An experimental conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Chapter 4/7)
Conversation transcription below
Tiziana Casapietra: The contemporary art scene has always been accused to be a self-referential and radical-chic microcosm, which is very much disconnected from the wider audience. What do you think about it?
Hans-Ulrich Obrist: I think it’s completely wrong. The contemporary art world is, has always been, my favourite world. I remember when I started in the late eighties, early nineties, I’ve just done my “Kitchen Show” and I went to Hamburg and met the young Carsten Höller.
And Carsten had just started to work as an artist or to sort of shift from science. He studied and started already to teach science and somehow started to shift from science into art.
I have been in the art already for many years, because before starting to do my first exhibitions in the kitchen, in the monastery and in the Nietzsche Haus in Sils Maria (Switzerland), I somehow was in this “grand tour” for many years and travelled in the art world and make research.
And I was wondering if maybe the art world is too narrow and if I had to go into some other worlds to have a more expanded notion of curating.
I remember very well that Carsten told me, in this conversation, that he really believes that we should stay in the art world because the art world has this immense possibility of bringing all the other worlds together with art and create this dialogue.
I think he was right and I’m very happy to have followed his advice and stayed in the art world. I was always connecting the art world, daily, as my great passion is to connect the art world to all of these other worlds and other disciplines.
Harald Szeemann always thought that the curator is a generalist. I think the curator’s role is to build many bridges, it’s not only to build the high-way, it’s not only to build one big bridge which connects the exhibition to the visitors and where you have crowds come to the exhibitions.
That is all part of it, but it is very much more complex than that. It is this idea of the passerelle, the pedestrian bridge, there are many small bridges that the curators builds, to many different visitors, to many different communities, to all possible communities.
That is the idea of connecting all these worlds. I think it has also to do with the format of the exhibition, that is actually what I wanted to add here. Regarding your question, Tiziana, about the art world being self-referential and closed, I think the format of the exhibition is extraordinarily open, even with its limits. It sometimes lacks connection as Margaret Mead says and Dorothea Von Hantelmann says, we need to create more connections.
Even within these limits, the exhibition format is an extraordinarily liberal format; it’s a format which allows — much more than any other format — to really be flexible and to work with all kind of different times and spaces.
And I think this idea that we can, with exhibitions, have a film which lasts a minute or we can have a film which lasts a year, is of course very different from the logic of the film world. In order to enter a competition in a big film festival, a film needs to be more or less ninety minutes, it is a prescription. In the format of the exhibition we are very free to work with time and space — to distort time and space — and it is also why so many film makers, theatre directors, architects, scientist, more and more come to the format of the exhibition.
It started already with Jean-François Lyotard, the French philosopher who after having written many books decided to curate “Les Immatériaux,” a very influential exhibition which I have studied a lot, which happened in the mid-eighties at Centre Georges Pompidou.
Lyotard decided to devote many months of his work to do something which goes beyond the book. I always wanted to do an exhibition with Gilles Deleuze. One of my big unrealized project is to get Deleuze to curate an exhibition, it was unfortunately too late, because he was very ill when I wanted to propose this to him, so it didn’t happen. But this idea of Deleuze to curate an exhibitions which would go from Mille Plateaux with Félix Guattari into space it would be very fascinating.
I think of a lot of philosophers, from Lyotard to more recently Bruno Latour. We brought Bruno Latour into the world of exhibitions through “Laboratorium,” with “Theatre of Proof”. He enjoyed that experience so much that he then continued to curate shows with Peter Weibel, like “Iconoclash” and “The Parliament of Things.” The same thing is true for film markers; we brought Agnès Varda into the “Utopia Station” with Molly Nesbit and Rirkrit Tiravanija. I always remember the day when Agnès Varda arrived in Venice disguised as a potato doing a performance in a “Patate Utopia” installation, connecting the “Utopia Station” to a “Potato Utopia,” connecting to agriculture, to food, having this huge quantity of potatoes in the space, having her multiple screen projections.
She told me: “This is an experiment.” She could not make it in the cinema world, whether there are cinemas, there are festivals, it’s much more prescribed. So she said that’s really what she wanted to explore more; therefore since this experience, Agnès has spent a lot of time in the whole of the exhibition. This is true for many film makers, it’s true for many architects as well.
I think this idea also of the temporary, the idea of the limited life-span of an exhibition, the temporary experiment allows architects to do experiments they could never do in more permanent set-ups.
So I really do believe that it is the opposite.