Someone tells me that art is the lingua franca of the new global elite and that Hans Ulrich Obrist is its “Davos Man.” I barely know what this means, but it has the truth of a good riff. The Swiss-born curator and writer has put together more than 300 exhibitions since his 1991 “Kitchen” show (literally held in his kitchen) at 23. None of the major ones have been in New York, which probably says something about our city’s centrality in the larger scheme of things. He co-curated the first Manifesta (a roving show in Europe) in 1996, the first Berlin Biennial (1998), the first Moscow Biennial (2005), editions of the Dakar Biennial and the Guangzhou Triennial, the lauded, clamorous “Utopia Station” for the 2003 Venice Biennial, and on and on. He’s often identified with the eruption of biennials, a signpost of art’s junketeer globalism. That was a period of “being on the road 350 days a year,” he says. These days, he’s more anchored, spending weekdays in London, where he co-directs the Serpentine Gallery. He’s also slipped from a “Da Vinci rhythm”—taking fifteen-minute naps every three hours—to a sleeping schedule of “midnight to 4 or 5 a.m.” “You think that’s not much?” he asks, amused. “It’s not really unusual anymore.”
Unlike other art-world frequent fliers, Obrist evinces neither glamour nor ennui. He’s not over anything, even as he’s always on to the next thing. “My work is never against something,” he says. “Curating always follows art, not the other way around—that would be awful.” To the art world, Obrist’s peripatetic itinerary is by now so familiar it seems even cliché to mock the cliché. The buzz is tautological. He brands this sleepless, all-consuming productivity: do it is the name of his book–exhibition platform based on artist instructions. He stages 24-hour interview “marathons” with cultural somebodies. The title of his collected writings is dontstopdontstodontstopdontstop.
“The most important day of my life was when I was 17, and I met [artist Alighiero] Boetti,” Obrist says. “He explained to me how unbelievably limited the art world is: ‘There are the gallery shows and museum shows, the biennales and the one-percent public commissions. But there are thousands of other things an artist would like to do.’ He said, ‘That could be your job. To do all of these.’”