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VISUAL ART: An object lesson in what goes where

Curating an exhibition is an art in itself. And a 31-year-old Swiss is the best in the business. Marcus Field met him
When Hans Ulrich Obrist was 23, he curated a show of contemporary art in his kitchen. Work by big names such as Christian Boltanski and Richard Wentworth jostled for attention with his crockery and cooking utensils. "It was publicised by rumours," recalls Obrist, of the show in St Gallen, Switzerland. "I had 30 visitors in three months." Seven years later the 31-year-old is a rising star in the world of independent art curators and behind an intriguing exhibition which opens at the Sir John Soane Museum in London this week.

Obrist's idea for the show, which is co-curated by British artist Cerith Wyn Evans, is to bring together an eclectic group of artists and architects - from Steve McQueen to Rem Koolhaas - to make new work in response to Soane's eccentric home. Even the exhibition title "Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow" is "designed" by artist Douglas Gordon and is installed as a text work at the entrance and exit of the museum.

This installation of art in an unexpected environment and in dramatic juxtaposition to older work is typical of the creative curatorial approach for which Obrist is now known. For the past six years he has been working part-time at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris where he is responsible for an ongoing series of "Migrator" shows in which artists are invited to putwork in any part of the museum, from the galleries to the cafe and shop. A particularly memorable show by Douglas Gordon infiltrated the museum's phone system, and, with graffiti, the toilets.

Obrist's projects at the museum soon gained him an international reputation and invitations to curate shows abroad. He has put Boltanskis in a monastery and installed Richters at Nietzsche's house. But his highest profile show to date is "Cities on the Move", a travelling exhibition of work by Asian artists and architects which alters and expands in each location. The show, now in Finland, made a stop at the Hayward Gallery this summer where it was installed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. "I don't think 'Cities on the Move' was a particularly good exhibition at first," says Obrist. "But the idea of an exhibition being a definitive statement is wrong. It is just a beginning, in the Deleuzian sense."

Obrist's conversation is peppered with such references, and with theory- speak buzz words like "signifier", "dialogue" and "interdisciplinarity". His evident interest in contemporary philosophy has led him to question the validity of traditional environments for showing art. "But I have always worked between museums and non-museums. It's never been about leaving the white cube," he says. "Sometimes I work in galleries, sometimes it's a CD-Rom or a book or in an aeroplane." Together with the Museum in Progress in Vienna ("no building, just a fax machine and an email address") he once persuaded Austrian Airlines to hand out a set of art puzzles to its passengers for a whole year.

Such provocative propositions have made Obrist a guru for young curators interested in how the form of the art show might change. "Exhibitions are quite behind and too closely linked to the idea of the book," he says. "If one talks about interdisciplinarity and complex dynamic processes, I think it's only just begun." Instead of clear narrative paths in the traditional sense, Obrist likes to leave exhibition routes up to viewers. He also thinks shows should change as they travel the world. "Otherwise," he says, "they just become like Starbucks."

If anybody is energetic enough to push the boundaries of the exhibition format it is Obrist, who is famous for his punishing travelling schedule and fast talk. (He finds it difficult to be in Switzerland now, he says, "because Swiss German is so slow". Instead he lives in Paris "because they speak faster".) For six or seven months a year Obrist travels the world visiting studios of artists and architects. He also delivers 50 to 70 international lectures a year. "It's a hyper-accelerated speech with hundreds of slides. I'm developing a lecture type where there is no longer a beginning and no longer an end. It's a way to give everything I know to place when I visit rather than just take things away."

Being Swiss, says Obrist, has been formative in his rise to globe-trotting curator. "I grew up on the corner of three countries, so I went to school in Switzerland, lunch in Austria and to the cinema in Germany. National boundaries mean nothing to me. I grew up in this narrow country and the narrowness pushes you out. That's why I started all this feverish travelling, because I was so traumatised by Swiss claustrophobia."

But just in case any of this makes curating sound like a glamorous career, you should also know about the downside. Does Obrist make lots of money? "It's catastrophic," he says. "With exhibitions it's a zero sum calculation."

'Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow': Sir John Soane Museum, London WC2 (0171 405 2107) 10 December to 25 March