Curator, Writer, and Museum Administrator

Books for Curators

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating* But Were Afraid to Ask


Although it seems as if this book will be about the influential, international, contemporary art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, actually, the book is about itself. It’s a meta sort of publication that asserts its editorial choices so frequently that delving into the content of the subject’s thoughts becomes particularly challenging. I should’ve known this from just glancing at the back cover, which provides a summary of sorts, with phrases crossed out for emphasis and a character called the interfinity mark embossed and floating above the text. Inside, the type notes say, “The interfinity mark [which I can’t replicate for this review] can be described as an interrogative punctuation mark formed by superimposing the vertical infinity mark [#8 on its side] with a question mark [?]. The interfinity mark differs from the short-lived percontation point, invented in the late 16th century to indicate rhetorical questions, in that it denotes ever-lasting and ever-occurring questions. An interfinity question is a question that has both infinite number of answers and no answer at all.”

Sigh. That symbol and short paragraph of information epitomize the problems with this publication. This too-clever book is an almost pedantic presentation of interviews of Obrist, who, truly, should be studied or at the very least recorded without typographical intrusions, like the striked out phrases and sentences that the editor says, “call attention to the thrust of Obrist’s documented work: like a gyring spiral of phrases that pick up new meaning within the ever-changing context.” It’s like the editors have pre-highlighted and underlined all the good parts. I found this incredibly annoying. The experience of reading these interviews is like talking to someone for the first time and having another person nudging you from the side saying, “Oh, he said that before, and before, and before. He’s got nothing new to say.” And that last statement is the real issue, because not only does this book suggest that Obrist repeats himself [which the editor basically says in the point above] but he also works primarily with the same artists over and over again [mostly men], and has a set group of people and publications that have influenced his career [mostly men].

Particularly frustrating is how this whole approach goes against two of Obrist’s interests: 1) discovering and providing a history of exhibitions and 2) as a curator, acting as a bridge of sorts, as someone who opens up a space and then “disappears.” Regarding point number one, throughout the book Obrist says things like “I think it is astonishing that we have curatorial schools, but we have no literature on the history of exhibition curating,” (p. 114), and “there is... a certain amnesia of curatorial history.” (p. 129)  If this volume is intended to add to the scholarship of curating and exhibitions, it is skimpy on the details. Who are these interviewers and writers? I mean, I know generally who some of them are, but if this book is supposed to ultimately serve as a historical resource, why provide such little information about the context of these interviews? Were they previously published? What is the relationship between the interviewer and Obrist? Is there more to the interview that wasn’t included in this publication?

Addressing the second point, Obrist repeatedly says, “My work is to liberate the path, to be a catalyst, and finally, to know how to disappear.” (p. 195) That’s debatable, of course, particularly if you hit the comment with the relativist stick. But regardless, if being “invisible” is so important to Obrist, why did he allow this book supposedly About Curating [as stated in the title] to be all about the editing, about the presentation of the content and picking through it for selected meaning? He says that he is “very much opposed to the idea of a dominating curatorial approach which often stands in the way of the exhibition.” (p. 166) Yet, I’d argue that’s exactly the problem with this book, in which the interviews are presented in such a way that what the editors found important is thrust in front of the reader to the detriment of a deeper reading of Obrist’s motivations.

Meanwhile, if you get through the interviews, which span 1995 to 2008 and are presented in reverse chronological order, you gather which exhibitions Obrist considers to be the most important/influential to his own career. These include ones in his kitchen when he was just starting out; “do it” which originated in 1997; “Cities on the Move,” curated with Hou Hanru in 1997; “Utopia Station” at the 2003 Venice Biennale, curated with Molly Nesbit and Rirkrit Tiravanija; and in general his ongoing gathering of interviews with people both in the artworld and outside of it.

Being somewhat envious of Obrist’s amazing career, I found certain tidbits revealing his secrets and struggles to be particularly interesting and also heartening. For example, he hates to spend time sleeping and used to follow the da Vinci sleep schedule, where you sleep for just 15 minutes every 3 to 4 hours. He says he had to stop that when he started having more regular office hours (p. 42). Naturally, I was reading this part of the book while in bed, preparing for my nightly 8 hours, thinking, “Ahah! That’s his secret. Well, I’ll never do that.” He also talks about how financially hard it is to be an independent curator, that without institutional support he wouldn’t be able to do several projects, and that fundraising has become a major responsibility of curators and institutions who plan ambitious projects.

I feel as though, after reading the whole book, I’m no closer to understanding Obrist as a curator and as a person than I was from the start. As a result, my review has offered very little in the way of teasing out overarching concepts besides a few of the ones the editors themselves have stressed. I’m not exactly sure about the purpose of the book. Perhaps the title was meant to be ironic?

Elizabeth Schlatter