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Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist by Ian Cheng and Micaela Durand (2013) (all images courtesy Badlands Unlimited)

The celebrity curator may be a phenomenon on the rise, but before Klaus Biesenbach and Paola Antonelli, there was Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist, who’s currently the co-director of exhibitions and programs and director of international programs at London’s Serpentine Gallery, has a list of curatorial accomplishments so long, it’s daunting. He started out small enough, organizing a show in his kitchen in 1991 (he was 23) that included contributions from Christian Boltanski and Fischli & Weiss; in the decades since, he’s curated and co-curated more than 250 exhibitions, including the first Berlin Biennale and the first Manifesta. He’s also known for his ongoing conceptual projects, among them do it, a roving show built around artist-given instructions for viewers, and The Interview Project, for which he’s racked up more than 2,000 hours of conversation so far, with artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, and others.

It turns out he’s also been taking notes the whole time — making diagrams and sketches, scribbling down ideas and keywords. And when artist Paul Chan, who’s also the founder and publisher of Badlands Unlimited, found out that these copious notes and drawings existed, he knew he wanted to release them.

“I wanted to publish them because I’m surprised they exist, still,” Chan told Hyperallergic over email. “Badland’s publishing program is mindlessly simple: we publish things that no one knew existed. The poems of Yvonne Rainer, speeches on democracy by Saddam Hussein, afternoon interviews of Marcel Duchamp, and now this. I didn’t know he made them. Did you?”

The resulting book, Think Like Clouds, premieres at the New York Art Book Fair, where Badlands has also mounted a small exhibition of the some of the artworks — or whatever you might call them. “I don’t know if these drawings are important,” Chan said. “I don’t even know if they are in fact drawings. This is to me their appeal.”

Badlands sent us six of Obrist’s sketches specifically related to his curatorial practice:

All drawings untitled, ink on paper, date unknown

And here are a few more from the book:

The New York Art Book Fair opens to the public today and runs through Sunday, September 22, at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City).

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

2 replies on “Inside the Mind of Hans Ulrich Obrist”

  1. As interesting as it is that these exist, it feels to me that there would be a journalistic imperative to understand what they are, and how they’re used by Obrist. (For Badlands as well it would seem this would be a given.) In the copy above we get another rehash of all of Obrist’s accomplishments that the art world won’t let itself forget – but nothing about the *function* of these notes. Being kept at arms length here helps no one and only contributes to a superficial celebrity culture (albeit within the curatorial industry.)

    For example, how in these can Obrist even keep track of his own thoughts? (The 8th one down on this page is especially ridiculous.) How can he possibly use these for reference? For what projects are these notes generated? Until the exact purpose at work emerges, it is tremendously difficult to see them as little more than mere scribbles – in short, if you’re going to make the case that these are the physical evidences of a “genius/celebrity” curator at work, kindly inform your readership of how specifically they achieve that.

    1. Thanks for your comment, MC. I would, first off, say that you shouldn’t conflate the term “genius” with “celebrity.” My designation of Obrist as the latter does not mean an endorsement of him as the former.

      Second of all, I think you’re right that to really understand these drawings, we’d need a lot more info and analysis. Understanding the sketches would require getting a copy of the book, reading Paul Chan’s introductory essay, and then gathering some thoughts on them. It might also require talking to Obrist, since I surmise that the sketches are presented basically without comment in the book.

      But that’s not what this post is. We wanted to share these images as a kind of preview, to let people think and maybe decide for themselves. It’s categorized as a photo essay and not as a review because it’s about putting the visuals on display. If someone (you?) wants to get a copy of the book and review it, that would be great. But I would caution you against trying to nail down “the exact purpose at work” here, because I don’t think you’ll ever find it.

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