Cult Curator

Interview by Patricia Lee
Portrait by Wolfgang Tillmans
Images courtesy of Serpentine Galleries

It’s 8:30am on a Sunday morning and Hans-Ulrich Obrist has already been up three hours by the time we meet for breakfast (he rarely wakes up later than 5). The Swiss super-curator is in Singapore to give a talk on 89plus, a project that examines the impact of digital culture on art by charting the work of creatives born after 1989. This time last month, he was at Art Basel speaking with Klaus Biesenbach (director of MOMA PS1 and chief curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art), with whom he conceived 14 Rooms; a live exhibition featuring names from Bruce Nauman to Damien Hirst. And in two days time, he will be back at London’s Serpentine Gallery, where he has been co-director since 2006.

The 2014 Pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery, designed by Smiljan Radic.

A human whirlwind, Obrist’s voracious curiosity and sheer energy are legendary. He makes it a point to buy a book every single day. It’s one of the many rituals, including sleeping by midnight and reading 20 minutes of philosopher Edouard Glissant daily, that he adheres to religiously. Yet while he may be an academic, he certainly doesn’t sit in an ivory tower. He shares an anecdote of how he came to work with the renowned Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas. It’s a 101 in what separates passionate dreamers from the people who really make things happen: Back in 1997, Obrist was working with fellow curator and current MAXXI museum artistic director Hou Hanru on “Cities on the Move”, an exhibition exploring the chaos of evolving Asian urban landscapes. “We obviously wanted to meet Rem Koolhaas, who is one of the great protagonists of contemporary architecture in Asia. He said to us: ‘Oh, I don’t have time but tomorrow I go to Hong Kong, and you guys should buy a ticket and meet me there because if you are doing a show on Asia, let’s not discuss it in Rotterdam.’ What he didn’t expect was that Hanru and I would really buy a cheap ticket and fly out that night. The following morning, we were sitting in his hotel lobby waiting for him. He was like, Wow, these two guys are really here; and that was the beginning of a friendship that is coming up to 20 years. We speak almost every day.”

Fischli/Weiss; Installation view, Rock on Top of Another Rock 2013; Serpentine Gallery.

If anyone could be said to live in a borderless world, it would be Obrist. He used to travel a mind-boggling 365 days a year. Now, he’s reduced that to merely every weekend. Don’t be fooled into thinking the 46-year-old has any intention of slowing down, though. Obrist’s decisions have always been firmly in service of the arts. “In 2000, I felt the need to change my life to have a more stable relationship to one city,” he explains. “Otherwise, you position an exhibition and go on to the next city and next exhibition like an impresario, but you never really get feedback on what is happening for these exhibitions in a specific city.”

This quest to remain relevant, and speak to as wide an audience as possible, has seen him collaborate with not only artists but the best in fields ranging from science and mathematics to performing arts. Obrist is best known for breaking ground in how we present and experience art.

“I want to enable great art,” he says. “I could have enabled movies as a producer or concerts and music but for me, the exhibition is where I can bring it all out.”

Read more in The U Press N˚7 (Singapore edition).