Twenty years ago, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin set up The Shop in a former doctor’s surgery on Bethnal Green Road, east London, selling handcrafted art and knick-knacks like badges, t-shirts, keyrings and wire penises. Their DIY enterprise stayed open for six months while they got pissed in front of their David Hockney altar and used their aquarium as a moneybox. Meanwhile, budding curator Hans Ulrich Obrist was initiating his project do it, conceived with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, which invites artists to invent sets of handwritten instructions, or “scores”. do it has now grown to include Ai Weiwei’s instructions on how to make a spray device to block a surveillance camera, Gilbert & George’s “Ten Commandments for Gilbert and George” and Theaster Gates’ “How to Catch the Holy Ghost in a Shopping Mall”.
For the new do it 2013 exhibition at this month’s Manchester International Festival, Lucas has created a homage to Franz West using instructions from the do it back catalogue and Emin has paid tribute to the late Louise Bourgeois. The ideas, DIY attitude and “just do it” spirit of 1993 are still going strong.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s not that in 1993 all of these things were invented. The spirit – the genesis of it – started much earlier. But maybe in 1993 it all came together. 1993 was the year of The Shop, it was the year when do it happened, it was the year of Aperto ‘93 in Venice, where a lot of artists from our generation met for the first time. A lot of things crystallised.
Sarah Lucas: It wasn’t one thing or one person; so many people kept the whole scene buoyant. We were our own audience and we liked it. It generated a lot of energy but
I don’t think you can bring it down to one moment.
HUO: I remember the first time I visited your studio. A DIY spirit was very much in the air. What was the epiphany behind The Shop? Do you remember the day you and Tracey had the idea?
SL: Yeah, I think we were sitting in a restaurant in Brick Lane. I was previously at a studio with Gary Hume. Tracey was mostly writing then, she wasn’t making much art… And we came up with the idea of getting a shop. Just doing it, I suppose. There was this particular shop that was empty and I contacted the estate agent. We rented it for six months and paid in advance. We thought we’d just start turning up there and make it up as we went along. Looking back on it, Tracey really did have this entrepreneurial flair. We used to make these t-shirts, and Tracey would say, ‘When we sell the first one it’s a fiver, we make another it’s a tenner and then the next one, £20.’ We did a lot of drinking at The Shop until the late hours. I can always remember swinging in this hammock we had and falling out on many occasions. We used to spend a lot of time in the pub next door. When someone came in and bought a badge they’d pay 50p. We’d go next door to the pub and buy two halves of Guinness because they were 25p a half. We did actually get by from what we made at The Shop.
(The YBAs) were largely our own audience, but other people came along because we were having such a huge party. So in the end, we decided what art was legitimate
HUO: You invented The Shop in an Indian restaurant in London with Tracey, and I had coffee and breakfast with Boltanski in Paris maybe about the same month and conceived do it. It was also about the promiscuity of collaboration. For me, do it was almost open source. It was the beginning of things becoming more global. It was a moment of intense travelling, taking night trains all over Europe. You know, ‘How can I make things that globally make sense, have a show that travels in a different way?’ For my Hotel show (Hotel Carlton Palace: Chambre 763, 1993) I was basically in the hotel room for 24 hours and anybody could come in at three or six in the morning. It was non-stop. It was a similar feeling to The Shop – your dialogue with Tracey was also non-stop.
SL: Certainly on Saturday nights, we were open all night on purpose. It was a good area to be, just off Brick Lane. There were bagel shops open all night. We were absolutely knackered at the end of the six months. We went from nothing to having half the world coming through the door. I look back on it all fondly. I’m one of these people who are very fond of their own work. They’re sort of like friends to me.
HUO: I remember I basically had no money, but I bought this cigarette package from The Shop, a ready-made one. I remember a conversation we had then about the use of cigarettes and you said something I never forgot. I was wondering if it was about death and you told me, ‘Only if we think about such distractions that make us think about life,’ something like that. So that was already all there, no?
SL: Yeah. It’s amazing, making things, how often you realise that something was there very much earlier. Really, things started happening for me in early 1992. I did ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ and I had my first one-person show at City Racing, which was where I met Tracey. You could even say it started before that, being part of the Goldsmiths group. The Shop was about using premises that nobody else was using at the time. It was a social necessity (to adopt the bad-girl image) in those days, living in squats and co-ops in rundown areas of London. I didn’t have that much money so I was either cycling, walking or taking the nightbus. I found it useful to have a good pair of boots on and look a bit tough. It was a way of not getting picked on. Now I live in the countryside and don’t feel a great necessity for that. I mean, there are similarities in my appearance now in the sense that I’m still in old jeans and jumpers with black hair, but that toughness was rather integral to the reality of living in that situation.
New generations have to reinvent this for themselves, not that it really went away. It is continuous. There’s just that feeling that the energy has to come again.
HUO: It’s interesting that you mentioned City Racing. When you talk about the DIY spirit, the artist-run spaces were very important in early 90s London.
SL: City Racing was an old betting shop, and ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ was in a shop in Kingly Street, which funnily enough is where Sadie Coles is opening her new gallery. So that’s kind of gone full circle, back in Kingly Street where it all started for me.
HUO: When I came to London in the late 80s, early 90s, there was a whole map of these artist-run spaces, which is quite difficult to imagine now because it was obviously before rent was expensive. Now most of those spaces are public spaces and commercial galleries. Back then, none of these spaces were really commercial – they were self-organised, artist-run spaces that worked on a shoestring budget. Gilbert & George were a great inspiration for me, that idea of art for all. I remember as a teenager I went to see them and they explained about that famous 1969 show When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA. Gilbert & George were devastated as young artists not to be invited, so they just went to the opening as living sculptures, and that’s obviously what got the most attention. That was a great inspiration, to see that one doesn’t have to wait for an entitlement.
SL: It’s also who decides what’s legitimate art. In terms of the huge bunch of artists that we became (and it seems to be continually expanding), it was like a sort of ongoing party. We were largely our own audience, but other people came along because we were having such a huge party. So in the end we decided what was legitimate.
HUO: Robert Musil said in his great novel The Man Without Qualities that art can happen when we expect it least. That’s why my first show in ’91 was The Kitchen Show. When your show Penis Nailed to a Board happened, it happened in a shop. After that I invited you to my Hotel exhibition because that was another model of an exhibition that was more in the context of life.
SL: New generations have to reinvent this for themselves, not that it really went away. It is continuous. There’s just that feeling that the energy has to come again.
HUO: One of the reasons we did the new do it book is that there are so many younger artists reconnecting to that DIY spirit. There is also the idea of the rumour. In 1993 I lived between Switzerland and Paris and heard rumours about The Shop and came to London to see it. A similar thing had happened with my shows – there wasn’t really any advertising, so it became a rumour. People came to the hotel room and there were queues outside. Richard Wentworth said one of the ways an exhibition travels is in these concentric circles through rumour. The same for 60s performances which only seven people saw but then became very well known.
SL: And some things, because of the rumour, continued to grow after they opened, even when they had technically finished. The rumour keeps it going.
Until September 22, DO IT 20 13, Manchester International Festival, Manchester Art Gallery.mif.co.uk. manchestergalleries.org
8 Super-Curators You Need to Know, From Massimiliano to HUO
By Alex Allenchey
May 30, 2013
As today’s art world continues to expand at an exponential rate, with new museums, exhibitions, and biennials popping up seemingly by the minute, contemporary curators are increasingly expected to be up-to-date and knowledgeable about all the goings on around the globe. Only a select few “super” curators have the drive and the wherewithal to handle the mounting responsibilities required to stage today’s monumental shows. We’ve compiled a list of eight of these exceptional gatekeepers, who also happen to be some of the most influential and important people around.
Name: Hans Ulrich Obrist
Affiliation: Serpentine Gallery in London (Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programs, and Director of International Projects)
Known For: Being everywhere at once, writing a Brief History of Curating.
Curatorial Approach: Interdisciplinarily-inclined advocate for evolving and participatory exhibitions, Obrist’s curatorial reach knows no limits.
Most Notable Exhibition: “do it,” a still-ongoing project begun in 1993 consisting of a set of instructional works—contributed by artists including Rirkrit Tiravanija, Marina Abramović, Christian Marclay, and Olafur Eliasson, among many others—that anyone can follow to create an open exhibition in any location.
Weirdest Exhibition: Beginning with an “Interview Marathon” in 2006, Obrist has conducted a series of 24-hour cultural endurance tests, with themes ranging from “Experiments” to “Manifesto” and “Poetry.”
Sartorial Flourish: Blazer, no tie.
Name: Okwui Enwezor
Affiliation: Haus der Kunst in Munich (Director)
Known For: As a writer, critic, and editor, as well as a curator, Enzewor serves on numerous curatorial teams and advisory boards.
Curatorial Approach: Enwezor’s exhibition topics focus primarily on post-colonial art and political activism.
Most Notable Exhibition: In Enwezor’s case, it’s a tie: As the artistic director of the second (and final) Johannesburg Biennale, Enwezor’s “Trade Routes: History and Geography” is largely credited as an important moment for African art on an international scale. As curator of Documenta 11 in 2002, he made the exhibition truly international, conceiving it as a series of decentralized “platforms” located in Vienna, Berlin, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos, as well as the main event in Kassel.
Weirdest Exhibition: Not so much weird as revolutionary, “In/Sight,” an 1996 exhibition of African photographers at the Guggenheim helped challenge visual stereotypes of African representation.
Sartorial Flourish: The man can rock an ascot.
Name: Massimilliano Gioni
Affiliation: The New Museum in New York (Associate Director and Director of Special Exhibitions); the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan (Artistic Director)
Known For: Being the Wall Street Journal-annointed “crown prince” of the art world.
Curatorial Approach: Gioni frequently pulls together art regardless of genre classification, creating generally pleasant and thought-provoking juxtapositions.
Most Notable Exhibition: His “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition, the first iteration of the New Museum’s triennial, which he co-curated with Lauren Cornell and Laura Hoptman, reads like a “who’s who” list of hot young artists, from Cory Arcangel and Tauba Auerbach to Elad Lassry and Adam Pendleton.
Weirdest Exhibition: His exhibition for the Venice Biennale sports the theme “The Encyclopedic Palace,” based on an outsider artist’s theoretical museum, and contains a bizarre assemblage of art, including “anonymous tantric paintings” alongside work by Robert Crumb and James Castle.
Sartorial Flourish: No blazer, no tie.
Name: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
Known For: Being the first woman to reach #1 on Art Review‘s annual “Power 100” list.
Curatorial Approach: The American writer and art historian often takes a step back curatorially and lets the potentially-drawn associations between her disparately gathered artworks do the talking.
Most Notable Exhibition: Under her curatorial guidance, Documenta 13 in 2012 was a smashing success, drawing over 100,000 more visitors than its previous edition in 2007 and being an impressive feat of organization, as it spread beyond the usual location of Kassel, Germany to Kabul, Banff, and Cairo.
Weirdest Exhibition: Serving as the senior curator at MoMA PS1 in 2000, Christov-Bakargiev helped mount the first edition of the quinquennial “Greater New York” exhibition, which spotlights the very diverse (and very weird) art being made throughout New York City.
Sartorial Flourish: Scarves and those glasses.
Name: Klaus Biesenbach
Affiliation: MoMA PS1 (Director) and MoMA (Chief Curator-at-Large)
Known For: His ascetic lifestyle, not having any furniture in his apartment.
Curatorial Approach: Ideas for Biesenbach’s exhibitions tend to derive from his own personal taste, which is excellent.
Most Notable Exhibition: While his retrospective for (former flame) Marina Abramović in 2010 deserves mention, “Any Ever,” the New York debut of innovative video artist Ryan Trecartin in 2011 probably takes the cake.
Weirdest Exhibition: In 2006, Biesenbach curated the group exhibition “Into Me/Out of Me” at PS1, which focused on the act of “passing into, through, and out of the human body.”
Sartorial Flourish: Tailored Terminator.
Name: Thelma Golden
Affiliation: The Studio Museum in Harlem (Director and Chief Curator)
Known For: Championing early career artists.
Curatorial Approach: Golden’s exhibitions tend to focus on emerging African American artists, considering their work within nuanced conceptual and theoretical groupings.
Most Notable Exhibition: Shortly after joining the Studio Museum in 2000, Golden curated “Freestyle” (2001), a widely lauded exhibition of 28 emerging artists of African descent. Golden’s catalogue essay for the show introduced the concept of “post black,” a term coined by Golden that “identified a generation of black artists who felt free to abandon or confront the label of ‘black artist,’ preferring to be understood as individuals with complex investigations of blackness in their work.”
Weirdest Exhibition: Golden was on the curatorial staff at the Whitney when they launched their infamous “Identity Politics” biennial in 1993 that forever altered the course of contemporary art.
Sartorial Flourish: Bold patterns.
Name: RoseLee Goldberg
Affiliation: Performa (Founding Director and Curator)
Known For: Writing the definitive tome Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present.
Curatorial Approach: As the driving force behind the Performa biennial, Goldberg is known for being on the cutting edge of performance art.
Most Notable Exhibition: Performa 2012 included commissioned work by a laundry list of art stars, including Elmgreen & Dragset, Ragnar Kjartansson, Liz Magic Laser, Laurel Nakadate and James Franco, Shirin Neshat, and Frances Stark.
Weirdest Exhibition: David Salle‘s first solo exhibition “Bearding the Lion in His Den” at the Kitchen in 1977, which featured ten high intensity light bulbs flashing at random while Tim Buckley’s “Song for the Siren” plays.
Sartorial Flourish: Killer bangs.
Name: Paul Schimmel
Affiliation: It was recently announced that Schimmel will be joining the blue-chip gallery Hauser & Wirth as a partner in a new Los Angeles space, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, which is set to open in 2015.
Known For: Putting on critically acclaimed exhibitions year after year and getting unceremoniously fired for it.
Curatorial Approach: His vision is expansive and his exhibitions are often grand in scale, though they have often tended to focus on L.A.-based artists.
Most Notable Exhibition: Schimmel set the bar high with “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” (1992), his first exhibition as chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which sought to upset stereotypes about West Coast art and challenge the assumed superiority of the New York art scene.
Weirdest Exhibition: His (probably) once-in-lifetime show “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” at LA MOCA (2005), which traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art the following year, a collection of over 50 of the postwar artist’s rare and fragile collages.
Sartorial Flourish: Cosby sweaters.
Hans Ulrich Obrist and Damien Hirst 2007
‘Away from the Flock’ (1994). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012
Hans Ulrich Obrist You often work in series.
Damien Hirst I’ve always liked series. I remember looking at Robert Motherwell’s painting when I was young. Do you know ‘Splashes by the Sea’? I thought that was great.
You get some sort of security from the repetition of a series. If you say something twice, it’s pretty convincing. It’s more convincing than if you say it once. [Laughs].
I think it’s also an implication of endlessness, which kind of theoretically helps you avoid death. I’ve thought quite a lot about it. In a way, that’s why smoking is so sexy. Apart from the addiction, the attraction is that there’s nothing certain in life and things change all the time, but you can always rely on something like a cigarette – which punctuates your whole existence time and time again – to be the same. It’s almost like you’re cheating death. But it’s killing you, so then, smoking becomes even sexier. People are afraid of change, so you create a kind of belief for them through repetition. It’s like breathing. So I’ve always been drawn to series and pairs. A unique thing is quite a frightening object.
HUO A sort of umbilical cord in your work, which is more than a series, is the idea of the aquarium. You’ve spoken about that in many interviews before, but I thought it would be interesting if we could touch on it briefly. It revisits Minimalism but recharges it with a very different content. So how did this aquarium idea start?
DH I’ve always had a thing about glass. I had a magic mushroom experience very early on where I got a bit freaked out about being symmetrical. I imagined I had a sheet of glass running right through me. Glass became quite frightening. I think glass is quite a frightening substance. I always try and use it. I love going around aquariums, where you get a jumping reflection so that the things inside the tank move; glass becomes something that holds you back and lets you in at the same time. Its’ an amazing material; it’s something solid yet ephemeral. It’s dangerous as well. I just love glass. And it’s a way to separate people but engage them. You can invite them in and keep them away at the same time. It’s probably my favourite material, glass. And water. No, my favourite material is water and then glass. But glass and water are very similar. Glass in water is amazing; glass disappears if you put it in water.
HUO And there’s the series of animals in formaldehyde.
DH ‘Natural History’ that was called. I just imagined a zoo of dead animals. I keep thinking that I’m done with that, but then I recently had the idea for the crucifixions, which I think are fucking brilliant; I have to do that. I think there’s a narrative within those now. I was also thinking about doing the Stations of the Cross as fourteen cabinet pieces. I don’t really think they’re a series. I’m not sure.
HUO If one thinks about all the different series, one can see your whole work as a sort of open system from which new series start and others stop.
DH I think they’re aspects of personality. It’s shit to go on the wall at the end of the day. You’re decorating apartments a lot of the time; it’s something to go over the sofa. I remember my friend Joe Strummer said to me that a long time ago, cavemen used to go out and smash buffalo over the head and bring them back and cook them and eat them. Then at some point there were are a couple of guys who got their hands in the blood and put something on the cave wall. It was just about making the cave nice. Art came out of the desire to make your habitat more interesting. I love that. Or even music – the guy who started banging bones together and the other guys said, ‘We like the sound of that and we like the way the walls look. Why don’t you guys stay her and we’ll get the meat for you, so at least when we get back to eat the meat we’ll be in a cool place?’ So I’ve always loved that kind of view of art: that art is a reflection of life. I think there’s an infinite number of ways to get to the same point. Every artwork is fundamentally the same thing.
HUO Some of your work links to display features in science museums, and other works have more to do with scientific formulas. I’m interested in this relationship to science. Can you talk about that?
DH I just hitched a ride on science – or not really science – it was medicine. It’s just collage, isn’t it? Art is always very simple, or good art is always very simple. I took science in the way that Picasso took the bike seat and the handlebars and made the bull’s head. I mean, there’s nothing complicated about it. Science seemed to be getting people’s attention and art didn’t, so I hitched a ride on that. Or people were believing in science and questioning art, so I just took it very directly and used the science. It’s been a very rich vein for me. It also partly came from David Cronenberg’s film ‘Dead Ringers’.
HUO ‘Dead Ringers’ was the original of all the ‘Medicine Cabinet’ works?
DH Yes. Jeremy Irons as a gynaecologist, in the red fucking robes, and those weird gynaecological instruments that were like art. It was that real high-end medical stuff. And I saw some dark, smoked cabinets in there and I thought, ‘Fucking hell. They look great.’ And so I made some myself. That, combined with seeing Jeff Koons’ Hoovers, and all that Neo-Geo stuff and Kurt Schwitters. I was thinking, ‘What would Kurt Schwitters be doing if he was alive today?’ Bless him, he’d be down the pub. He’d be a priest.
HUO I think he might just have continued his Merzbau.
DH Yes. He’d have finished it.
HUO Because nothing could really stop him from doing it.
DH Only one thing.
DH Death, yes. Don’t you hate that guy?
DH Death. No, I like Schwitters. I just fucking hate death. He’s such a dumb guy.
HUO It’s a dull fact. Leon Golub called death, ‘A dull fact’.
DH If it’s true. I don’t know if it’s true. [Pause] Come on, it can’t be true!
HUO It’s a rumour.
DH Elvis is still around. And sex doesn’t really make babies. How the fuck could that work?
HUO Another rumour.
DH Yes, it’s a rumour. It’s bullshit. I heard a great quote by George Burns, the American comedian. Somebody asked him in an interview when he was about 96, ‘What do you think about death?’ And he said, ‘It’s been done’. [Laughs].
HUO [Laughs] Great! We were talking about science.
DH Yes, the whole story of it, alchemy and everything; it’s fantastic. Trying to understand the world, looking for the keys to understanding: that’s what artists do as well in some ways. It’s like God should be, the way they sell you the pills, the forms, the utopia, the hope, the cure. We’ve come a long way since quack doctors.
HUO Were you inspired by science museums?
DH Yes. I love them: science museums, natural history museums, anything that takes your mind off death, really, or focuses your mind on it. I love all that hands-on stuff. It’s great when you feel that you’re being entertained and also educated. I’ve always felt if you could do that with art it would be great.
HUO I’m interested in finding out more about how you work, in terms of the collection, archives and studios. Picasso said one should never give up a studio: you should shut the door and take a new one and forget about it and accumulate more studios. Each time we’ve met, you’ve mentioned another place and it seems as if you’ve got lots of studios all over the world.
DH I think you should definitely shut them down. Somebody once said to me, ‘Which bit do you like the most? You must love it when you’ve got all these big machines and tanks and people and they’re all in the gallery piling stuff in and there’s all this chaos.’ I said, ‘No. I fucking hate it.’ I like it when it’s all one and there’s just a perfect exhibition at the end. Picasso was obsessed with fame, he wasn’t he? He thought every time he wiped his ass people would find it important. I’m more convinced by the Beatles than Picasso these days.
HUO Why the Beatles more than Picasso?
DH They had much more influence on the people around them at the time, and they were struggling with truth in a much deeper way. They grew up in public and they went through so many changes. Picasso is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, especially the late Picasso. Maybe it’s because I’m an artist… When I was a kid, I just loved the Beatles. I think I wanted to be the Beatles or something. It’s funny because I was from a different generation. I wasn’t around when the Beatles were around. I was born in 1965, so I witnessed it second hand, in the same way, I suppose, that you witness Picasso second hand. And then I was too young to be a punk. A lot of our generation missed the punk thing that really split everything wide open; we came in the wake of it. We were like punk artists. Some of us have a lot of the attitude. I always thought; especially when you look at the Beatles and the artists who were around at the time – Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake – that the Beatles really made a different. The artists, especially compared to the Americans, didn’t really.
HUO Warhol made a difference.
DH Yes, it was Warhol and the Beatles. With Picasso, maybe the talent is a little too apparent. I don’t know. Picasso became his own idea of himself; he created a persona and he lived it, whereas the Beatles split at the height of their fucking success, which is a phenomenal thing to do. They just got sick of it; they said, ‘We’re not going on tour any more.’ They were never just going to take the money. Which is great for people from a working-class background.
HUO Warhol is in your collection. Can you talk a little bit about him?
DH Warhol’s great. You can’t argue with it. It’s simple, isn’t it? And visually great. It’s easy, cheap, simple. He certainly doesn’t over-complicate things. I think that’s good. And in terms of consumerism and all that sort of stuff, art has been in a constant battle for hundreds of years with every other kind of image-making. We’re fighting it today. The paintings that I’m doing now are about that battle. The paintings came out of the time when the newspapers went colour. When newspapers go colour, it’s almost like you get information overload and image overload. Newspapers are about facts and truth, and you believe you get a true view of the world from these images when you don’t: they’re completely fake.
HUO Which paintings are you referring to?
DH The realistic ones I’ve been doing. Like the ones in the Gagosian show this autumn. It’s like taking one of those images and trying to make it into a painting, because paintings you believe and images you don’t, so you want to throw away the images. What’s happened though, is that we believe in images.
HUO How are these paintings made? Are they done by people who work with you, like in Warhol’s Factory?
DH For two years I worked with a sculptor called Nick Lumb. I was giving him these little photographic images and saying, ‘I want it to look like that.’ But I didn’t really know what I wanted. We didn’t get any results – well, we did, but they were horrible. We were trying to do it with airbrushing. I kept going back to these paintings and hating them. And after all the airbrushing, after two or three years, we just went back to oil paint. When you’ve learnt all that discipline, the oil paint really cracks back in. They’re still not there, but all I know is they’re getting better. They’re getting closer to what I want. I’ve been setting up my own photographs. I’ve taken photographs of diamonds. I’ve been doing photographs of the Beatles; just creating this mass of images that keep piling up. But it’s real chaos because I don’t know what I want. I keep stopping and starting. I keep thinking about Goya and Soutine, and I sort of imagine that at the end of my life I’ll just fucking paint. I’ll be fucking sat in a tiny little room with one light bulb doing self-portraits on my own. There’s a lot of complications with what I do now. You have to be young, you have to be fit, to run the operation that I run, and I certainly don’t think I can get old running an operation like this.
HUO So the operation will have to reduce?
DH Yes. It will have to. If you’ve got people working for you, and they’re getting older and you keep replacing them with younger people, and you’re getting old too, it’s going to be mental. But if you keep everybody working for you and they get old, eventually they’re not going to be able to move big things around. So instead of getting rid of them younger, why not make the works smaller? You could make smaller things that they can carry. You’d end up with this fucking studio of old people carrying little things around – ‘Can you make it in wood, please? I can’t carry the steel.’ It would be good if you could do that. I love the idea of a company, an old-fashioned company. I’m just an old-fashioned boy at heart, really.
HUO In some ways it does feel like a new model of Warhol’s Factory. But this idea of revisiting painting is interesting. You could get rid of all these structures without concentrating on painting. Why painting?
DH It’s like, ‘Why books?’ It’s just a great way to convey a message. It’s a brilliant illusion. It’s very simple; the illusion that something two-dimensional is three-dimensional evokes emotions in people.
HUO You mentioned that you’re doing a new show and a book of the drawings in New York.
DH It’s called ‘Corpus‘. I’ve just sent 300 drawings over to Larry Gagosian, so it’s kind of everything I’ve done. When I started doing the drawings, I didn’t really want anybody to see them. But as I’ve been doing it for longer and have got older, I think maybe it’s good to see them.
HUO Is there a daily practice of drawing?
DH Yes, it’s the first point of call, isn’t it? You have an idea, and when it gets too complicated to hold in your head, it’s a great way to visualise it. It’s a very cheap and effective way to visualise it. I love that. You can work out what size it needs to be. You can imagine it. So I’ve always done that. I can work out in a few lines with a pencil on a piece of paper how big I need to make a tank. That way, you don’t make expensive mistakes.
HUO Peter Fleissig showed me the drawing of the shark.
DH That was done after the fact. Peter said he wanted a drawing of the shark, so I did one. I think you can tell if they’re done afterwards because you can see they’re drawn from a photograph of the piece.
HUO Are the drawings after the fact rare, or are there lots of them?
DH I think as long as you don’t pretend that they’re done before, it’s OK. If someone said to me, ‘Can you do me a drawing of the shark?’ I don’t mind doing that. But the ones done before are more interesting, because you’re trying out different possibilities and you can see the progress of how you got to the actual shark.
HUO Are there a lot of unknown drawings in the show that nobody has ever seen before?
DH Yes, there are lots. There are some drawings of horrible sculptures that never got made. There’s one called ‘Lambie Loves Snoodle’. It’s got a pram in it and a baby monitor with a skull; it’s the very stupid idea of death talking to birth on a baby walkie-talkie or a mobile phone. The title was from a Lonely Hearts column.
HUO That piece was never made?
DH No. I don’t think it ever will be. There are lots like that. Loads. When you have an idea for an animal in formaldehyde, you do drawings for every animal. I was going to do a big Raft of the Medusa with dead animals and meat and big butchers’ tables, but I never made it. There’s a great one of a butterfly made out of two pigs sewn together ass to ass; you cut the back end off it and then four sides of beef make the wings. It’s a huge thing, like a butterfly of death, which I never made. You do drawings very quickly, and that’s easy, but then you work out how much it’s going to cost to make it and it becomes a ridiculous amount of money.
HUO There was this whole debate in the press the other day. People were asking about the shark: how will it be in the future? Does it matter if it’s a different shark? Does it matter whether or not you, as the artist, choose the shark? Can someone else make it?
DH The idea of replacing the shark is a bit of a difficult one. The original shark (in ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living‘) was done badly – that’s the problem. With the other ones, you probably won’t replace them. Everything is replaceable in my mind, but then, I’m not the person who’s going to decide that, because it happens when you’re gone. But I feel pretty bad about the way the shark was looking, because it’s deteriorated. A shark has got to look fierce. So I think it really had stopped doing what I wanted it to do. The problem with the shark was that it was done with MoMA and it was done with Charles Saatchi; there were too many people doing it and they all got involved with the commission. Different people advised them that there was no need to inject the shark. I wanted to inject the shark, they didn’t want to inject it – Charles can be a bit bullish – and they pushed me into not injecting it. So in the end, it didn’t get injected, and it was the only thing that didn’t get injected. Then we had all the stories that it had started floating; it completely rotted insider, and we had some real problems with it. In the end, Charles went off on his own and had it gutted and skinned and stretched over a fibreglass mould, so it wasn’t a real shark after a while, and it just started to be totally wrong: it was the wrong shape, it just didn’t look frightening, didn’t look dangerous, didn’t look like a shark. So for me to get involved at this point now, knowing what I know, I can go back in and get a new shark and make it look exactly like I wanted it to look originally because I’m still alive, so I think that’s good. But that’s an example of an artwork being handled really badly. It’s not like the ‘Venus de Milo’. The arm is missing – it looks great. With old art you’ve got to use a lot of imagination. In a way there’s a big joy in looking at things and reconstructing their past lives. I mean, every day you have to deal with your own mortality, so a good way of doing that without too much fear is to deal with the mortality of an object.
HUO Some artists in the 1960s tried to make contracts stating that a work had to be dealt with in a particular way. That was another part of my question: how do you feel about that difficult business?
DH I don’t mind. There are two things in an artwork, aren’t there? There’s a visual thing and there’s a cerebral thing; there’s a mind thing and an eye thing going on. And then mind thing is always secondary; no matter how great or important conceptual art is, at the end of the day, it’s secondary to the eye thing. If it looks fucking good on the wall, none of that matters; it’s really not important. But I think you’ve got to be careful. When you’re making an artwork, there’s an idea and you play around with it and then it comes to life. But you can have an idea and put things together, and then it doesn’t work. So I suppose if things can come to life then they can also die. You can create an artwork, and it comes to life, but then maybe 500 years later it dies. I’ve never really thought about that. It’s a weird thought; a good thought.
HUO A limited lifespan? Like buildings.
DH Yes, like everything else. In my mind I think that art’s immortal, but maybe it has a limited lifespan. All these Old Masters are falling apart, and we’re clinging onto them through preservation. It’s like in that film of HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’, when the books fall apart in his hands. You’ll get that happening with art, I guess. With a Jackson Pollock painting that’s going to happen eventually. Or is it? You can create it digitally. Maybe art is like true love; maybe it never dies. That’s my hope, anyway. But it will die with the world. If we do nothing, the earth is going to smash into the sun, so we’re fucked really.
‘An Interview’ constitutes excerpts from an interview (with permission from the artist and the interviewer) which took place in connection with the exhibition ‘In the darkest hour there may be light. Works from the Damien Hirst murderme collection’ at Serpentine Gallery, London.
Copyright © Hans Ulrich Obrist/Damien Hirst, 2008.
Hans Ulrich Obrist — A Biography
Hans Ulrich Obrist is Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, London. He has served as curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and has curated 250 exhibitions worldwide.
Obrist’s recent publications include A Brief History of Curating and The Conversation Series (Vol. 1-20.)
In 2011, Obrist has been awarded the Bard College Award for Curatorial Excellence and the Swiss Institute Honoree Award 2011.
Artfacts.Net Interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist
Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Marek Claassen
Hans-Ulrich Obrist is one of the most prestigious curators of contemporary art. Currently he serves as a Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes, and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
AfN: Hello Mr. Obrist
HUO: Hello. Good morning.
AfN: Rather randomly I browsed to a web site called www.edge.org. A website where usually scientists publish their very personal opinion, for example their dangerous idea. Now it’s you the curator asking about the formula of life. When did your connection to the world of science occur?
HUO: My connection to science started a long time ago in Germany. When I was a young curator, I started to work with Kasper König in Frankfurt. He was at Portikus, at Städelschule in the early 90s. We were working in ’91 on a book called “The Public View”, my first book, and then on a big painting show called “Der zerbrochene Spiegel” [The broken mirror], in ’93 in Vienna. I was contacted by Christa Maar who runs the Academy of the Third Millenium which brought people like Ernst Pöppel, Wolf Singer, two German neurologists, together with architects and scholars from all disciplines and artists.
In ’93, they had invited me to come to the Academy meetings. For me, it was really a revelation because it was the first time I met scientists. I had never met scientists before in my life, I was always with art and architecture. I had long conversations with Ernst Pöppel and others. And that really triggered a relation to science. I would show Semir Zeki a Mark Rothko exhibition, and he would tell me about neuroscientific issues, about what happens in our brain when we see a Mark Rothko painting.
So little by little, I began to think that it could be very interesting to connect artists with these scientists and develop an approach. And one of the first approaches was called “Art & Brain” which we did in a science centre in Germany where we basically had an extended coffee break. Carsten Höller was there, Rosemarie Trockel, Douglas Gordon and many others. And then, after that extended coffee break, we did another project called “Bridge the gap?”, and another one called “Laboratorium” which then became a bigger project.
I started this thing at a certain moment when I thought it could be interesting not only to do conferences but also bring that science link into the medium of the exhibition which is my primary medium. I basically worked on these different things and on conferences like the 24-hour marathon here in London. That obviously shifts the rule of the game of what a conference is.
But for me, the main medium remains the exhibition. And the question was how to bring science into an exhibition, and this was the primary focus for “Laboratorium” in ’99 – the show which Barbara Vanderlinden curated, where we invited scientists and artists to talk about the laboratorium, about their studio, about their science lab. Different labs have happened in Antwerpen. Rosemarie Trockel did her sleeping lab; Jonas Mekas revisited Andy Warhol‘s factory, and wondered what happened to the factory later on, what it became; we had Luc Steels developing colour recognition experiments and robots; we had basically Panamarenko defining his laboratory, his studio to be close to the public; it was a secret place; and we invited also the eminent Bruno Latour to actually curate a show within the show, and he came up with this idea of the table top experiments. So he curated a series of public lectures and demonstrations where scientists, artists and architects would publicly present either a new or an old experiment. So that’s the first time in ’99 where we – the science investigation – reached a critical mass. We really developed a larger scale exhibition.
Then it moved on with conferences again like “Bridge the gap?” with Akiko Miyake where we invited – for a week – scientists, artists and architects to Japan, and had a sort of a think tank where art meets science meets architecture in a different environment. In this case it was a house on the outskirts of Kitakyushu, very remote.
Then, I moved to London last year, and we started with Julia Peyton-Jones to welcome these different projects of the Serpentine Gallery: education and public programmes, exhibition, and architecture which are the three main strings. Obviously, the question was also: how can the pavilion be a “content-machine”? And Julia had initiated and invented in 2000 this pavilion scheme with world leading architects doing a temporary pavilion every year. Together, we invited Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond to design the pavilion, and we spoke with them about his idea that it could also be a forum, an agora for conversation. We had a very intense summer of conversation last year which culminated in the marathon, and Rem said, architecture without content is meaningless shape. So when this year, we approached Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen, they immediately picked up on this idea as well but pushed it further, and Olafur agreed to be involved. Olafur was here most of the weeks; there was a colour experiment, there was an experiment of models; there was another one about sound. The pavilion became a musical instrument.
Olafur and I had been through “Bridge the gap?”, but also through an event in Eidar, in Iceland which was another interdisciplinary think tank. So it’s a really long story. We’re working a lot on these art-science-relationship. So we felt it could be interesting that the pavilion becomes really a place where a marathon of experiments could take place. And Olafur thought that maybe last year, there have been enough conversations, and it could be interesting to, this year, really not talk but ask people to do something, to do an experiment in the pavilion. There have been up to 60 experiments on the Frieze weekend in October, ten days ago, where artists, scientists did an experiment. The results are on www.serpentinegallery.org.
|Hans-Ulrich Olbrist during the interview in the streets of London|
AfN: And is this your formula of life?
HUO: Yes, that brings us to the question about the formula. Besides the exhibitions, the conference season, the symposium, I have always had this other type of projects, more immaterial exhibitions which are basically “Do it”, a book made out of recipes, or also “The future will be” where I had asked artists to define the future, and my most recent project of such an immaterial exhibition is “Formulas for the 21st Century”.
So in the last 18 months, I started to ask artists from all over the world to send a formula for the 21st century. It was triggered by an interview I made with the great inventor Albert Hofmann. At the end of the interview, he drew on a piece of paper the formula of LSD. It was an incredibly simple formula, and I just thought “wow, it could be interesting to ask 100 artists to email their formula!”. My projects are kind of a flanerie. Out of this flanerie, things very often – also by chance – develop. It’s not a masterplan. These things, these projects just happen. Little by little, whenever the artists email a formula, I put it on the wall of my office. At the beginning, when I started to work here, my office was empty, there were just three formulas on the wall, and then, the office became more and more full with these formulas which had been faxed or emailed. After about the year, the whole office was full with these formulas.
One night, when we had an opening, Brian Eno who is my neighbour here in Notting Hill and who obviously had been one of the world’s great pioneers to bring music in relation to science, he came with John Brockman to one of our openings. John Brockman is the founder of “Edge”. He saw all these formulas on the wall at my office, got really excited and said “this is an ‘Edge’ project! We should do something together!”. I had known John Brockman for almost 10 years, through James Lee Byars and many other common friends, but we never had collaborated directly. I contributed to some of his online-things but we have never done a big project together. He said: “You do it with artists but I could ask the ‘Edge’ list to contribute”. John Brockman asked all the scientists of his mailing list to send a formula; so in some kind of way, he had quite a parallel way of working. He took my idea, obviously with my acquaintance, and asked his mailing list to send a formula which we then presented as part of the science marathon we did here. We invited John Brockman not only to do this formula but we also thought it could be interesting that John Brockman actually does a section of the marathon. Brockman invited about 10 scientists to do an experiment, so there was an ‘Edge’ sequence. Projects of this sort are not developed in one masterplan. It’s an archipel-like model of different islands which we then connect in many different ways. So there was a John Brockman island, there was a Israel Rosenfield and Luc Steels island;…. On the website, you can see an image of each experiment.
What happened is that suddenly this immaterial exhibition of formulas has, by being on ‘Edge’, reached a completely other context. Suddenly we ended up on top of Boing Boing which is the biggest blog on the planet, and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world would visit it. To some extent, that obviously is very important for us because it is not only about bridging the gap between disciplines, but it’s also about reaching art and building bridges to other visitors who usually would not come to an art gallery, and we have 800,000 visitors p.a. Admission is free. So this kind of way is also an interesting link to the internet. You go to “Edge”, it’s free. You come to the Serpentine, it’s free.
|Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen|
AfN: ‘Edge’ always asks these interviews “What is your question?” with a question mark. And you have a website called “Point d’ironie”, and there is also a question mark but it’s turned upside down. So I asked myself how these things are linked with each other? It has nothing to do with irony, right?
HUO: No, artists like James Lee Byars or Alighiero Boetti have been immensely influential for me when I started in the late 80ies, early 90ies to work as a curator. James Lee Byars had in ’71 this wonderful project called “The World Question Center”. It was a huge inspiration for me, but it was also an inspiration for Brockman who has seen Byars earlier than me because he started earlier than me. But we both, being from different generations, were equally inspired by James Lee Byars, and we kind of met through this inspiration by James Lee Byars‘ “World Question Center”. And he asked as an artist all the eminent people like Freeman Dyson, the Dalai Lama among others, to ask one question. He’d ring them, and the moment, he had that question, he’d hang up the phone. So the World Question Center was certainly a trigger.
The “point d’ironie” leads us to another project; it is related in a sense that we disseminate art broader than just in the conventional way, and it’s got to do with this idea of inventing other circuits of disseminating art. The “point d’ironie” was really a discussion between Christian Boltanski, the French artist, Agnes B., the French designer, publisher, and collector, and myself. About ten years ago, we were thinking, it could be nice to do two-folded posters that would be a magazine and a poster in one. We had printed hundreds of thousands of copies and distributed them for free all over the world. If you go the “point d’ironie”-website, you will see that it’s been going on now for ten years. Jonas Mekas did the first issue; the most recent ones were done by Damien Hirst and also by Richard Prince and Hreinn Fridfinnsson. What is interesting is that each time, it’s also a different circuit because we print about a hundred thousand copies and distribute it globally, obviously through Agnes B.’s channels, then through the mailing list of museums, but each time also, through where the artist wants it to travel. So the artist brings each time his or her mailing list. I think, to some extent, that’s the core of this project.
Currently, we have all these forces of globalisation, and obviously, they lead to a danger because sometimes the danger is that in my world of exhibition, they can lead to a homogenising force. The difference disappears. I believe in this idea that we use the forces of globalisation because they are an opportunity, a possibility to stimulate and trigger more global dialogue but that we, at the same time, resist those homogenising forces so that we define models which are actually a difference producing globalisation.
AfN: We are sitting here in this wonderful pavilion designed by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorson. It’s a temporary installation. This pavilion will be replaced by another one. Isn’t this sad, don’t you want to keep it. What’s your relationship to possession?
HUO: Interesting question. I mean, to some extent, exhibitions are temporary mediums that is so much related to possession. In the art world, there is a strong art market; there is galleries, there is collections, and I think that’s incredibly important. I am very much convinced that there is a necessity for that because it helps to create sustainable, long-term presence of art and of architecture.
However, parallel to that, it is very important that we have laboratories, that we have experiments which not necessarily last, which are temporary because they allow to test things, they allow to test ideas, they allow new things to emerge, and I have always seen my role rather on that end to basically develop experimental situations where temporary constellations can be tested and can be invented. The exhibition is very much a temporary medium; exhibitions are temporary constellations of objects, of quasi objects, of processes which, after the exhibition, dissolve again. You have a book, you have a website, sometimes you have a lot of interviews and conversations, you have a memory, you have a documentation, you have archives, you produce archives but not necessarily permanent objects. With architecture it is similar because we are not producing permanent situations but we basically produce temporary architecture, temporary buildings which are pavilions. And this project initiated by Julia Peyton-Jones has actually developed a very very global visibility for architecture because it is visited by hundreds of thousands of people, it is published all over the world. However, it is not creating a lasting building here. First of all, we are not allowed to do it because this is “Royal Parks”, and it can only have temporary things but beyond that, it is also carried by the belief that temporary architecture sometimes produces the most innovative architecture. If you look at the history, there have been a lot of incredible inventions of architecture done by pavilions. If you think for example of the Mies van der Rohe pavilion in Barcelona…
Buckminster Fuller once said that maybe we can own cars or buildings, but we can also consider cars or buildings to be a service which means we only have the building when we need it. We only have a car when we need it. We do not necessarily have to own a car. […]
However, I do believe that there is a place and a necessity for such experiments which are not necessarily gone by thinking. Somebody builds a building, and it has got to last; he builds that building with a different spirit than if he builds a building for two or three months. So it gives the freedom to the architect to really test something maybe more daring, more extreme than he or she would if it was a permanent building. He would build a different pavillion. […]
AfN: You are known a somebody who breaks the custom habits of viewing (e.g. Hotel Carlton Palace, Cloaca Maxima, Take me (I’m yours)) or the casual ways of presenting art (e.g. Biennale Lyon). Your putting the things in a different context or adding a layer. It’s like reminding the people: Hey, this is art, it’s here and there it’s everywhere. Do you consider yourself as somebody appointed to train our senses?
HUO: I think it grew out of a necessity of conversations with artists. […] Alighiero Boetti once told me that, as an artist, he was always asked to do the same thing. You are asked to do gallery shows, you are asked to do museum shows, you are asked to do these very repetitive things, and it is unbelievably limited and restraining. […] [An art project and its realisation] are very much driven by discussions where one thinks about how to produce reality, how to make things happen which very often prove to be possible. […] It has to do with making things happen but it has also to do with the fact that when you ask an artist to do things which are not a routine but which are slightly different, he produces sometimes very very different work. […] It is the drive or necessity to produce new experiences
AfN: Another thing, something that striked me by reading one of the many interviews you did was that there was quite a lot of traveling involved. But not in the sense of just visiting some other place more in the sense of the German word “Wanderjahre” (journeyman). Where one to be considered professional has to gain knowledge by working and learning through emigration. Is this physical emigration obligatory if someone wants to succeed in the art world?
HUO: […] Since last year, I spend my week, from Monday to Friday, in London. Then I started to always travel from Friday night to Monday morning, each time to another continent. So I do my China research, the India research, and then my New York research – I changed my rhythm, and I began to do more short journeys. […] In 2000, at a certain moment, I chose not to travel at all, to stay for three years at one place. […] There are so many professions in history where it was not necessary to travel at all, and the idea that it becomes an obligation, in the worst case, even to do travelling without it being a necessity or a pleasure or a conviction, is not beneficial. It cannot be an obligation. Everybody travels, and it is certainly good that there is a lot of travelling going on but then, at the same time, maybe it is not important for every practice. Whenever I write a book, I cannot travel. Then I have – for several weeks – to stay somewhere. So to some point of vue, it is about rhythms, waves with intervals, pauses, silences.
I mean, sometimes it is very interesting not to go somewhere but to imagine a journey; if you think for example of Robert Walser’s fictitious Gazettes Parisiennes or Joseph Cornell’s European Grand Tour that never took place. It happened in the imagination.
And particularly in terms of exhibitions, it is sometimes not necessary to travel, sometimes it is more important to do a local research. One of my most interesting experiences was for example when I did the first Berlin Biennale with Nancy Spector and Klaus Biesenbach, and we decided “let’s just look at Berlin!” [for the selection of artists]. So we did not proceed like curators who travel all over the world to catch artists for a biennale but we just stayed in Berlin and looked at all the artists who live and work in Berlin. And it was really a very interesting experience. […] I prefer to focus on a few places and to dig deep. The cities where I live are obviously the cities where I research more deeply what is going on. […]
AfN: I always had the feeling that there are three different layers in the profession of an artist. You either are a teacher, or an installation artist in shows or you produce for the art fairs. And some of them serve every layer. Do you think that this trichotomy exists?
HUO: The big danger is that there is a pressure to homogenise practices, and that the difference disappears. It is interesting, to some extent, to resist this whole organisation and to be different. […] Everbody doing the same leads to an impoverishment, and in some kind of way, it is all about how – in a context where the homogenising forces are at stake – to produced a difference. That’s why there cannot be a prescription which says “It has got to be this way. An artist has to be like this”. It is something which has really to do with finding out one’s own projectory.
It has a lot to do with “Spaziergangswissenschaften” (Lucius Burckhardt). There are so many different ways of navigating the world.
AfN: But the artists you choose, do you meet them by wandering around?
HUO: It is also systematic. As John Cage said, it is chance but it is very controlled chance. […] I have been very inspired by Cage’s idea of the musical score and analogue the curatorial masterplan being too policing; maybe we should allow more chance in it, we should allow more improvisation, and that is something that you have in urbanism, in music a lot.
[…] At the same time, you have Yona Friedman or Oskar Hansen and Cedric Price in urbanism who, since the 60s, have talked about how to question the masterplan.
If you look for example at these people over there at the bus stop, we do not know whether they are going to take the bus or to change their mind, maybe they are going to walk… there is a lot of unpredictability, and how can we actually bring what urbanism and music have done since the 60s about questioning the masterplan, to curating. In terms of curating, it is very much about the masterplan. The curator makes the list of artists. In France, you even call the curator a “commissaire” which is police vocabulary. I found it very inspiring: music and urbanism, and how I can bring that into curating and develop self-organisation, develop models where controlled chance can enter.
AfN: Is this habit you have “quality”? – In the art world everybody speaks about “quality”. But when you talk, I get the impression that this is the quality of an artist – to jump in, to build a pavilion, to do something completely different. Would you call this quality in terms of an art work?
HUO: It’s also to change what we expect from art. I think, great artists always change what we expect from art.
And then there is the famous “étonnez-moi”. In the conversation with Cocteau and Diaghilev and the Ballets russes which was a great moment where art met theatre, and there was this famous explanation, and they said “étonnez-moi” (surprise me).
AfN: Dear Mr. Obrist, thank you for the interview
Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews Emily Wardill
Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to Emily Wardill about her enigmatic film work
Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s the first month, the 10th year, the first decade, the third millennium and we’re in London — Deleuze wrote about repetition and difference…
Emily Wardill: Yes, I was thinking about him, because I was thinking about windows.
Wardill: Throwing a body through a frame. You couldn’t really throw yourself out of that window.
Obrist: No, I couldn’t throw myself out of the window. But why do you think about windows this morning?
Wardill: Partly because I’m working on a catalogue at the moment and trying to organise everything under ideas of theatre and the object in the window, and I had heard that Deleuze, when he threw himself out of the window, did it because he was trying to get air into his lungs.
Obrist: Christian Boltanski told me that in an artist’s life there are a couple of inventions, great inventions, just as in a scientist’s life. Benoît Mandelbrot still remembers the day he discovered fractals. When was the first time you had an awakening epiphany?
Wardill: I think art made sense of the feeling that some things make sense and some things don’t. Maybe it was more accumulative than an epiphany.
Obrist: Do you remember the first piece you were happy with?
Wardill: I was really into editing and filmmaking — it was a performance piece (a re-enactment of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ black dinner from À rebours, 1884), ‘The Feast Against Nature’, 2005. When I was making sense of that vast project — two years of trying to work out the voices and how they came together — I realised that something happens when you edit, you can make connections that are not expected. It was an important piece of work also because it was made as a collective.
Obrist: So it was a performance in which, for the first time, things came together. What was your inspiration?
Wardill: I remember being struck by Des Esseintes’ temporary loss of virility and that this gigantic black feast would then be something ridiculous and grand at the same time. And also the idea of decadence — decadence in the sense of the late 19th century word, but also the American contemporary version of decadence, which relates to its original meaning — a kind of moral decay (in relation to Gary Indiana). It was just before Bush was re-elected, so that feeling was really present in people’s minds in New York. In England this decadence came across as a much more romantic sort of dandy-esque embodiment.
Obrist: And did you see a link to ‘happenings’?
Wardill: Yes, people had this pathological relationship to the thing they were talking about instead of having an academic one, and I think that that was something, as I understand the ‘happenings’, that happened to the participants; that you would kind of play through your roles, be it gender roles or societal structures.
Obrist: Etel Adnan, the seminal poet and painter from Lebanon, says that identity is shifty, identity is a choice.
Wardill: That you perform it? Yes, and also that you can have stories you hold onto, that you carry along with you as ‘being’, as opposed to being therapy which demands you search for answers and origins. Adam Phillips talks about this.
Obrist: Cerith Wyn Evans was telling me the other day that when he was a student Peter Gidal told him to read Proust and Beckett and that had completely changed his life — have any books changed your life?
Wardill: A Fire On The Moon by Norman Mailer. He was commissioned by the American government to write about the moon landing and it got really slated by the critics. So he took out an ad in the New York Times which published all the criticism from Moby Dick when that first came out. Hilarious. The thing I liked about it was it was constructed like Moby Dick, so it had this big sort of technological expansion in the middle of it, but also right in the beginning he puts himself in it. Even though it’s about a grand world event, he’s always there. He always places himself there so you have this thing that’s both expansive and grounded in autobiography — everything that is wrong with him, all his vices, all his insecurities and passions and posturing become part of this world event — when you hold a lens up to something it makes it big but you’re aware of it being small and you’re aware of the mechanics of that sort of magnification as well.
Obrist: Any other books which are oxygen?
Wardill: I’ve been reading Carlo Ginzburg’s essay ‘Making It Strange’ (from Nine Reflections on Distance). He’s talking about Tolstoy’s writing, which he wrote from the perspective of a horse, and this idea of changing perspective in order to point out how strange common sense is. And then, Love is Colder than Death, the Fassbinder book. I love where he talks about his films being like the walls of his house. So he never needs a house because he’s constantly making films. That’s his stability. The thing I like about it is that it can’t just belong to him.
Obrist: After that you made your first solo show, the legendary Reader’s Wife at Fortescue Avenue.
Wardill: The Reader’s Wife was an expansion of the Smithson example of the boy running around in a sand pit that’s half black sand and half white sand. If he runs around clockwise it turns grey and if he turns around anti-clockwise it doesn’t go back into its two distinct halves. I was really interested in how that stage towards understanding could become a kind of theatrical stage and how you could then re-complicate it and make new connections from it. So in terms of fictionalising significant spaces, it was a kind of an epiphany. I’m using your word now. I’m not sure if I like the word.
Obrist: What does London mean to you as a kind of context where you work?
Wardill: I keep on getting out of London and then coming back and really liking it a lot more than when I left. But I think what’s hard about London to leave is that it’s full of people that I love and respect and it’s full of a kind of energy which is special.
Obrist: So cities are people?
Wardill: Yeah, but when I went to Marseilles last year I really liked it better then any other city. That was a different thing, because in Marseilles it feels like everyone is outside and swarming around each other. The beaches in the city are all rocky with graffiti and people go swimming as the sun sets. Everyone is in on it — grandmas, kids, groups of teenagers playing guitar, army men, inflatable aeroplanes…
Obrist: In 2006 you did the exhibition Basking In What Feels Like An Ocean Of Grace, I Soon Realized That I’m Not Looking At It, But Rather, That I Am It Recognizing Myself. Titles seem important to your work. Sometimes you have verylong titles. What’s their role?
Wardill: Well that one was because the film was based around a soundtrack I wrote which reflects in on itself. So if you look at sheet music, it’s like you’re holding a mirror down the middle of it and then you play the music backwards. But I didn’t want to actually play it backwards, because I thought it would have allusions to Satanism and I didn’t want that. So the title becomes a thing that’s almost semi-therapeutic — it has to do the same thing that the work is doing.
Obrist: What role does chance play in your work?
Wardill: It helps. [laughter] It’s dangerous but it helps.
Obrist: Is music important to you?
Wardill: Definitely. Because it does this thing where it bypasses your brain. I’ve been thinking about dub a lot for the new film, because of this relationship of sort of talking to people who are dead and on repetitions. But I also like what Marguerite Duras said when she was making ‘India Song’— that she played music to the actors so they would relax and could do nothing without feeling.
Obrist: You’ve got a lot of soundtracks to your films.
Wardill: Well in something like Basking In What Feels Like An Ocean Of Grace, I Soon Realized That I’m Not Looking At It, But Rather, That I Am It Recognizing Myself, the music gives it structure, becomes this cage. But with something like BornWinged Animals and Honey Gathers the Soul, , the music is much more like an image. The next film was called ‘Ben’ , and I quite like the fact that that title was so surly in relationship to the earlier title. It was shot on a set built to look like it was black and white but is in colour and has two stories about Ben. Ben becomes an object halfway through — I was thinking about case studies, and how they take ostensibly casual situations and expand out to reach giant conclusions and patterns which can be applied to other situations. Because one of the case studies is about a person suffering from paranoia, I tried to make the film paranoid. It’s like when you can’t disconnect the idea from the form.
Obrist: What about the sound of ‘Ben’?
Wardill: The sound is two voices and one of them one is the voice of a girl — Keisha Sandy Wellington. She’s reading the case study about the man Ben. The other is the voice of a hypnotist — he lulls you into feeling you can trust him. He’s like the voice of God as voice-over. She’s a much more faltering, fragile voice.
Obrist: Which film followed Ben?
Wardill: After ‘Ben’, I made a film called ‘Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck’, [ICA, 2007]. It was a kind of playlet based on ideas from British stained glass. I was trying to shoot it in such a way that it looked like the colours were really saturated but also, as with stained glass, things are framed in a really illogical and fragmented and, it seems, in very contemporary way. The stuff I was looking at was medieval English — you have faces with eyes and noses lobbed off and all these kind of strange framings. The film is framed in a similar way, but it was the beginning of an interest in the way in which stained glass windows were used to communicate to a largely illiterate public. I was trying to make this connection between that and the way Karl Rove had woven religion into the republican party discourse. So that then leads on to the film ‘Sea Oak/The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter)’ which was a much more pedagogical way of thinking about that.
Obrist: Why Descartes’ Daughter?
Wardill: Because there’s a famous story about him being summoned by Queen Christina to be part of her court and he doesn’t want to go because he is scared his thoughts will freeze over like the water in Sweden. He was right because that was when he died.
Obrist: And so his intuition was right?
Wardill: Yeah. His daughter had died when she was five, of scarlet fever and it was the big sorrow in his life that he carried around. He booked into this journey on a ship with his daughter but they never saw her with him. There was a huge storm and in the midst of it the sailors went to look for Descartes. There was no one in his quarters but they found a box with a little automaton that he built that moved just like a little girl. They were shocked by this and thought she had cursed the journey. So they threw her overboard. So he loses his daughter twice, but the second time he loses her she’s a strange embodiment of all his rational ideas taken to the point of irrationality. I thought that this was amazing.
Obrist: Your work has a lot to do with the digital relating to the physical.
Wardill: Often the way I make a film is to start it as a performance. Similarly with ‘Gamekeepers Without Game’— the performance ‘Life is a Dream’, at the Serptentine, helped me to think through the film.
Obrist: So the performance triggers the film, the film triggers performance? It’s kind of a communicating vessel maybe?
Wardill: Yes, but I’m also quite slow, my brain works quite slowly. Which is why I’m not very good at keeping up with these ideas of epiphanies. But that being so, it helps me to think through what the film is going to become.
Obrist: Can you tell me about this performance you did in Reykjavik [relates to ‘Sea Oak/The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter)’]?
Wardill: It was about this imagining of me, trying to remember this scene from a film where there’s a diamond in a room protected by lasers, but also, the search for that scene. So I re-created the scene and then I had a girl dressed up as one of the subjects that Etienne Jules-Marey used to use when he was conducting chromophotography. She’s playing on a Nintendo Wii under a strobe light, so she’s a physical version of his photography. I was trying to think of a contemporary movement that was like sport: playing tennis with the television seemed to be the closest thing, using stunted mechanical movements particular to the present. With the voiceover I wanted to make the connection between this and the fact that his photography was really important in relation to proving the efficiency and productivity of the labour force in America. So there was a relationship between what this original and rationality, and a way of living that is like a machine.
Obrist: Do you make drawings?
Wardill: I have big sketch books full of things, full of workings through ideas and then I have photography and drawings.
Obrist: Are they like storyboards?
Wardill: Some are like storyboards. Some are like costume design — similar to things I’ve seen. Some are credits.
Obrist: 2010 has been a really active year because of the show at De Appel. But you also had a solo show called Solo Show?
Wardill: Imaginatively! At Spacex. That was the same film I was showing at The Showroom in London — ‘Gamekeepers Without Game’.
Obrist: Can you tell me more about that film and how it works?
Wardill: Well, I wrote a script for a future film because I became interested in adopting modes of communication that are really familiar to explore ideas that are difficult. This script has everything you would have in a conventional melodrama: an introduction, a violent scene, a sex scene, a death scene. Everything’s told through objects that go from being status symbols, to evidence of crime, to theatrical props… and there are acted scenes you get dropped into, where people are acting very realistically, but not touching each other. It looks a bit like airline food, so you kind of have this separation, but it’s all brought together under the rubric of a script. There’s also a drumming soundtrack that’s in 5.1 that runs all the way through. So you have again this feeling of a house being built, but are aware of it being built through individual elements. It’s like individual drums become the bricks. It carries you through pathologically too. At one point, the younger son has a panic attack and you become anxious because the drums are fast. As he calms down they slow and you can relax.
Obrist: It reminds me of the Fassbinder story of the house. You’re back to that idea — it seems recurrent.
Obrist: There’s also the house of the Winchester Widow, where the widow of the man who invented the Winchester rifle builds room after room after room.
Wardill: My next film, ‘Full Firearms’, is based on that story of Sarah Winchester — she had upset the spirits and they were hounding her, so she builds a house to accommodate them all. She was trying to disorientate them so they would leave her in peace. As a story it’s really intriguing but when you actually see the house, it’s kind of ‘wacky’ in a really tinny way.
Obrist: I’m wondering what your unrealised projects, dreams, utopias, projects, the projects you don’t dare do (as Doris Lessing pointed out to me recently were so important) might be?
Wardill: I’m 32 so I hope I still have some unrealised projects! One of the things I really want to do, but probably won’t until I’m Doris Lessing’s age is to set up a film school/production company.
Obrist: Your own structure?
Wardill: Yes. And then have a group of people that you have a sense of responsibility towards.
Obrist: Do you have a motto?
Wardill: A motto?
Obrist: Hans-Peter Feldman answered the question with an image — a photograph of a boy in front of a closed wooden door, next to a brick wall.
Wardill: I like that. I like answering a question with an image, but I can’t do that here.
Obrist: What’s your connection to science?
Wardill: Science is massive, how am I supposed to answer that?
Obrist: Duchamp was inspired by Poincaré.
Wardill: Well, Marey was a scientist — I was really interested and still am in how those documents which are essentially scientific become influential outside their original intent… the Robert Smithson example as well is, obviously, an example which relates to entropy, I suppose. There’s a way in which science adopts the material in order to clarify its ideas that I find interesting.
Obrist: What ought to change?
Wardill: The people who are in power ought to change, the reliance of government on business, this ought to change, education should be more elliptical to the economy. Lots of things ought to change.
Obrist: Are you a situationist?
Wardill: The inheritance from the situationists is that spectacle is inherently suspect — I have a real problem with that. Though I obviously have a lot of respect for its history. I think a lot of art people have inherited this attitude, which is really problematic — it relates to a kind of inheritance from fascism, that spectacle in itself, is evil.
Obrist: What role does the computer play in your work. Paul Chan says, ‘Linking is beautiful and de-linking is sublime’.
Wardill: De-linking is sublime?
Obrist: There are moments when it is important to disconnect.
Wardill: You know, I was in Chicago giving a lecture and I showed ‘Gamekeepers Without Game’ and a student asked me, ‘What’s the relationship between the white space and me and how am I supposed to enter this white space of your film’? I had to keep on asking him what he meant because I didn’t really understand. In the end, it seemed to me that it was a kind of compression: the film gets compressed and then de-compressed in your head. I think there’s something about what the computer does that has completely changed the way we think about that idea of what images can become and then how they come back to us. Also, it offers up the democratic promise of linking people up, but actually, what you’re doing is looking at a screen and it becomes a different matter. It has the potential to be so much, but that potential very often seems unrealised.
Obrist: It’s a ‘spectacle of’ unrealised projects.
Wardill: [laughs] Maybe so.
Obrist: What’s your favourite mistake? In our western society, it has become very difficult to make use of mistakes.
Wardill: I like when you make mistakes in bookshops and in record shops. When you go to buy something but buy something else. Or, I like it when people read things wrongly.
Obrist: What was the new work you created yesterday?
Wardill: [laughs] What I did yesterday was try to think about a compilation tape I made for a friend when I was a teenager. It had a picture of a woman on it and her spine was the spine of the cassette and I was thinking about how books become bodies.
Obrist: What’s your favourite sport?
Wardill: Curling. Because it makes art look less ridiculous.
Obrist: What’s time?
Wardill: Can I answer that with a quote?
Obrist: Yes of course.
Wardill: ‘The hands of the clock must know where they stand. Otherwise, neither is a watch but only a white face and a trick moustache.’
Obrist: Beautiful. Who said that?
Obrist: What have you forgotten?
Wardill: So many things. [laughs]
Obrist:Do you have dreams?
Wardill: I have really good dreams. I often have dreams where I’m being chased by a faceless predator around a multi-story car park. I have better dreams than that but that’s a re-occurring one.
Obrist: Please tell me about an exhibition that has inspired you?
Wardill: An Anselm Franke one in Antwerp, Animism. It was very atmospheric but also intelligent. It didn’t make this strange disconnection between being emotional or intelligent. It was both things at the same time. Also, I really loved the Richard Wentworth at Lisson about a year ago. You saw all these objects from very different artists, from very different points in their career, but that didn’t matter; they were not named. You looked at them for what they were. You didn’t really understand it but then you saw the film about Rem Koolhaas’ house, shot from the perspective of the cleaner, and you realised in this generous and slow way —‘ah!, that’s it’ — it’s about seeing privilege from another position where it becomes almost comical.
Obrist: What is energy?
Wardill: Is it something to do with the present? I wonder if it is, I wonder if that’s why the present is so scary — why people are constantly deferring it. I mean that’s what money does isn’t it — it defers the present to what it might become.
Obrist: Do you have nightmares?
Wardill: I had a nightmare the night before the Haswell and Hecker laser show at Conway Hall. It haunted me for a long time. There was an old woman lying on top of me, scratching at me. She was still there when I was awake and I had to leave that show— the show was aggressive attacking.
Obrist: Jeannette Laverriere, an extraordinary one hundred-year-old designer in Paris, asks visitors, ‘Are you political?’, and if you say no she doesn’t see you. So are you political or do you think art is political?
Wardill: I think politics has become this difficult thing now — I had a meeting the other day with the poet JH Prynne and he said to me. ‘I think artists are parasitical’, and I said parasitical in what way? I think there’s been this thing that politics has done very slowly, which is to create the idea that art is somehow parasitical and kind of dangerous. That it’s sort of fluffy. That it’s a useless thing and has been replaced by a weird sort of rationality, which is all to do with the way we spend and the way we serve and what we conserve. The government somehow doesn’t allow any sense of responsibility for that and I find that really terrifying and think it’s going to get worse. So, yes I’m political. It’s completely necessary to be political right now.
Obrist: And the future is?
Wardill: I’m not a predictor. I thought that’s what you do.
Obrist: I listen to artists. I’m not predicting anything. Last question: what kind of cameras do you use?
Wardill: I use everything, everything’s a technology. A lot of the time I’ve used an old Bolex camera, but then the last thing I shot was on HD with 35 mm lenses.
Obrist: Do you have collections? Do you collect art or found objects?
Wardill: I collect cassettes and records, CDs and sort of collect books. I’d like to collect art but can’t afford the art I’d like to collect.
Obrist: What would you like to collect?
Wardill: I’d collect Rembrandt’s ‘Abduction of Proserpina’, Hans-Peter Feldmann’s ‘All The Clothes of A Woman’, Hollis Frampton’s ‘Nostalgia’. Oh, lots of things. Actually, I was sort of inspired by the way that you ask questions, to go around asking people if they could collect ten things, what would it be? It’s a nice question to ask people.
Obrist: And you’ve got already some answers?
Wardill: Yeah, lots of people have different answers, and lots of people say they wouldn’t collect anything. They don’t feel like they should.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is co-director of exhibitions and programmes and director of international projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London