The art of the master curator

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in New Delhi
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The world’s most famour curator remains relevant by creating what he calls Gesamtkunstwerk, a comprehensive work of art. A reading of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Ways of Curating
One of the more recent, though by now ubiquitous, additions to the vocabulary of the art scene in India is the word ‘curate’. Like most postmodern jargon, its usage seems to be quite elastic. One hears its various cognates—curator, curating and curated—being bandied about in many spheres of activity, usually with a hint of creativity in them. From conceptualising the menu of a restaurant to planning the collection of an indie bookstore to organising a fashion show, the act of curating could apply to a wide range of activities we tend not to consciously associate it with. But most commonly it is used in the context of putting together an exhibition of artworks, usually at a gallery or a museum, and less often, at a public space.

In India, curating almost always refers to stuffing the white cube of an art gallery or a room of a museum with as many objects as possible, usually with little rhyme or reason for their coexistence. Except for a few institutions, the tendency is to not let even a square inch of wall space go waste. The result is thoughtless clutter and no real synergy in all that is crammed within the four walls. At best, the task of the curator boils down to producing a concept note replete with esoteric theories and unpalatable prose that turns the process of looking at art tedious and deadening.

The real task of a curator, of course, is more challenging, and sophisticated. The word ‘curate’ comes from the Latin verb curare (to care), and ideally points to a person who functions as a carer as well as a caretaker. Broadly speaking, a curator is supposed to help artists realise their projects, enable them to articulate their ideas in the best possible way, and devise a network for the circulation of the work as widely as he or she can. In a sense, he or she acts as a dot connector, creating bridges between different cultures, continents and creators. These connections are not only forged by organising exhibitions but also, literally, through peregrinations across the globe, by meeting people, speaking to them, figuring out the means to help them fulfil their creative urges, and studying existing examples of successful curation in various cultures.

The person who perhaps epitomises the role of the contemporary curator is a Swiss citizen currently resident in the UK. Hans Ulrich Obrist, better known as HUO in the international art circuit, was born in Zurich in 1968 and grew up in a small town near Lake Constance in Switzerland. Currently employed with the Serpentine gallery in London, he is, more properly described, a nomad of the art world. In a profile in The New Yorker last year, HUO was called a ‘traveller’, which turned out to be a rather innocuous description for one who has ‘made roughly two thousand trips in the past twenty years’. As the writer went on to inform us, HUO had made roughly 50 trips over the past 52 weekends before he met him, a feat that even a clockwork creature may fail to survive.

I have been familiar with HUO’s work for a while, especially the marathon interviews he conducts with some of the most distinguished artists of this century and the last, many of which have been collected and published in several volumes. But it was only after reading his latest work, Ways of Curating, a memoir of sorts written with Asad Raza, that I could get a glimpse of his manic imagination and the superhuman stamina that informs everything he does.

It is hard to avoid hyperbole while writing about HUO, a man of dramatic and sweeping confessions. Encounters with great artists do not simply touch or even transform his life. Rather, one is told breathlessly, ‘The meeting with [the Italian artist, Alighiero] Boetti in 1986 changed my life in a day’ or that ‘I was born in the studio of Fischli and Weiss,’ referring to Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the most important artistic duo in Switzerland in the 20th century. Soon enough, Obrist goes on to admit his admiration for the work of Hans Krüsi, who had worked ‘following an encyclopedic don’t-stop principle, filling paper, canvas, notepads—whatever he could get hold of—in an endless drawing activity’.

There is a reason why Obrist is attracted to such obsessive types. Brimming with energy, he has spent the larger part of the last two decades rushing around the world, getting himself invited to the studios of some of the most formidable artists of the last hundred years, ranging from the French-born American Louise Bourgeois to the German master Gerhard Richter, and engaging them in intense conversations. Most of these ‘interviews’, he claims, have taken place in transit, in taxis, trains and flights, and have been recorded with three devices for fear of losing the content, including a video camera. The transcripts of a number of these conversations have been published in journals and as books, but there is perhaps a fascinating multimedia work waiting to be pieced together with the vignettes of this burgeoning archive of recordings.

Obrist’s reputation as the king among curators have come at a price—if it could be called that. In his youth, he followed Balzac’s experiment of drinking dozens of cups of coffee through the day in order to minimise his sleeping hours. Later, he tried Leonardo da Vinci’s method of sleeping for 15 minutes every three hours. Till date, he prefers his meetings to start early, at 6.30 am to be precise. At an hour when most of humanity is struggling to wipe off the fog of sleep from their eyes, HUO’s brain is already in overdrive, his famously hurried speech busily enunciating a torrent of thoughts and theories.

One of the most persistent questions Obrist asks in his interviews pertains to the ‘unrealized projects’ of the artists he speaks with. The notion was planted in his head by Boetti, who felt that ‘curating could be about making impossible things possible’. One of Boetti’s own unrealised projects was ‘to do an exhibition for one year in all the airplanes of an airline, so that they would be flying the exhibition around the world every day and, in some cases, returning each evening’. Obrist took up the challenge. The result was a jigsaw puzzle that was circulated on all the aircraft of a Swiss carrier for passengers to solve.

In Ways of Curating, intriguing collaborations such as these are recounted in short bursts, the episodic quality of the narrative closely reflecting the galloping pace of HUO’s thoughts and speech. But more than the realisation of the individual projects—most of which are supported by the financially indulgent environs of the developed world— what remains striking, and of more universal importance, is HUO’s distinctive vision of the role of the curator.

The curator, as he humbly keeps clarifying with dogged humility throughout the book, is not expected to flourish his own personality or even show off his creativity. He is rather just a conduit for the creative expression of others. The most meaningful way for him to remain relevant is by helping bridge the gap between various disciplines, by designing a practice that brings together various media (colour, film, sound, word, moving and still images, and so on) and genres (literature, art, sculpture, music, painting and so on) to create a Gesamtkunstwerk —a comprehensive and totalising work of art. The best way to do this, according to HUO, is by immersing oneself in as many disciplines as possible and allow a cross-pollination of ideas. In this regard, he is particularly fond of the principle of ‘creolization’ propagated by French thinker Édouard Glissant, which, simply put, ‘makes it possible to say that neither each person’s identity, nor a collective identity, are fixed and established once and for all’. Apart from the hilosophical appeal of the idea at an individual and a communal level, it is anyway a condition common to inhabitants of post colonial societies and among migrant populations in the diaspora—people who are always already exposed to intersections of multiple cultures since birth.

In a country like India, where opportunities for such complex utterances are myriad and easily available, the paucity of adventurous forms of curating is a real pity. The quality of curating, of course, also depends on the depth of the curator’s immersion in the multiplicity of his subjects. While having a magpie mind, he is expected to be a catholic and eclectic reader, a Renaissance Man who is able to join the dots between seemingly disparate areas of knowledge. In HUO’s case, his appetite for learning is perfectly matched by his exhaustive collection of books, numbering over 10,000: he had to buy an apartment in Berlin just to store these volumes.

Although the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk was first applied to the music of German composer Richard Wagner in the 19th century, its potential can be extended to other fields, especially in the richly interconnected world we live in. Perhaps the closest to the ideal of a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk is the internet—in which sight and sound, word and image, idea and imagination enrich one another through repeated and infinitely regenerating encounters.

Always alert to the possibility of bridging distances, Obrist is keenly aware of the potential of the internet. Like most of his obsessions, his love affair with Instagram, for instance, began accidentally, but has morphed into a single-minded devotion. The nanomuseums of the future, he is claimed to have said, would be housed in our iPhones. Knowing his ability to pull off far more implausible ideas, this probably has the potential to become a reality soon.