Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects, by Hans Ulrich Obrist - book review: Superstar curator delivers entertaining art conversations

The conversations are entertaining, meandering, revealing and obfuscatingly enigmatic

Fisun Gner
Monday 11 May 2015 18:07 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


I'm not sure that anyone who'd permit their doodles and "notes to self" to be collated and sold as a book deserves to be treated with anything other than scepticism. But if it's Hans Ulrich Obrist, the 46-year-old "uber-curator" currently resident at the Serpentine Gallery (where he is co-director), those impenetrable scribbles are bound to receive publicity.

Think Like Clouds, published in 2013, promised to "get inside the creative mind" of one of most influential figures in the world of contemporary art. A figure always hovering near or at the top of those "most powerful" lists, Obrist is a name synonymous with the rise of the superstar curator, the kind of art world operator who knows less about art history and connoisseurship and more about being a biennale-hopping mover and shaker. This is curator as assured social networker. Above all, Obrist is an individual who thrives on making connections.

This brings us to his long chats with artists. The Swiss-born curator has been recording his conversations with artists since the time he set up his first makeshift gallery in his kitchen, aged 23. With its nod to Vasari, this is a compilation of these extended dialogues – he explains in the intro that he prefers "conversations" rather than "interviews" since they go on indefinitely, over a span of many years, and often take place on the hoof: on trains, in cafés, as well as in studios.

The book features edited excerpts (distilled, we are told, from over 2,000 hours), with 14 artists and five architects, seven of whom, including Louise Bourgeois, Richard Hamilton and Oscar Niemeyer, who are no longer alive. Others, such as David Hockney and Gerhard Richter, are elder statesmen.

The conversations are entertaining, meandering, revealing and obfuscatingly enigmatic. Few references are explained, as if you, too, are at the epicentre of the art world and merely eavesdropping at the next table. Obrist has a penchant for asking leftfield questions. "What's your view of Michael Jackson?" he asks, out of the blue, to which Marina Abramovič gives a typically flaky response. "This was a good end," she says, "because an artist has to know how he lives, when he should stop working and how he dies." Rather amusingly, Abramovič gives a jealously ungenerous account of fellow performance artist Yoko Ono.

The most enjoyable chat is with Hockney, still boyish with irrepressible enthusiasm, while the shortest, with Bourgeois, is probably the least enjoyable, the most confounding. Bourgeois is a sly old bird, seeming to confess everything while revealing nothing.

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