In Studio with Hans Ulrich Obrist (Part 1)

SO: In Studio with Sharon Obuobi is about being in the studio in terms of a place of working, of creation. So it was only fitting that I include you in this series as a feature, since you’re so involved in fostering conversation and dialogue in the arts.

Before we met in the summer, I read about you online, of course, and one of the things that really intrigued me was how you started as a young person, being so curious about art, researching, exploring, going to museums. You held your first show in your kitchen in 1991, what pushed you to create a show without any feeling restricted at a young age?

HUO: I suppose it had to do with conversations with artists - everything I’ve ever done grew out of conversations with artists. Switzerland is an incredibly dense landscape of museums, and I quickly became acquainted with art, more and more attracted by art, and then more and more obsessed by art. At a certain moment, after having been obsessed with the long figures of Giacometti, it extended to the contemporary when I saw a show in 84/85 as a teenager. I felt a great urgency to meet the artists - connecting to your series - to see the studio, where the work happens. I suppose being an art obsessed teenager, having accumulated a certain amount of knowledge - because I traveled endlessly and non-stop by night trains in Europe - I was interesting for the artists because they invited me back. For me it was my school.

Three Men Walking, Giacometti  via

Three Men Walking, Giacometti via

So little by little, I systematically visited in Italy, the Arte Povera artists. I would go to Amsterdam to see Lawrence Weiner, the father of conceptual art, and be my own school. I learned everything first hand and somehow from the artists. I also learned about developing new rules of the game and coming up with new formats for exhibiting. Then Fischli and Weiss and Christian Boltanski advised me to do something in my kitchen. It all grew out of these conversations, and I suppose to have started so early was a great advantage because by the time I was 20, I had already accumulated a lot of encyclopaedic knowledge. So by 23, I was ready to start my curatorial trajectory.

You can almost say it’s a chain reaction which unfolded. It’s a bit like in one of these photographs with Fischli and Weiss, with the equilibrium with the famous set in motion. Then at a certain moment when I was 17/18, I went to see Alighiero Boetti, and that became the famous meetings of my trajectory. Rosemarie Trockel was an important encounter, and she said something very important. She said I should see very old people and learn the wisdom from them. I shouldn’t just see artists of my generation. That prompted me to see Louise Bourgeois in New York. I started to apply Trockel’s methodology, and I would go to cities to find out about the pioneers, and forgotten instigators of important parts of art history.

That methodology led me to many rediscoveries of artists from all backgrounds and geographies whose work needed to be reseen like Etel Adnan, the great Lebanese poet/artist, and the late Ernest Mancoba, the South African artist one of the only African members of the COBRA group. I recorded his interview as part of a series to protest against forgetting. Boltanksi asked me to do a show in my kitchen on pioneers. So this extreme proximity I’ve had always had, and still have with artists led me to all kinds of adventures.

Christian Boltanski, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Chiara Parisi  via

Christian Boltanski, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Chiara Parisi via

SO: So as I understand you visit, every weekend you’re somewhere visiting artists...

HUO: Yes, I still continue..


SO: .. and so having visited so many artists over a long period of time, what would you say are the common characteristics that you see in most artists - maybe personality, in process, or the way they seek to create. What strikes you as a commonality throughout?

HUO: It’s more the non-commonalities which are striking, because a lot of these artists are unique inventors of worlds. They put a world into the world or, put a world to the world. A lot of the great artIsts I’ve met or discovered, went somewhere where no one has been before. I think they are among the most people who work on the planet. From our time, if you think of previous centuries, what we remember from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 20th century, are the great artists, the great poets, the great novelists. I realized at a certain moment, there might be historic figures among our contemporaries, so I became interested and passionate about working with these historic figures, and having a utility to be useful.


SO: You’re well known for one of your first exhibitions called “Do It”, and in this exhibition, visitors are given instructions to use for participation. What was your initial objective for creating this? How do you feel about it, at this point looking back at it?

HUO: Yes, it’s obviously one of the most traveled exhibitions of our history. I suppose it’s rather kind of similarly like “Family of Man”, it’s been everywhere on our continent. The astonishing thing is that because it is a show - as you said - constituted of instructions, and people can just do it, it’s not stopped since it was initiated in 1993, so it’s been on the road for 23 years.

do it Thai Version (archive) by Surasi Kusolwong via  ICI

do it Thai Version (archive) by Surasi Kusolwong via ICI

SO: Wow..

HUO: ..nonstop, right? As we speak at the moment in January 2017, there are 4 or 5 “Do It”s incarnations present. So there’s always at least one, very often 2 or 3 or 4 versions. It’s become a very big archive. At the beginning, the goal was to have dialogue with artists, because I’d never do an exhibition which is not deeply rooted in this dialogue. Otherwise, it’d be instrumentalizing art, and that would not be right, it needs to be defined by art.

So Christian Boltanski already played a big role in the kitchen show, and Bertrand Lavier initiated the idea of an exhibition with instructions. I researched and I found out that Lucy Lippard had done it in the 60s/70s. and worked on the conception of democratization of art, because art history from the 19th to 20th century, was a history of objects. In the 60s it changed, and in sync with this change I started an exhibition of instructions.

The 90s were a very different moment, much more global, and I realized that these instruction exhibitions mostly involved North American and European artists. I felt by that we needed to look at Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East. There was a true polyphony of centers, it was 2 or 3 years after ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ taking place in Paris. I felt we could do an instruction show which is not just North American and European, but we could go to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and each time it goes to a place, also learn from the local context.

I felt it would be interesting to do an instruction exhibition and use this mondialité in a positive way, because there are positive and negative sides to the mondialité. At the moment we emphasize all the negative sides, there is a big backlash, but we should never forget that this global dialogue brought forward a lot of positive sides. Behind you, is the quote by Etel Adnan, ‘The world needs togetherness, not separation, love not suspicion, a common future, not isolation.’

(Continue on to Part 2)

Sharon Obuobi