is in perpetual motion, giving talks and doing interviews at nearly every significant art event around the globe), and a single institution could never hope to house the full breadth of his activities. ‘My favourite cultural venue is actually an imaginary construct – it’s the unrealised Fun Palace by the theatre director Joan Littlewood and the architect Cedric Price, who in the 60s came up with this idea of a cultural centre bringing together all artistic disciplines, removing all silos,’ he told The Guardian in its latest profile of the great man. And the imaginary lies at the core of Obrist’s grand project, founded on a belief in the international and interdisciplinary preservation and exchange of ideas (much more perhaps than in the physical information of an artwork in and of itself). His Interview Project, constituting thousands of hours of recorded interviews with artists, architects and significant figures from the worlds of science, literature, philosophy and almost every other discipline you could imagine constitutes an ever-growing archive of the ideas of our times, preserved for eternity and released in a library of books (this year saw the appearance of Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects – 19 of Obrist’s favourite interviews). Mobile and transferrable, Obrist’s projects are generally centred on the personalities (as, again, opposed to artworks) that nowadays constitute what we generally refer to as the ‘artworld’. Within all that, Obrist has become a celebrity both inside and outside the world of art.

More than that, Obrist’s project is perfectly suited to a globalised, networked age, with Instagram (he told The Guardian recently that he can’t live without it, and posts the image of a note handwritten by the people he interviews or encounters every day as a protest against the disappearance of handwriting), Twitter and Periscope now tools for broadcast and transmission that are almost more important to him than gallery spaces. This switch from object to idea also lies behind do it, an exhibition concept Obrist developed in 1993, following a conversation (naturally) with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, in which artists submit ‘scores’ or written instructions. Flexible and open-ended, iterations of do it also present artworks themselves as conversations (between instructor and instructed) and have taken place at over 50 venues – currently the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey and Galerija Umjetnina in Split, Croatia.

‘My grandad was a sales rep for Colman’s Mustard. I expect today he would have to say he was a mustard plant compound retail opportunity curator!’ wrote comedian Stewart Lee in an article mocking the ubiquity and consequent meaninglessness of the description ‘curator’ in The Guardian this March. It was illustrated by a portrait of Obrist, who ‘wrote the book on “curating”, literally’ (2015’s Ways of Curating, following on from 2008’s A Brief History of Curating – with Daniel Birnbaum and Christophe Cherix). There’s no doubt too that Obrist’s championing of curating as an open-ended structure has contributed to the universality of its use, just as much as his archiving of discussions with artists about their thoughts and intentions (privileged over what they do or make, although Obrist is an enabler when it comes to that as well) has coincided with a greater focus on intentionality in everything from museum captions to press releases and reviews. Artists, however, remain at the centre of his work, and Obrist’s support for and ability to connect people has been crucial to the success of many. Artworks may circulate within the art market, but thanks to Obrist, and his many disciples and collaborators, artistic ideas circulate within the world at large. He is still a whirlwind unto himself, as an international networker, connector and purveyor of the ‘urgent’. While Yana Peel has joined HUO as CEO of the Serpentine, and the Hyde Park space has in the past year shown both the paintings of early-twentieth-century Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint and young New York artist Rachel Rose, the Swiss curator continues to hop around the globe. The 89plus project, which Obrist cofounded with Simon Castets in 2013, has in the past year resulted in exhibitions in Paris and Zürich, as well as forming part of Obrist’s input as one of the artistic directors of the Shanghai Project. His projects of the annual marathon talks and collecting interviews with artists continue, and if one thing’s for certain, HUO won’t be sitting still for long.