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Episode 13 Transcript: Art Can Change the World, with Hans Ulrich Obrist


Guest Hans Ulrich Obrist. Photo credit: Jamie Govier

Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to “In Other Words”. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and joining us today is Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Hi Charlotte. Nice to see you.

Charlotte Burns: Nice to see you, too. Our podcast came about because you and I were emailing, and I asked you the question based on the exhibition currently on at the Serpentine Galleries, the Arthur Jafa exhibition: whether you believed that art can change the world. Do you believe art can change the world?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Yes, I think art, as Leon Golub said, is a gateway to possibilities, and so clearly it has a huge transformative potential. It can transform us. It can lead to transcendence. And, when I was a teenager, I grew up in Switzerland. I saw Harald Szeemann’s work. He was the exhibition curator of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which was sort of about the total work of art from Schwitters really to Beuys. I went to the exhibition 40 times, and it was really a transformative experience.

I also think that we should not forget that there is, beyond the exhibition, the possibility of art to actually produce reality. And that of course is the connection to our previous exhibition, which happened a few months before Arthur Jafa, which is the survey of the late John Latham, “A World View”. And John Latham co-founded with Barbara Steveni the Artist Placement Group. So they, in the ‘60s had this idea to actually position artists in society and transform the world through that.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: And it’s interesting because at the moment, Edi Rama was just reelected Prime Minister of Albania. So, Albania is an artist-run country, and we’ve always had artists historically who ran for office. Bruce Conner ran in San Francisco. At the same time, we have lots of Latin American writers—from Octavio Paz to Carlos Fuentes—who entered diplomacy and were either ambassadors or cultural secretaries.

Eileen Myles, the poet, ran a presidential campaign. She ran with her dog for office in the US. And more recently, Tania Bruguera announced that she’s going to run against Raul Castro in Cuba. But the Artist Placement Group is not only that. The Artist Placement Group is much more than office. It’s really about how art can produce reality.

And it’s fascinating, I mean, if you look at projects like Niddrie Woman or Five Sisters today, these appear to be Land art projects, which happened in Scotland, and they came out of this idea of Latham and Steveni of the “placement”. Latham and Steveni placed Latham himself into a Scottish government office where he would show up regularly for meetings.

And at that time, the idea was to remove these coal heaps at great cost, and Latham said this is a monument/anti-monument in terms of the coal age and makes clear that this polluting energy of coal is the past and that we need to find new energy.

It was an ecological statement to actually keep these coal heaps, to stay as a sign of a bygone age. And he convinced the government to save this money, use it for a social purpose rather than spend millions to take these piles of coal away, and they became almost like Land Art monuments. By actually placing himself in Scottish office, Latham kind of produce reality.

It would be interesting to also reactivate this idea of Steveni and Latham of the Artist Placement Group. So, we invited the Mexican artist and activist Pedro Reyes to London. And Justine Simons [Deputy Mayor for Culture and the Creative Industries] who works with the Mayor Sadiq Khan—Justine welcomed Pedro in the Mayor’s office, sort of a dialogue between him and all the departments. So, that’s another possible answer to your question: how art actually not only can have an impact that changes the world, but can in a very concrete way somehow produce reality.

Charlotte Burns: And what do you see is your responsibility as an institutional director?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I think there are many different ways, of course, to be a catalyst. At the same time, I think it’s very important to actually give a practice like Arthur Jafa’s this possibility to go deeper, more than just to show one work. I think with Arthur Jafa, it’s kind of a quite extreme example. Everybody knows “Love Is The Message“, but nobody knows the true complexity of his practice over the last 20 to 25 years, and that is certainly a task an institution has: to render that, to show that, to enable that. Also to just do exhibitions which are urgent.

Charlotte Burns: The Arthur Jafa exhibition is the first UK show if his work. He’s a US artist and cinematographer. The exhibition is called “A Series of Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions“, and it’s on show until 10 September.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Arthur Jafa is an amazing artist, and we felt that his work needs to be shown in London, urgently. On top of it all, there has never been a solo show of his in an institution, so that was also the first time to show his practice and all its complexity. He always explored parallel realities, so he went into the film world, went into the music world, did all kinds of amazing things in those worlds.

He was involved as the director of photography of Solange’s video clips, and, more recently, he’s released his clip for Jay-Z. He then, last year, came back into the art world after not having exhibited in the context of the art world for a while, by exhibiting at the Hammer Museum in the LA [Biennial]. He showed, for the first time in a museum, his books with all his collages. It’s a bit like Gerhard Richter’s Atlas. It’s an amazing, very multi-layered work.

That was really a revelation, to see that work at the Hammer Museum. Of course, originally he also showed at Gavin Brown “Love Is The Message”, which is certainly one of the most important films of the last couple of years. So, we wanted to kind of first approach him to do a survey. But he actually felt that the survey would be narrowing down too much. So, he wanted to really, in his own words, be an usher towards other practices and make the visitors of the show discover work, which otherwise is unseen.

So, Arthur Jafa brought in three artists from very different contexts who are all not visible so much in the art world. Missylanyus, who is an extraordinary video artist he discovered on YouTube and whose work is really very obscure. And Frida Orupabo, who is an Oslo-based artist who is very active on Instagram, but this is the first time her extraordinary collages are actually coming into a museum space. And last but not least, a very different rediscovery, Ming Smith, who is a photographer who has done pioneering work since the ‘60s, an African American photographer based in New York. And she shows almost like a mini-retrospective as part of AJ’s show. So, that was his answer to a monographic/ non-monographic show.

Charlotte Burns: I saw his work in LA at LA Moca where they had “Love is The Message, The Message is Death”.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: And it had been previously, as you said, at Gavin Brown’s in Harlem. It’s an incredibly moving work.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: He did not want this to be the center of the exhibition. So, it actually doesn’t feature in the center of the Serpentine Sackler show, but it will be screened in a tent near Peckham where he’s going to bring in another audience. It’s all composed of found footage. It’s very much a collage. And it sort of oscillates, of course, between images and music. He starts from very interesting questions, I mean, one is of course how do we imagine things that are lost. So, the film talks a lot about loss, what kind of legacy can we imagine despite that loss, and despite the absence of things that never were. And then of course, most centrally, there is a recurring question in the work: how might one identify and develop a specifically black visual aesthetic equal to the power, beauty and alienation of black music in US culture. That’s the main theme, really.

Charlotte Burns: Urgent is one of your favorite words. How do you define urgent? What do you define as urgent in art today?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I read every morning a little bit of [the poet and philosopher] Édouard Glissant. We’ve also just done an exhibition with Asad Raza in Brussels at the Villa Empain about the legacy of Glissant. And Glissant is a very good guide. He passed away a couple of years ago, but he’s written so many books, which are really a toolbox for how to cope with this very extreme world we’re living in. Glissant predicted very early on that the homogenizing forces of globalization could eventually be very harmful, and that’s of course something we are experiencing all over the world. We see the disappearance of species, we see, as Gustav Metzger said, not only climate change, but a possible extinction. And this, of course, is very much a consequence of the brutal homogenizing forces of globalization. This is not the first time the planet has experienced globalization, but it’s certainly the most extreme period of globalization.

There’s not only an extinction of species, it’s not only a biological extinction as Gustav Metzger pointed out—to whom we could actually dedicate this program because he very sadly passed away a couple of months ago. A visionary artist who came to London as a refugee during the Second World War, and has developed so many different, extraordinary bodies of work which have a lot to do about what is urgent, because he, until the very end, talked about this idea that we need to fight extinction.

And obviously Glissant said that. He said we need to resist these homogenizing forces of globalization, but he also early on already understood and anticipated that the counter-reaction, the anti-reaction to globalization could be as bad, and that’s of course what we’re seeing with all these separations, suspicions, isolation, new forms of nationalism, even racism which appear in the world. And as [the poet and artist] Etel Adnan said, the world needs togetherness. The world needs not separation, but the world needs love and not suspicion. The world needs a common future and not isolation. I think that’s what exhibitions can do today. Exhibitions can help us to find togetherness, to find love, to find common future, and to somehow resist these forces of separation, suspicion and isolation. And that’s what a lot of great art does: resist the homogenizing forces of globalization and propose another form of dialogue, a dialogue which is more respectful and also maybe produces differences.

Charlotte Burns: Do you see a difference between globalization and internationalism? You are one of the best-traveled people in the world. I read somewhere that you’ve done 2,000 trips in 25 years. You travel 50 out of 52 weekends of the year. When you talk about globalization, how do you see yourself within that?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Glissant talks about this idea of the mondialité, and that’s exactly why we did this exhibition in Brussels. He says we need to come up with institutions that put the world in contact with the world.

And that’s very much how I see Mondialité. I think we needed a sort of analogy in English, because it’s not Internationalism and it’s not globalism. It’s a different form of global dialogue. And he says it is what happens with the island. He’s from Martinique, and he says when these islands—Martinique and around Martinique—are in dialogue with each other, you of course change when you are in dialogue with the other. But it does not necessarily mean that you lose your own identity, but a country where an identity becomes richer through that exchange, and I think that’s what art can do, what the encounter of art can do. And that’s what we can achieve with exhibitions. A global dialogue that creates “créolisation”, as Glissant says, which respects differences and which isn’t afraid of this togetherness, of this common future.

Charlotte Burns: You did your first exhibition in 1991 in your student kitchen, and since then you’ve curated more than 300 shows. Do you have personal favorites? Do you have ones that especially stand out?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Of course, the exhibitions which one is working on at the very moment. It was an amazing experience for Yana [Peel], myself, our curator Amira Gad and all of the teams to work with Arthur Jafa. It is an ongoing adventure, because we’ve got to now have the experience with “Love is the Message” in this tent he specially designed, which goes to Peckham. We’re going to have further experiences with him because he developed a project with voices for the Park Nights. We have the Pavilion by Francis Kéré this summer—the extraordinary architect who developed the pavilion as a kind of a tree and oculus where the water can become a cascade on rainy days—and in this pavilion, we had the Park Night with Arthur Jafa.

That has certainly been and is very exciting as an experience of a solo show because I’ve always, at a certain moment, wanted to do solo shows because in the ‘90s I was afraid. I was a curator and traveled all the time. And then after 2000, I actually didn’t travel much during the week. I’m at the office, and then would travel over the weekends, and so in a way that had also to do with kind of going more into depth, and do more solo shows after 2000s. I did many more solo shows than group shows, and so for me it’s particularly fascinating how all of a sudden Arthur Jafa kind of creates a hybrid between a solo show and a group show, inspired of course by the world of music.

And, for me, the experience of the kitchen remains always a great experience. It was the first show, in my kitchen with Fischli/Weiss, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré and Richard Wentworth, who gave it the title “World Soup”. It was a very intimate experience where basically it was a testimony of only 29 people who came to see it.

I would say, more recently also, the experience now with Édouard Glissant, how we can actually make an archive alive. Of course [the architect] Cedric Price is another kind of obsession of mine.

Another of my favorite shows was certainly “Utopia Station”. Many of my favorite shows are actually the ones I co-curated with artists. “Utopia Station” was a project on utopia we did with Rikrit Tiravanija and the artist Molly Nesbit for the Venice Biennale 2003, and which we are now going to reactivate. And I think that’s kind of important, this idea that exhibitions have a life. That they evolve.

do it” is an exhibition that has happened in 150 cities so far, and villages all over the world, and it never stopped. “Take Me (I’m Yours)” is an exhibition we did for the Serpentine in the mid-’90s. It is now again on a tour. These exhibitions have a very long life, and they evolve, so that kind of learning system—and they hopefully become smarter. They build up complexity and also more diversity over time.

Charlotte Burns: You have always been very interested, too—when we talk about ideas—if the exhibition is a seed, then there’s a cross-fertilization between art, science, history, politics. That’s a very Renaissance idea of culture—

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: —in terms of how science and arts can intersect. Do you find that the idea is accepted? Do people question that in the scientific community when you talk to them? Because there has been an increasing separation, in terms of the infrastructure, of education and funding.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Exhibitions are a great possibility to go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge because, in a way, exhibitions are very open formats. When a film happens in the film world, it has to be 80 or 90 minutes, otherwise it cannot be shown as a feature film in Cannes or Venice. There are these pressures of formats in other fields, and I think the format of the exhibition is a very free format. It’s there all day. You can come and go, and spend time, and engage as much as you want. It’s a great possibility to bring in art in contact with poetry; art in contact with science; art in contact with architecture. And there’s a great freedom in that format, because it is all about inventing new formats.

It’s clearly also politically really relevant right now that we go beyond this fear of pooling knowledge, because I think, of course, we can only solve the big problems of the 21st-century if everybody collaborates; if all the fields collaborate; if we bring all the competencies together. And that’s something which I have always tried through not only exhibitions but also conferences to somehow contribute to. So, with the Serpentine Marathon, Julia Peyton-Jones and I invited Rem Koolhaas in 2006 to do the Pavilion, and that led to the first London Marathon

Charlotte Burns: You talked for 24 hours, and weren’t you ill after that?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Yes, we talked for 24 hours, and of course that was a period when I didn’t sleep much. Now I sleep. And so we did 72 conversations about London. Then the format kind of evolved, and every year we address a different topic. Two years ago it was extinction, with the late Gustav Metzger. This year we work the Raqs Media Collective from India on a marathon, which is about the guest, the ghost, the host, the machine. It will address issues such as AI, “Artificial Intelligence”. Or, as Hito Steyerl counters, AS—Artificial Stupidity. We are somewhere between AI and AS.

It is not only bringing experts together, it’s also about just breaking down silos—is also, in terms of society, just very important. The idea for art for all and architecture for all, because I think in a society of inequality in which the world is, it is extremely important that we’re taking obstacles away, and that we make art more accessible for everyone.

And of course, the English model of free admission. Whenever I travel, I really cherish upon my return because I think people have to pay £10, £20, £30 to enter an institution. That excludes a lot of things. The beauty of the free admission is that people can come 20 times.

But then, see, that’s not enough because there are still these obstacles. The other day, I was walking though the park very early in the morning, went to my office and was stopped by someone who said: “Are you working here?” Because it was so early that it was not opening hours of the gallery. So, I said: “Yes, the artistic director.” So, he said that he actually last summer came with his family to the park and his daughter suddenly ran into the pavilion. And he said he never would go to a museum. So, I said: “Why?” And he said: “Because it’s not for people like me.”

Charlotte Burns: Interesting.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Even if there is free admission, there is this mental barrier that someone might feel excluded. And he said when he was actually in the pavilion, he very much enjoyed it, but who really enjoyed it was his daughter whom he had to go and fetch, and who now is so obsessed by architecture that he thinks she’s going to become an architect. If you only would charge £1, or if there would be any kind of obstacle, it would not have happened. It’s just because she could suddenly run in.

At the moment, as we speak, in summer 2017 there is this extraordinary 40th anniversary of the Münster Skulptur Projekte of Kasper König, which he and Klaus Bussmann founded in ’77. I really recommend everyone to travel to Münster before autumn to go and experience this because it’s extraordinary, because the art appears all over the city. As Robert Musil said in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, art can sometimes appear when we expect it least. And it’s then that the encounter can be incredibly productive, incredibly fruitful, as it was for this daughter of the man I met in the park—

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: —who had a transformative experience. And that again goes back to this idea that an exhibition, or an architectural experience, can change us, can transform us.

Charlotte Burns: I read somewhere that there are certain mediums that you favor. You can be skeptical about painting, because you think it’s perhaps difficult to create meaningful work in that medium. Do you find that you’re looking in different places for art than you used to?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: For me, it was always about polyphony. Edward Lifson wrote this book where he said after the Second World War, Paris lost the Avant Garde to New York. And that was, of course, a fiction that there would be such a thing as an absolute center, which there never was. For me, I had just organized my exhibition in my kitchen. I was 23, and I got this invitation from the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust to lecture in seven, eight museums in the UK. The whole thing ended in Glasgow at Transmission, the amazing artist-run space where in ’91 I would meet Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland, and Jonathan Monk, Roderick Buchanan, Tom Eccles. The amazing art scene of the early ’90s in Glasgow.

And for me, having grown up in Switzerland, having somehow seen art in Italy, in Paris, in Cologne, in New York, a bit later. I suddenly realized: art does not just happen in these big global cities. Glasgow has one of the best art scenes in the world.

The idea, as you mentioned, that I was skeptical about painting. I mean, I’ve always been interested in painting. Actually my first picture was with Kasper König in ’93 when I was a student, just after the kitchen show, we did this show called “The Broken Mirror” where we invited 300 artworks, and there were 40-50 artists who actually were assembled in this show about paintings in the early ’90s. An early show of Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas, and a rediscovery of artists like Maria Lassnig or Dick Bengtsson or Mary Heilmann. We did in 2000 urgent painting, which was the institutional debut of artists like Wilhelm Sasnal. There are always also painting shows at the Serpentine.

For me, it’s never disappeared. I think there are parallel realities. We live in a world of many parallel realities, and as [Robert] Ryman once said, as long as somebody paints, painting will never be dead.

Charlotte Burns: Well, maybe that’s a good note to end it on. Thank you so much for being here.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Thank you very much it’s lovely to see you.

Charlotte Burns: Lovely to see you, too. Thank you.



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