People I Want to Meet: Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist
Hans Ulrich Obrist

Dubbed as the world’s greatest curator and one of art world’s most powerful individuals, Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO) has a child’s energy in a middle-aged man’s body with a 90-year old’s wisdom and intellect. He can speak as fast as he can think. His knowledge in art history, the art world and curation, social science, literature, is as vast as his horizon, which is significantly, global. For his peers, he is a “celebrity curator”, a global loved-by-the-media everything-goes curator,  much to the ire of the traditionalist curators. He has his own Facebook fan page, Twitter account, Instagram photo album and a Tumblr blog dedicated for him.

Born in Zurich, Swizterland in 1968, HUO started his fascination with art when he was young. At the age of 17, he visited Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weis who then collaborated on a project named “The Way Things Go” – a series of objects with chain reactions. This had, perhaps, started a “chain reaction” in HUO (Michael H. Miller,, where he began to build his career as a curator.

“As a child in Switzerland I was obsessed by art. I always went to museums, then when I was 16 or 17 I met for the first time, artists. The first artists I met were Peter Fischli and David Weiss, they did amazing work around chain reactions and worked with these equilibriums in ‘The Way Things Go’, and I visited them very often in the following years. That somehow made me think that I wanted to work with artists and find a way to do so.” (i-Curate: Hans Ulrich Obrist,, April 2013)

His career kickstarted at the age of 23, when he curated his first show at his very own kitchen in St. Gallen, in 1991 – hence, the name “The Kitchen Show”. Now, he is the current Co-Director for Exhibitions and Programmes and Director for International Projects of the Serpentine Gallery in London, U.K. He has done around 200 exhibitions across the globe, published a number of books i.e. A Brief History of Curating, founded the Brutally Early Club – a discussion group involving artists, filmakers, writers, philosphers, scientists, usually venued at Starbucks, who meets at 6:30 in the morning – and is a contributing editor to various publications i.e. Telegraph UK, The Sunday Times, and mostly in art and culture magazines.

Some of his shows included Michael Angelo Pistollet: The Mirror of Judgment (2011), China Power Station (2010), The Now Interviews (Venice Architectural Biennale) (2010), Il Tempo Del Postino (2009), Marathon Series (2006 – 2009), Yoko Ono Horizontal Memories (2005), Second Guangzho Triennial (2004), Do It (1997), and Manifesta 1 (1996), among a list of shows in neatly tucked in his resume.

However, HUO never thought of being an artist. He loved working with art and artists. But he never considered making art.

“I always thought I wanted to facilitate, produce these bridges, maybe junctions and expand the notion of curating. It was always the idea of working with artists. I’ve never had an art practice. My practice is to curate, to write books and my interview project. It is an activity that is about art, working with art, but it’s not making art. It’s like Gilbert and George once said, the famous sentence, ‘to be with art is all we ask.’” (i-Curate: Hans Ulrich Obrist,, April 2013)

Aside from being a curating luminary, he is also known as an interviewer. Part of HUO’s career is to have a conversation with artists, filmakers, writers, scientists and likeminded people, and publish them as the Interview Project. This interest in long conversations was triggered by similar form of interview done by David Sylvester to Francis Bacon. Since then, it became his model doing interviews.

However, according to him, in an interview published in a blog (,

“I have always done this as a curator; I talk to artists. Little by little the interviews were published and now there are artists holding seminars about The Interview Project. It was not premeditated, there was never a strategy behind it at all, it was never a conscious idea of ‘now I want to write the history of my time!’ That sort of grand gesture was not there. For me, it was to be in the middle of things and in the centre of nothing. There was no master plan and still there is not. It is more that, all of a sudden, there is an occasion or a desire to interview someone; little by little there a system develops. But the system comes a posteriori, not a priori.” (published by Clo’e Floirat,, December 2011)

HUO thinks of his curatorial career as a bridge builder, between the public and the art world, most importantly a bridge to the artists. For him, art must be taken beyond the confines of the white walls of the gallery. He has curated shows in nearly every possible venues; in his kitchen, in an aeroplane, in a power station, in a garden, in a monastery ( HUO believes in constantly making art fresh and enjoyable to the public, to give it an unexpected context, because, for him, a normal museum-going experience is “too linear, too homogenous”. He is also a firm believer that art is “for all”.

HUO is a ‘roadrunner’. Aside from his regular work at Serpentine Gallery, he is being commissioned left and right, being invited to seminars and symphosia, while busy doing his interviews on the side. He is basically on-the-go. Alastair Smart of The Telegraph UK describes him as “The antithesis of your stereotypical, dusty-old-relic curator who never leaves his museum, Obrist is of a new, go-getting breed of über-curator” (2010). HUO is “omnipotent in the art world” (, February 2011) as one blogger would say.

HUO takes his principle in curation and exhibition from two people: Martinican writer Edouard Glissant and Russian art critic and impressario Serge Diaghilev.

In an interview with, HUO reminisces:

“Edouard Glissant gives me courage that one can actually enter into a global dialogue without erasing difference. The forces of globalisation are very much in effect in the world of exhibitions. The way that shows tour is evidence of that – our Serpentine exhibition, Indian Highway, has now been through six cities and is on its way to its seventh, in China. The important thing is that the show is defined not as a created, boxed exhibition which goes from A to B to C to D without changing, which would be an expression of that homogenising globalisation, but instead that wherever it goes it enters into a dialogue with the local community. In each case the show changes: there is each time a new artist who organises another artist-run exhibition. We’ve defined the rules of the game, but not the outcome.” (

He believed that we – or anything – are an archipelago and that there is no center. Neither individual parts or the collective whole are constant once and for all. Any change in the component parts will not erase the whole’s sense of self.  Thus, he is working on an open-ended model of curation. He best avoids shows that displays a curatorial concept. His exhibitions will try to produce knowledge that can be used elsewhere.

Diaghilev’s influence on HUO can be found on the latter’s openness to include and engage disciplines other than art. In his long-running Marathons, HUO invites people to engage in a conversation related to the pre-determined theme. For example, in his Experiment Marathon (2007) he invited not only artists but also scientists for over 24 hours of non-stop conference, to show and engage themselves in experiments.

HUO believed exhibitions is like a toolbox – everyone can use it in their own desire. He loves the idea of exhibitions as a knowledge production education program, where future artists will see how influential or discursive their predecessors are. He is known to research and document famous artists and even emerging ones. In his own terms, this activity is “a protest against forgetting things.” And for him, artists are the most significant component of the exhibition. Without artists, there is no art world.

Today’s curatorial practice in the Philippines can learn much from HUO’s conduct, such as the idea of an open-ended and all engaging exhibition where other discipline can be in tandem with art practice. The public usually goes to a museum or gallery to view art, but HUO’s notion of “unexpected context” can be practiced wherein the institutions can bring art and the messages of art outside the gallery walls and into the public sphere.



i-Curate: Hans Ulrich Obrist. 9 April 2013.

The Q & A: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Curator.

Smart, Alastair. October 2010. Hans Ulrich Obrist interview for Serpentine Gallery’s Map Marathon.

Miller, Michael. 21 May 2013. Marathon ManL On the Run with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the World’s Greatest Curator.

Eastham, Benjamin. (no date). Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist.

O’Neill, Paul. (no date). Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Floirat, Clo’e. (December 2011). Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with hans Ulrich Obrist.

Hans Ulrich Obrist.

TedxMakarresh: Hans Ulrich Obrist – Art of Curation.