The Incubator: What makes Hans-Ulrich Obrist the most powerful curator in the world?

Hans-Ulrich Obrist has been ranked the most powerful man in the art world for the second time. What makes the curator so extraordinary?

Written by Dayanita Singh | Published:December 11, 2016 1:09 am
Words of the day: Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Words of the day: Hans-Ulrich Obrist

I first met Hans-Ulrich Obrist when he was to curate a show at the Serpentine Galleries in London in 2008 (“Indian Highway”). It was a show with Indian artists such as the Raqs Media Collective, Bharti Kher, Sheela Gowda, Shilpa Gupta, and Subodh Gupta, among others. I have always been uncomfortable with labels — Indian artist, woman artist, photographer, and so on, and I had been resisting all these “India” shows. So, I voiced my apprehensions to Hans-Ulrich. The curators, including Hans-Ulrich, came to my studio in Delhi. He looked at a photograph of mine, a seascape from Kerala, which was hanging on my wall, and said, “Have you heard (Gustav) Mahler?” I thought it was absolutely bizarre that I had been listening to the composer’s first symphony, second movement, all the time when I was editing this particular work, Go Away Closer. Then he asked me how the loss of my father, when I was so young, affected me. I was quite horrified that he should know such a personal detail because it’s not something that I have spoken to anybody about, or written it anywhere.

Can someone read so much into an artwork? You can call it chance, coincidence, serendipity, or you can put it down to a very honed intuition. This, I think, is Hans-Ulrich’s contribution to the artists he works with. Somehow, he believes in their madness and accentuates that idea of thinking outside the box.

Obrist's Instagram posts are a part of his archive of handwritten notes by artists such as Douglas Gordon Obrist’s Instagram posts are a part of his archive of handwritten notes by artists such as Douglas Gordon

When I later travelled to London for the Serpentine Galleries show (of course, I agreed after our meeting), all I had was this drawing of a cell structure, a cart that I wanted to move around throughout the show, which had drawers with images and posters that I could change continuously. I didn’t want anything on the wall. Everybody in the meeting shot it down, but he got very excited by the idea. And so, it became what Hans-Ulrich likes to call, “an unrealised project”. When you have an ongoing conversation with someone like him, it gives you a certain confidence in what you want to do, because if your idea challenges all kinds of systems, it s certainly great to have the support of Hans-Ulrich. It’s not curatorial support, it’s just that someone believes in the madness of your idea.

Hans-Ulrich has an ongoing project in which he interviews people in different cities over many years, which is one of his main achievements, as an oral historian of our times. He also hosts conversation marathons around a theme. I am hoping he will host a museums marathon during my “Suitcase Museum “ exhibition in Mumbai in 2017. In 2010, he held “Delhi Marathon” during the first edition of India Art Fair, a series of 20-minute public interviews with 25 thinkers, social philosophers, political analysts and artists at Khoj Studios. It was the first to be held in the subcontinent.

During an interview with me, he had asked me what he asks everybody, “What is your unrealised project?” I told him, someday, I would like to see a godown full of mobile museums. I would build structures to which I could keep adding images, and open and close in different ways. That’s the note we had ended on. The idea came to fruition with my Museum Bhavan, last year, a museum within a museum which is a site of display and a repository of photographs.

Handwritten note of Heman Chong, shared by Hans-Ulrich Obrist on his Instagram. Handwritten note of Heman Chong, shared by Hans-Ulrich Obrist on his Instagram.

I am not sure how he handled India or what he thinks of the country. One can’t have that sort of a conversation with Hans-Ulrich. Instead, our conversations largely veer towards ideas and work. He thrives on ideas and he flies with it, and then he allows you to fly even further. There is always a thread of continuity when I meet him next. He remembers what the last meeting was, what we spoke about and what our ideas are for the next project. He loves introducing people to each other. His favourite line is, “It’s urgent you meet”. I meet almost all the people he suggests. He has a sense that our meeting might lead to something. And very often it does; he is an ace facilitator.

– As told to Pallavi Pundir

Dayanita Singh is a photo-artist from Delhi.

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