PRINT May 1995


Robert Fleck talks with Hans-Ulrich Obrist

THE 26-YEAR-OLD SWISS CURATOR Hans Ulrich Obrist lists Paris, London, and Vienna as his primary residences, but on any given day he can as easily be found in Berlin, New York, or, for that matter, Sankt Gallen. Obrist leads a resolutely nomadic existence; he has traveled—visiting artists famous as well as less known—since his student days, developing his peripatetic impulse, his notion of “permanently traveling,” into a unique curatorial program. Commandeering sites from hotel rooms to sewage processing-plants, Obrist has rediscovered (and reinvigorated) the ephemeral or “conceptual” exhibition while remaining acutely aware of the history of such endeavors and of his own place within it. Informed by a lively sense of intellectual play, exhibitions such as “Cloaca Maxima,” in Zurich (concerning scatology, sewage, and desiccation), and “Take Me (I’m Yours),” in London’s Serpentine Gallery (about possession, use, and application), renegotiate the contexts within which art operates, while avoiding the doctrinaire pieties that inform so many similarly motivated efforts today.

I caught up with Obrist on the occasion of “Take Me (I’m Yours),” and talked with him about his wanderlust and his already impressive curatorial record.


ROBERT FLECK: You just organized an exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery in which one could and indeed should touch the works.

HANS-ULRICH OBRIST: The show, “Take Me (I’m Yours),” revolved around artworks that reconsider the relationship between the work and its observer. Visitors could touch, use, test, buy, or take away the things in the exhibition, which all function both as utilitarian objects and as works of art. Here the public was allowed to do all the things that are usually strictly forbidden in an art gallery or museum. The show wasn’t only about observing, it was about the other senses and multiple notions of dispersal and dissemination.

RF: Since September of 1994, you’ve been organizing two “exhibitions” in the Austrian daily paper Der Standard for the museum in progress, a private organization in Vienna. The first, “Vital Use,” is an open forum for artists, and so far it has included works by Fabrice Hybert, HansPeter Feldmann, and Wolfgang Tillmans. In “Exhibition of the Year,” initiated by Stella Rollig, the New York artist Nancy Spero presented inserts, in six separate issues of the paper, culled from her researches into experiences strongly influenced by the Holocaust. Is a newspaper an appropriate medium for exhibitions?

HUO: The thing about newspapers is that image and text never stand alone, everything is made up of relationships between written and visual messages. A newspaper is a network: it exists in an unstable equilibrium—between ad, image, text, and editorial. “Vital Use” is an exhibition in this interspace. The artists go into it to change it—to change the rules.

RF: In Paris you have organized a number of “alternative” exhibitions that have taken place in studios or private apartments.

HUO: In the summer of 1993, I turned my hotel room into an exhibition space. I wanted to make an intimate space a public one for a specific period of time. During the first few weeks of the show, the porter would announce visitors over the hotel telephone like this: You have a “client” here. By the show’s last day, Libération and Figaro had written about it, and there were people lined up in the street to get in. I also organize six small exhibitions per year at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. They are mounted at various sites around the museum, not necessarily designated for exhibition (Rirkrit Tiravanija, for instance, installed a coffee and tea table at the museum entrance) that serve as a kind of mobile platform.

RF: Last October, in the Ritter Kunsthalle in Klagenfurt, Austria, 12 artists composed “Instructions for Use,” how-to manuals, for an exhibition you organized called “Do It” (as in “do it yourself”).

HUO: “Do It” started from a conversation I had with Bertrand Lavier and Christian Boltanski about the idea of an exhibition that would consist exclusively of instructions. In the ’70s, Lavier had presented directions for action to the anonymous viewer, who became the work’s performer, and in this sense was permitted a measure of esthetic as well as political power. Boltanski has always been interested in the idea of the musical score: the artist writes a score and can perform it him- or herself, or it can be performed by someone else. In the ’60s, Alison Knowles called her instructions “event scores,” and in 1919 Duchamp sent instructions for the realization of Readymade Malheureux (Unhappy readymade) as a present to his sister. In the case of Guy Debord, instructions are used as a parody—a détournement of function.

For “Do It, ” everyone who followed the instructions—materialized the instructions, as it were—made a facsimile; and there was no original, only facsimiles, copies. The idea is not the same as when the artist’s assistants travel with a show, realizing his concept as meticulously as possible. Rather, the idea is a much more conscious, productive misunderstanding. It is an old Dada-Duchamp-Fluxus idea, which one can trace back to the Marquis de Sade: everything is in a permanent state of transformation. Everything is changing.

RF: You’re not yet 27, and you began showing up in galleries and studios ten or twelve years ago. You’re certainly one of the youngest curators around.

HUO: From the beginning my interest has been in research. My notion of an exhibition entails permanent research and, therefore, a permanent journey. A constant, intensive nomadism provides the structure for everything I do. The basis of my shows is the idea of the rhizome or root stock, a nomadic form quite unlike the “structures” of the traditional large, centralized exhibition, which no longer possesses an immanent, critical power. For me, constant research and dialogue with artists is primary, and from time to time this permanent rhizomatic process necessarily precipitates down into an exhibition. The books I publish are just as important to me. They include books of artists (among others, Gilbert & George, Annette Messager, Gabriel Orozco) and editions of the collected writings of Louise Bourgeois, Leon Golub, and Gerhard Richter.1 Right now I’m working on Unbuilt Worlds, a book and an exhibition about artists ’ projects since the ’70s that never materialized.

RF: It would appear that the art of the ’90s is coursing with many contradictory, incompatible currents.

HUO: But it isn’t an issue of trying to create any huge movement. It is no longer a matter of launching a group of artists and sending them off into the world as a coherent package. I mistrust this coherence—these closed systems. History is a wide-open field. What is important is to create connections among various positions and disciplines—without letting this impulse degenerate into interdisciplinary dogma. In a certain sense, the curator is a catalyst and must be able to disappear at a certain point. One can never entirely plan “in-betweenness.” They always develop differently than one would expect. The meeting I organized at the Jülich research center for “Art and Brain” had all the constituents of a colloquium except the colloquium. There were coffee breaks, a bus trip, meals, tours of the facilities, but no colloquium. The artists made their contacts, and they can go back there to produce works and to work with the scientists. Now things are developing there without any need for more centralized organization. The Jülich project is one example. Next is a project at the university in Lüneburg. These research projects lead to collaborative projects: artists and scientists forming hybrid research groups.

RF: Your 1994 exhibit “Cloaca Maxima” received enormous attention in Europe, especially considering its low budget, and the fact that it was held in a museum that wasn’t a museum.

HUO: “Cloaca Maxima” was a thematic exhibition in Zurich that took as its topics “art and water” and “art, sewage, scatology, and the toilet.” There was an ecological dimension, considering water as a resource in a political context or manner, but there was also an attempt to bring art into a field where it had never previously been taken or had turned up. In this case that field was Zurich’s sewage treatment plant, which was turned into a sewage museum.

RF: It was the first art exhibition in a museum where officials from the city administration demonstrated the quality of their sewage treatment.

HUO: The idea was to mount a low-budget art exhibition in that setting. (The whole thing cost about 30,000 DM [ca. $21,000]). The administration simply trusted me to show art. The exhibition showed the artists’ proposals next to what already existed at the site: a trusty chamber pot; a 19th-century ceramic toilet; and a modern flush toilet, where the toilet paper was automatically replaced by pushing a button—à la James Bond, from the ’70s, etc. The existing sewage museum wasn’t renovated, and most of the artists designed or selected works especially for the space. Incidentally, the departure point was a video by Fischli/Weiss on sewage TV.

The exhibition was perceived as an art show, but it entered other fields by infiltration. I want my exhibitions to infiltrate and infect other fields, other disciplines. I want to send a “virus” into the world. Because of its theme (scatology) and its location (a sewage museum), “Cloaca Maxima” was discussed in contexts in which contemporary art had never been discussed before.

RF: So the exhibition is a vehicle to leave the context of art?

HUO: A vehicle to take art into other fields, where it can be relevant. It isn’t that one continually makes everything into art but, rather, that at a given point in time one simply says, These are statements by artists, and they are relevant. Another function of an exhibition curator should be to create situations in which artists’ proposals catapult into the public sphere. When art only resides in a museum, the usual stream of visitors flows by, and it can lack this effect of disturbance. With regard to the question of museum spaces versus those outside the institution, the question is not “either/or” but “both/and,” without hierarchy. Marcel Broodthaers always said the museum is one truth surrounded by many others equally worth exploring.

Robert Fleck is the French correspondent of Art das Kunstmagazin, Frankfurt, and an art critic and curator. His newest book is Raymond Hains: Gast auf der Durchreise (Frankfurt: Portikus, and Stuttgart: Oktagon Verlag, 1995).

Translated from the German by Franz Peter Hugdahl.

“Take Me (I’m Yours),” at the Serpentine Gallery, London, closed on 1 May. The artists were Christian Boltanski, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Jeff Geys, Carsten Höller, Fabrice Hybert, Wolfgang Tillmans, Gilbert & George, Douglas Gordon, Christine Hill, and Franz West.


1. Gerhard Richter, Text (Frankfurt: Insel, 1993, and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT/Thames & Hudson [U.K.], 1995); Leon Golub, Writings & Interviews (Stuttgart: Cantz, forthcoming in the fall of 1995); Louise Bourgeois, Gesammelte Schriften & Interviews (Stuttgart: Oktagon, forthcoming in the winter of 1995).

THE SHOWS (a selection):

1991: “The Kitchen Show,” in the curator’s apartment, Sankt Galien.

1992: “Qui Quai Ou,” a survey of contemporary German art, at the Musee d’Art Moderne de Ia Ville de Paris (cocurated with Laurence Bosse); Hans-Peter Feldmann retrospective, Musee d’Art Moderne de Ia Ville de Paris; Gerhard Richter, at the Nietzsche Haus, Sils Maria.

1993:Cieli ad alta quota,” an Alighiero e Boetti project published in Skyline, the airline magazine of Austrian Airlines; “Hotel Carlton Palace Room 763,” a show of over 70 artists in a small hotel-room in Paris; “The Armoire Show,” a show of art and clothing at the Hotel Carlton Palace; “Der Zerbrochene Spiegel” (The broken mirror), a survey show of positions in painting, at the Kunsthalle, Vienna, and the Deichtorhallen, Hamburg (cocurated with Kasper Konig); “Migrateurs,” the first of a series of projects at the Musee d’Art Moderne de Ia Ville de Paris.

1994:Cloaca Maxima,” an exhibition on the themes of canalization, water, and scatology at the “Museum for Drainage/ Sewage,” Zurich; “Do It, ” a traveling show of art based on how-to manuals and instructions to be realized, starting at the Kunsthalle Ritter, Klagenfurt; “Migrateurs” part II.

1994–95: “Vital Use,” an exhibition using the Austrian newspaper Der Standard as a virtual museum, organized by the museum in progress, Vienna.

1995: “Take Me (I'm Yours), ” a traveling show of art that addresses the relationship between the work and its observer, starting at the Serpentine Gallery, London; “Migrateurs” part III; “Art & Brain ,” an interdisciplinary collaboration among artists, authors, and scientists, Akademie fürs dritte Jahrtausend and KFA Forschungszentrum, Julich; “Hybertmarket,” a show of the artist Fabrice Hybert, at the university of Luneburg; “Vienna Strip,” an ongoing series of large-scale paintings by artists including Ed Ruscha, Walter Obholzer, and Gerhard Richter, covering the front of the Kunsthalle, Vienna.

The “Migrateurs” and museum in progress series are ongoing.