talking about Hans Ulrich Obrist - Fabrizio Gallanti

Posted by Fabrizio Gallanti - 10.16.2009 in Abitare

text by Stefano Boeri

Our long-time collaborator and author, Hans Ulrich Obrist, has been named by the magazine Art Review the “most powerful person” in the art world, leading a list of 100. His may be considered as a soft power, as surely he is not seeking power as his goal: an uncessant hurricane of energy and ideas, connecting artists, critics, writers, thinkers, and practitioners of multiple disciplines. He won this recognition solely for what he gives to the art world (and not only to it) rather than for what he takes. Power therefore is just a consequence of his work and generosity. We are very happy for him.
While I was looking through my hard-disk about him, I found out this text, written three years ago.
It is mine and Abitare’s small hommage to our beloved Hansino.

Mobile Positioning.

(Why Hans Ulrich Obrist is not a curator of contemporary art.

Why Hans Ulrich Obrist is not a critic of contemporary art.)


We are presently experiencing a period of great productivity and great hypocrisy in the field of contemporary art. A hypocrisy that above all concerns the division of roles among production, criticism, and curatorship.

As we know, the criticism and curatorship of contemporary art are supposed to be based on a common order of discourse, which distinguishes them from the sphere of artistic production. It is an order of discourse that functions according to the two great practices of the delimitation of boundaries and classification. Both in fact are called upon to include and exclude authors, works, places, and institutions within categories of value and degrees of excellence.

The critic of contemporary art is supposed to establish the ontological realm in which something new has occurred or is occurring. Within this sphere, he is supposed to constitute families, trends, and perspectives; observe the development of the artists and their works; and grasp and attest the phases of that development, its sudden swerves, declines, and gaps. In short, his task is to historicize the present.

The order of discourse of curatorship, by contrast, is supposed to be based on a fundamentally geographical criterion. The curator is supposed to circumscribe the territories in which new forces are at work, follow and guide the trajectories of artists, construct spaces in which audiences can encounter works of art, and generate exclusions. In short, his task is to create hierarchies of places and institutions.

To summarize: the criticism of contemporary art is supposed to circumscribe and classify at the level of present history that which curatorship is supposed to circumscribe and classify at the level of present geography.

In fact, however, this is not how things actually stand. On the contrary, for some time now these two domains have been in the process of becoming more and more superimposable and superimposed, so that at this point they are virtually synonymous. Among the territories of contemporary art, curatorship has absorbed the role of criticism, and criticism has stretched to the point where it occupies the field of activity of curatorship.

But there is more: the nature of the sphere of the production of contemporary art has changed today as well. It has annexed the bases of criticism and curatorship. From Andy Warhol to Dan Graham and from Alighiero Boetti to Matthew Barney, art has gradually become a delocalized and self-reflexive practice, which eludes geography and purports to historicize itself. The artists move within a global and extremely broad terrain that affords them increasing opportunities to exhibit their work (biennales, fairs, anthological exhibitions, retrospectives) and where trends and tendencies spring more from an artist’s positioning within a particular event than from a classification of genres and poetics.

In fact, as is often pointed out, from this perspective every artist is potentially the author of his own criticism and the curator of his own work.

But however glaringly obvious it may be, this fundamental con-fusion of identities, expectations, and functions continues to be anesthetized and suppressed. Still adrift on this sea of dissolving boundaries are rigid professional roles and constituencies codified according to anachronistic codes and institutions. Curators who pretend they are only curators call on artists who pretend they are only artists to produce works of art to submit to the judgment of critics who pretend they are only plying the critic’s trade.

These roles formally divide up a field of practices fundamentally unified by the dissolving of generic differences.


It is impossible to understand the work of Hans Ulrich Obrist if one ignores the importance of this productive con-fusion and the hypocrisy that continually conceals it.

In spite of his “formal capacities,” Obrist is neither a curator nor even a critic of contemporary art. And this despite the fact that he moves within the order of discourse on which both of these disciplines are based and agrees to take on roles and identities dictated by their respective spheres of activity.

Obrist is not a curator nor even a critic—he simply works on the presently existing state of affairs.

Obrist does not delimit or classify artistic geographical fields or spheres of activity. Instead his work revolves around the concept of positioning. Obrist positions himself, that is, his body within the force field of contemporary art, and he does so in order to intercept and modify the scattered materials that make up the sea of “dissolves” in which the boundaries between the roles are melting away.

Obrist projects the movement of his body throughout the world, and thanks to it he encounters artists, works, reviews, exhibitions, articles, institutions, events, journals, collections, dealers, journalists, archives, schools, installations, museums, performances, seminars, conferences, conventions, workshops, Kunsthallen, gallery owners, and politicians, all of which constitute the materials of global contemporary art.

Obrist’s arrangement of these materials springs from the encounter between them and his “body/sensor.” It does not respond to a criterion of delimitation and classification—established a priori or redefined after the fact—but instead corresponds to a labor of artistic production, one that is arbitrary and changeable, temperamental and omnivorous, and obsessive in its all-encompassing reach: everything deemed notable must be noted, and everyone who wishes to be sought out must be sought out and interviewed. Everyone: artists, architects, philosophers, institutional representatives, filmmakers, politicians, scholars, poets, students, photographers, and even mere witnesses.

Obrist has been working for years on a global artwork on the scattered materials of contemporary art. He is working on the existing state of things with the obsessive single-mindedness of one who knows that he cannot help but travel its entire length and breadth and who is waging a utopian struggle—and this is indeed a utopia in its pure form—against amnesia. A battle to diminish the enormous, growing, and inevitable distance between (individual) memory and (collective) history.

As the ultimate form of body art, mobile positioning—the subjective and mobile interception of artistic practices and experiments—is a necessary and (at least in part) unwitting precondition and strategy of any rigorous effort to work on the sea of contemporary art.

Thanks to the brilliant and transparent arbitrariness of art, Obrist’s work is not only a salutary stocktaking of the existing state of things—it is also a revolutionary condition for overcoming it.

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