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Profile: Hans Ulrich Obrist

Globetrotting curator Hans Ulrich Obrist is the best-connected man in the art world. We talk to him about hacking, globalisation and why he reads a book per day.

Hans Ulrich Obrist loves to talk. And he doesn’t just want to talk about his life as a curator, or about Hack Space, the exhibition he’s helped organise here in Hong Kong – he wants to talk about everything. Our conversation starts with a discussion about art galleries, then Obrist veers off on a tangent about 20th-century architecture, which somehow leads him to pondering the possibilities of theoretical physics – and that’s just in the first 10 minutes. But no matter how far he digresses, Obrist always circles back to art. “To be with art is all I ask,” Obrist reveals at one point, quoting eccentric artists Gilbert & George. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Yet Obrist, who hails from Switzerland, does more than simply be with art. He has spent his life looking at it, questioning it, analysing it, reading about it, writing about it – and now, as the world’s leading curator, he’s at the very centre of the art world. Obrist’s official title is Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at London’s Serpentine Galleries, a position that he’s held for nearly a decade, during which the institution has been transformed from a local success into a global attraction.

But it may be more accurate to think of Obrist as the matchmaker of the art world. If an American curator wants to visit up-and-coming sculptors in Indonesia, Obrist can hook them up. If a city needs help finding creative partners for a biennale, Obrist will make the introductions. If a museum is searching for someone to host a panel discussion about contemporary art, Obrist will happily chair it – and he’ll probably help to engage other speakers too. All these activities leave Obrist little time for sleep (he limits himself to just five hours a night) and mean he devotes most of his time to travelling (he spends up to 50 weekends of the year on the road).

“I think of myself as a junction maker,” Obrist explains during his recent visit to Hong Kong. “As curators, if we install paintings or sculptures we always make junctions between the works. But one of my main curatorial practices, which is as important for me as my exhibitions, is to bring people together – to introduce poets to artists, scientists to architects and so on and so on.”

Hack Space

Hack Space

Obrist’s skill at connecting people could be felt throughout Hack Space, the exhibition he recently co-curated here in Hong Kong. Hack Space began life as a solo show by the artist Simon Denny, which was originally called Products for Organising and was presented at the Serpentine Galleries. But after it closed in London, Obrist and Denny worked with Adrian Cheng’s K11 Art Foundation to redevelop the show, which expanded to include the work of 11 Chinese contemporary artists and then debuted in Hong Kong under the new title.

“Hacking of course has to do with sharing and has to do with openness,” Obrist says. “So it felt very, very important to actually develop an exhibition that becomes so open that it can involve many more artists. And then all the dots connected because, of course, the K11 Foundation has been extremely involved in a very pioneering way in mapping the generation of millennial artists in China. So it seemed a great opportunity to connect our research to the research of K11.”

Obrist insists that he would never simply relocate an exhibition. “This idea that we take a show and just put it in the next place is kind of homogenised globalisation,” he yelps, looking appalled. “We shouldn’t just impose a show on the next place – we should listen to the next place, we should learn from the next place. Obviously we live in a total climate of globalisation – this is the most extreme, maybe most violent moment of globalisation that the world has ever experienced.

“What this means is that there are great opportunities that we should not miss, because there can be for the first time a truly global dialogue. We now have a truly polyphonic art world – the art worlds on all continents are connected. But there are downsides to it – the downsides are that local differences disappear and everything looks the same. That needs to be resisted and artists do resist that – that’s what art does. Art resists the homogenising process of globalisation while it engages in a global dialogue.”

Adrian Cheng, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad at Hack Space

Adrian Cheng, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad at Hack Space

Obrist’s obsession with globalisation, which he brings up several times, springs from his intellectual infatuation with the French-Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant, who investigated how cultural identities are forged in an interconnected world. “Every day, I read 15 minutes of Édouard Glissant when I wake up,” Obrist reveals. “His ideas are more urgent than ever because we can observe in Europe this refugee crisis and new forms of nationalism, new forms of lack of tolerance, which is a kind of reaction to globalisation.”

On top of his morning dip into Glissant, Obrist also claims to finish at least one book every day. “I always have another book I’m reading, either in the evening or whenever I have time during the day,” he states. “At the moment that is Edna O’Brien, the great Irish novelist, and I’m reading her short stories.”

His voracious literary appetite means Obrist has acquired a sizeable library, and an article in The New Yorker claims that he bought a flat in Berlin primarily to hold the 10,000 volumes he’d amassed in the city. But even though he’s an avid hoarder of books, Obrist has always refrained from collecting art. “I never really collected because I think it’s another activity and I also don’t have the economy to do so,” he admits. “Instead, my work leads to an archive. I have a big archive of mostly conversations, because I’ve got 3,000 hours of recorded conversations with artists, so that’s a digital archive. Then there are all the images of my exhibitions, and there’s an enormous amount of correspondence and books.”

Serpentine Galleries

Serpentine Galleries

Just as he’s avoided collecting art, Obrist doesn’t dream of making art himself. “I never had the idea of becoming an artist,” he muses. “For me it was this almost magnetic attraction to art that I had in my early teens when I was obsessed with Giacometti and I looked at the long, thin figures he sculpted. I always thought artists are the most important people in the world and I wanted to work with them, but I never wanted to be an artist. I always wanted to write a novel and I suppose I mostly write now.”

Obrist writes books almost as quickly as he reads them. At last count (and it’s difficult to count) he’d written or contributed to more than 200. These volumes are mainly focused on art, but also delve into other worlds. “I love art and I’m always immersed in art but from art I go into science, I go into architecture, I go into music, I go into literature,” Obrist explains. “I kind of go in an almost Renaissance way through the disciplines and try to connect those dots. And that’s obviously endless, because we can never know everything. There’s so much knowledge in the world.”

There’s so much to learn, but so little time – and our time is up. I put my notebook away and turn the voice recorder off, but Obrist can’t help himself. He keeps chatting as we walk along the corridor, and he doesn’t stop while we’re in the lift. Obrist is about to host a public forum with some of the artists involved in Hack Space, so there’s even more talking ahead. But Obrist isn’t stressed or tired – he’s excited. These conversations are what he lives for. He can’t wait to hear what ideas people might have, and is already wondering what he’ll learn. We may not be able to know everything, but that isn’t going to stop Obrist from trying.

To read an interview with Adrian Cheng, who worked with Obrist on Hack Space, click here.