How We Met: Hans Ulrich Obrist & Christian Boltanski

'I told him to set fire to the Serpentine, but he felt that that was not a good plan'
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The Independent Online

Hans Ulrich Obrist, 41, is a Swiss-born curator, author and art critic with more than 150 shows under his belt (including more than 40 with Christian Boltanski). He was recently named the most powerful figure in the art world by 'Art Review' and has been the co-director of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery since 2006. He lives in west London

Christian is not only a true visionary, he's always had an incredible generosity to new artists – something I experienced first-hand when I was 17, on a school trip to Paris. I was just a teenager who was obsessed with art; I had some free time, so I contacted Christian and went to see him.

I knew I wanted to do something with art, possibly in a curatorial role, but wasn't sure what yet. He took a whole afternoon to talk to me and it was a revelation that changed my life. He really changed my view on what an exhibition could be – beyond objects on a museum wall; he told me, "We only remember exhibitions that invent a new rule of the game," which I think about almost every day when I do exhibitions.

I went to see him quite regularly after that, and five years later I curated my first show, with the idea of doing it in an unexpected location – my kitchen. Christian was adamant that he wanted to be involved; his support gave me immense courage, and it was very successful, so we did another show, this time exhibiting some of his works at a monastery in St Gallen, Switzerland, where I was living at the time.

Christian was a big influence in my decision to move to Paris shortly after, where I stayed for the next 10 years. We'd just meet in a café, have a drink and think about how to change the world. It was never, "What's the next project?"; it was what we could do that's never been done.

Now that I'm living in London I don't see him as much, but there's never a moment when we're not working on some project together. The ideas are always driven by him; as a curator I try to produce some reality out of our exchanges of thought, which are like intense games of ping pong.

A big part of his work is the idea of memory; his work is a protest against forgetting. Our latest project builds on an archive of heartbeats Christian has taken from all over the world. In the West, death has become invisible; we never directly confront it – but Christian's work makes us think about mortality; it has influenced the way I live my life. I have a sense of urgency – I do everything I can today.

We have intense conversations, but never about our personal lives, as there are too many unrealised dreams to pursue. Christian once said it would be incredible if for every human being there could be a museum. He has so many ground-breaking ideas, there's not a nanosecond to lose on talking about anything else.

Christian Boltanski, 65, is a French sculptor, painter and installation artist who rose to fame through his works on the Holocaust. His huge body of work focuses on themes of death, memory and loss, most notably in his ongoing project, The Heart Archive. He lives with his partner, fellow artist Annette Messager, in Paris

It's always a huge pleasure to talk to Hans because he's totally open to the most stupid, and the strangest, possibilities. We'd be having a conversation in a café and I'd say, "It would be marvellous to paint the Eiffel Tower in pink," and he'd say, "Oh yes, it's possible, but I think in violet it would be better." We can play like that for hours, and then from that we create a show.

There are bigger curators out there, but he's much more than a curator; he's somebody who moves ideas and makes connections with people. Most curators are sad, conservative people; he wants to change the rules – he's an outsider in a way.

It was good for him to have a partner in me when he was starting out. I think it was in Frankfurt, we were having dinner together a few years after he'd first contacted me in 1986. I'd had a few beers and I said, "You must do your first show [as a curator] in your kitchen." And he did it!

For my art, it was very important to have somebody like Hans who takes my ideas seriously and makes them real. Some years ago I came up with the idea of a free art-based newspaper with him over dinner. But he's the one who realised it; found the money, chose the other artists. I'm really proud of a lot of our shows. One, called Do It, began as a discussion over dinner, and was almost a joke: each artist would make a piece for an overall work, but no artist would see the whole thing. Some of my more recent suggestions, he won't do, though: I told him to set fire to the Serpentine, but he felt that that was not a good plan.

When we see each other, even after 24 years, it's always the same conversation: to find ideas and to move ideas; we'll never stop. But while I love him, and he's like a son to me, we don't speak too much about what is inside us; only our art is important. And, like me, he has no other life; I can't imagine Hans watching TV or playing golf. He's so busy, as he is afraid to die. If you think he's in London, he's in New Delhi, if you think he's in New Delhi, he's moved on to Sydney; it's a way to escape the sadness [of death]. It was Tolstoy who decided to die in a railway station. Ulrich is going to die in an airport!

The Heart Archive is at the Serpentine Gallery (serpentinegallery.org) to 6 August

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