The name Hans Ulrich Obrist resounds throughout the art world. He has been deemed the most prolific curator of his generation. Obrist is known for his role as director of the Serpentine Gallery in London as well as his prodigiously prolific long-form interview project. He is notorious for the volume and rapidity of his speaking. Architect Rem Koolhaas once wrote of him, “Usually those afflicted with logorrhea do not stimulate others to communicate, in his case, he rushes to let others do the talking.” Obrist appears to have an endless font of energy from which to draw, often traveling fifty out of fifty two weekends of the year to places all across the globe. This boundless energy has earned him the title “the curator who never sleeps.”
Obrist was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1968. Growing up he appreciated the availability of art in his home country but always knew he would eventually leave Switzerland. In 1991, while a student in St. Gallen studying politics and economics, Obrist mounted an art exhibition in his kitchen which he titled The Kitchen Show. The exhibition, which featured work by Peter Fischli, Christian Boltanski, and David Weiss gained Obrist international attention. In 1996, Obrist curated Manifesta 1, the first of the now well-known roving European biennial of contemporary art.
Obrists link to Fischli and Weiss began when he was 17 years old. While taking in their work at a show at Basel, Obrist decided he would try to meet the artists. He explained to The Guardian, “I went to the studio of Fischli Weiss and it was magical. I thought: this is what I want to do with my life, I want to work with artists and be useful to them.” This was the beginning of Obrist’s ceaseless journey. “They questioned me and made me think and sent me to other artists.”
Of his work, Obrist has always maintained that he wishes to be of use to artists who he has described as “the most important people on the planet.” He seems to have an almost compulsive need to preserve and archive art and artists. It is not uncommon for Obrist to travel of a weekend to a far flung location to interview an artist, often using three recorders to ensure that nothing of the interview is lost.
In 2006, Obrist helped to found, along with Markus Miessen, the Brutally Early Club. Open to all, the club is a discussion group that meets at 6:30 am at Starbucks in London, Berlin, New York, and Paris. Of the club, Obrist explains, “I founded a club, which is called the Brutally Early Club. It’s basically a breakfast salon for the 21st century where art meets science meets architecture, meets literature.”
Obrist is also a prolific writer with countless titles to his name. He is a contributing editor for many publications including Artforum, 032c, and Paradis Magazine. Obrist has published volume upon volume of interviews in his series titled The Conversation. Each volume contains his discussions with some of the art world’s most famous and influential people. Obrist has also written many books on curating both on his own and in collaboration with others. In 2016 he published Ai Wei Wei Speaks with Hans Ulrich Obrist in which he interviewed the artist about everything from his professional influence to his childhood in exile.
His work at Serpentine Gallery, where he has co-curated with Julia Peyton-Jones for over a decade, has made the space one of the world’s top boutique art spaces. Obrist maintains his presence at Serpentine during the week reserving weekends for his unceasing movement around the globe. The Guardian reported that Obrist never cooks and that he “barely sleeps.”
Obrist’s fascination with curation led him to wonder about the history of the profession. In his early twenties when he began researching the topic he discovered a dearth of information. Obrist has said, “at a certain moment when I started doing my own shows, I felt it would be really interesting to know what is the history of my profession. I realized that there was no book, which was kind of a shock.” Obrist, through his writing, has rectified this situation, filling in the history of curation through volumes of writing.
It was clear from a very early age that Obrist would build his career through sheer determination. His endless quest to capture the art world for all to see has brought him to every corner of the world. He has curated the greats and been at the forefront of some of the modern powerhouses in the art world. It has been said of Obrist that he talked his way to the top. The Conversations contains over 2,400 hours of interviews with some of the greatest minds in art today. Obrist has twice been named by ArtReview in their Power 100 as the most powerful individual in the contemporary art world. In 2016 when he earned the title for the second time, the panel at ArtReview cited his energy and “the fact that he connects so many people; he’s everywhere.”