On the Road with HUO

This review appeared recently in the Literary Review.

Ways of Curating
By Hans Ulrich Obrist (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 200pp £16.99)

On first meeting Sergei Diaghilev in 1916, King Alfonso of Spain is said to have inquired of the impresario, ‘What is it that you do in this troupe? You don’t dance. You don’t direct. You don’t play the piano. What is it you do?’ Diaghilev replied, ‘Your Majesty, I am like you. I don’t work, I don’t do anything, but I am indispensable.’

When Hans Ulrich Obrist rehearses this story in Ways of Curating – a brisk, eclectic and at times maddening account of his career as an exhibition maker – it is partly to reassure us that of course he does everything, or near enough. Like Diaghilev, the Swiss curator – who is at present co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London – has been a tireless cultural operator. Since the early 1990s, Obrist’s works (the issue of whether we can use that word about a curator is more or less at the heart of this book) have included exhibitions, biennales, symposia, numerous publications, thousands of hours of recorded interviews and quite the most hectic travel diary in a profession that measures success by airport codes amassed: LAX-LHR-TXL-ICN. He’s even got his own abbreviation: art-world insiders know him simply as HUO.

But the Diaghilev anecdote is also a wry admission that Obrist’s job description has lately acquired an irritating ubiquity – not to say vacuity. In an age when we are enjoined to ‘curate’ online our tastes and consumer choices, when hipster haberdashers peddle ‘curator pants’ with scarcely a shrug of irony, the ‘speculative bubble’ around the term must, Obrist writes, be resisted.

Etymology helps: to curate once meant to take care, in a pastoral, priestly and even medical sense. The word has affinities with ‘curiosity’ and all that implies in terms of collectors’ cabinets and the origins of the modern museum. From the 18th century onwards, the curator of artworks was charged with acquisition, conservation, display and scholarly inquiry – all in modest service of the things themselves. But as civic and national museums grew, and art in the 20th century explored conceptual problems not easily tethered to discrete objects, the role of the curator expanded too. Curators, even in traditional institutions, became more like showmen, more like public intellectuals and more (to the dismay of many actual makers) like artists.

In recent decades, the art world has been somewhat tediously obsessed with this ‘curatorial turn’ and its apparent undermining of artists and critics alike. But Obrist is a good example of the expanded possibilities of the job, and the sheer energy he has brought to working with artists themselves is the abiding impression of Ways of Curating. In a telling and typical reminiscence, he recounts how he absconded from a school trip to Paris in the 1980s so he could visit the artists Christian Boltanski and Annette Messager at their studio, a former steelworks in the suburbs. It was the start of a prodigious travel habit: the adolescent HUO catching night trains across Europe to commune with the likes of Hans-Peter Feldmann and Fischli/Weiss. Along the way he developed an enviable knack for bumping into and cadging ideas from celebrated writers, such as the aged Ionesco. (Actually, the trick is all in turning up: the great landscape writer Tim Robinson tells a story about opening his door one windy morning in Connemara to find the young Obrist, whom he’d never heard of, keen to talk limestone and Wittgenstein.)

Obrist’s relentless curiosity neatly coincided with the kind of exhibitions the artists he met actually wanted to make. He put on his first show in his own kitchen: Boltanski installed a film under the sink, Fischli/Weiss contributed oversized foodstuffs and Feldmann stocked the fridge with marble eggs. The kitchen is a nice emblem of the social impetus behind much of what Obrist has done since: exhibitions often mounted far from the gallery or museum, demanding unpredictable interactions between artists and spectators. He thinks of these shows as essentially conversations, and in recent years his most publicly visible project has been the series of ‘marathons’ organised at the Serpentine: opportunities for Obrist himself to engage in lengthy and loosely structured interviews with the artists, writers and thinkers he admires. Convened around themes such as memory or gardens, these have included bristling chats with Tilda Swinton, Brian Eno, Eric Hobsbawm and John Berger – from whom of course his book’s title is adapted.

A list like the last is one clue to the curator’s slightly perilous position as cultural impresario. The HUO style and modus are easy to parody, and Ways of Curating is well stocked with sentences one could uncharitably read as mere name-dropping. ‘I was reading about Athanasius Kircher in 1986, during a school trip to Rome’; ‘In a conversation I had with her some years ago, Doris Lessing questioned the future of museums.’ ‘See you tomorrow in Hong Kong!’ says the architect Rem Koolhaas to Obrist, who immediately jumps on a plane. There is, too, something of the high-flying CEO memoir about the book’s episodic-diaristic structure, as though – and this is curious in a writer with a genuine taste for and knowledge of great literature – it’s all been hastily dictated or phoned in from far-flung departure lounges.

The more generous and, I think, necessary reading would be that Obrist’s hectic and telegraphic style is a function of the man’s astonishing energy, inquisitiveness and work ethic. Perhaps he also knows that however many miles and hours he puts into being HUO, into juggling all these disparate projects, the fate of the curator is to be forgotten outside his professional coterie. For every Diaghilev there are numerous pioneer exhibition makers, such as those listed by Obrist in a chapter of their own: Harry Graf Kessler, Alexander Dorner, Hugo von Tschudi – the ones who, seized with ‘desire, urgency and a sense that something was missing’, vanished into the work of the artists they championed.

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