51.5074° N, 0.1278° W
‘London is a journey to the unknown and a journey of discovery.’
Gems in this
Hans Ulrich Obrist is known for both his prolific art and his prolific travels around the world to collaborate with artists. An iconic figure of the art industry, he has twice been named the Most Powerful Person in Art by Art Review.
Originally from Switzerland, he proclaims himself ‘magnetically attracted’ to big cities, the latest being London, where he is the Artistic Director of the Serpentine Contemporary Art Gallery in Kensington Gardens. We spoke with Hans Ulrich about his journey from Zürich to London, where he finds inspiration, and a few unexpected places to visit at 3am.
On where you live
On where you grew up
I grew up in Switzerland in the 1980s. I grew up in a country which was full of museums, so it allowed me to get excited by art because there is such a density of museums in Switzerland. I was very grateful for a lot of things I could experience as a kid.
On what first motivated you to move abroad
I always said, in terms of writing, when you’re too comfortable in a language it’s kind of more productive when you’re in a language that is not your mother tongue — that slight discomfort is actually very productive for the brain and thinking. And so I felt a great desire to step outside my own language into different languages. In school, I learned Russian, Spanish, French, English, German, to kind of get ready to leave. I had that plan already when I was 11. I wanted to leave as Switzerland doesn’t really have a big city, so there isn’t really a metropolitan space. I was always magnetically attracted to bigger cities — I’d go by night train to Milan to Rome to Paris to Berlin, to the bigger cities around Switzerland.
On your relationship with London
You keep discovering new things in London. It’s very different, in a way, from a city which has a grid, which at a certain moment you can orient yourself in the grid where everything is overseeable. Instead of having this masterplan, London is very self-organised and it just kept growing, and it means that almost every day you discover new things still, after ten years.
The first artists I met in London were Gilbert & George, they are urban flâneurs who would always go on these endless walks in London and discover everything for their art in the street. I’m basically dyslexic so I’m not really good at orientation and I’m easily getting lost, but I love the idea of getting lost. I love that in London, every day when you go to meetings, you discover new things, which does not happen in many cities after living for ten years in a place. Even in Paris, after a couple of years of the Seine, I always knew where I was. Still, after ten years, London is a journey to the unknown and a journey of discovery.
On how travel influences your creativity
I think, in a way, curating is junction-making, so it’s bringing things together. In a more classical sense, it’s bringing together objects in a space, so a curator makes a junction between objects. In my case, I also make junctions between people as part of my curation. I love bringing people together — artists with other artists, artists with scientists, artists with architects. And so if you start with this premise that the curator is a junction-maker, traveling is essential because I would meet someone last night in Milan and would then connect him or her to someone I meet today in London. I could see an artwork in a specific city and connect it to another artwork in another city, and bring it together in an exhibition. So this is why I have to travel, and also because art has a lot to do with experience. You have to be present and see the art, and experience it in many cases.
On balancing the Serpentine and travel
For me in the ’90s, I was on a night train almost every day, and traveling 300 days a year. Then in 2000, I decided I needed to find another rhythm because I wanted to find some form of concentration. I suppose it has a lot to do with this great book on tempo, which is one of my favorite books of the last couple of years: a book by Venkatesh Rao called Timings Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-Making. It’s all about this tension between action and contemplation. Around 2000, I found my own tempo, which was to actually have a job and do exhibitions locally in a specific city (between 2000 and 2006, it was Paris, and since 2006 is London), and to be anchored in an institution (in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris first, and since 2006 as the artistic director at the Serpentine). Of course, that idea meant that I had found a way to be anchored but still maintain the rhythm where I could make research. That’s why I am in London every week from Monday to Thursday, and then from Friday to Monday I’m researching and traveling. So I continue to have this research mode in which I’ve always been, and at the same time it allows me to concentrate to do my work at the Serpentine.
On balancing work and sleep
In the evenings, I have a night assistant now, so that at night I can work from Monday to Thursday on my books, and I can also sleep, because my night assistant does research, and so I kind of found that tempo. In the ’90s I didn’t really sleep — I had sleep deprivation — but now I sleep around six hours a night.
On finding inspiration in London
Tonight, we are having a Serpentine event at the London Review Bookshop (LRB), which is one of my favorite places. It’s an amazing bookshop for theory and literature. I get a lot of inspiration from bookshops, because even though we live in a digital age, for me, I am still very focused on books, and I have favorite bookshops in every city.
Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is another place which is very dear to me. It’s the 19th century museum of the great architect Sir John Soanes, who built the bank of England. Towards the end of his life, his marriage fell apart and he was alienated from his son and his family life, so he needed a new meaning for the house. He decided that it should become a museum. There are too many paintings to fit into the house so he had to build multiple walls, so there are walls behind the walls. A couple of times a day, the guards open those walls and you see paintings behind paintings, almost like a Russian matryoshka. The house is so dense that whenever you go there it’s like a world within a world; artists are very inspired by it, and you always discover new things. It’s almost like the city itself, you always discover new things.
The Zoo also. I love London Zoo, not particularly because of the animals — I love animals but I don’t really like them to be caged — but because the architecture is very free: the Lubetkin Penguin Pool or the great aviary of Cedric Price. Cedric Price is a great inspiration for me.
On a recent discovery in London
There is London during the day and then there is, of course, London at night. We founded a club called the Brutally Early Club and the OM3AM. I love the idea of impromptu gatherings that you can improvise freely. We’d pop up at a Starbucks or Costa Coffee at 6am; there would be fifty people gathered there and the restaurant or café wouldn’t even know why. It began as a kind of a book club, and then after a couple of years we decided to reinvent it, and thought that the city is very magical at 3am — full of unexpected people and strange encounters — so we started to meet at unexpected locations at three in the morning (OM3AM).
There is a Costa Coffee at Kings Cross St Pancras that is the only one open in London 24 hours, because it’s for stranded travellers, so we engaged with that community of travellers and did an OM3AM event there, where we projected a film. We held an OM3AM at the pedestrian tunnel in Greenwich: a very eerie, surreal place, particularly at night, and we did a project there with a ventriloquist. We did an OM3AM at a service station outside London, where we projected a film on lorries in the middle of the night, and we are planning to do the Hilton in Heathrow which is the favourite hotel of JG Ballard. A very strange hotel.
So this is a strange and unexpected way of experiencing the city and discovering new things.
On a great spot in London
I love Cafe Oto, which is the greatest place in London to listen to music. We also collaborate with them at the Serpentine. It’s a long journey for me to go there from west London to east London but I never regret it.
On a favorite piece from your Instagram project
My favourite is always the most recent one, and we did it last night when I had dinner with Miuccia Prada, Torbjørn Rødland and Nathalie Du Pasquier. The three of them created one for me which is on Instagram @hansulrichobrist.
On your next flight
I’m taking a train, actually to Paris. I love trains. As they say, ‘We can’t complain, we are on a train.’
On London in one word
London is London and everything else is everything else.