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The lives of the artists, according to Hans Ulrich Obrist

Artists and architects talk at length about their work

According to a recent New Yorker profile, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has published no fewer than 40 volumes of interviews, culled from an estimated 2,400 hours of recordings. This year, the people at Penguin and Allen Lane have decided that what the world needs most is another volume.

Its title—Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects—implies that this is a grand survey of the titanic figures of our age, a joined-up thesis akin to Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times. Vasari, however, this is not.

Vasari, often considered the first art historian, had his own promotional agenda, his own local heroes, as well as scores to settle and axes to grind. Although Obrist undeniably has a cohort of colleagues whose names recur throughout his projects (among them, represented in this book, are Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Philippe Parreno, Marina Abramovic and Rem Koolhaas), he is not a polemicist, nor a partisan blowhard, as Vasari seems to have been. That is probably to his credit.

The diversity of people interviewed in Obrist’s latest volume, which is published this month, could be either appealing or confusing, depending on your expectations. Along with canonical artists like Gerhard Richter and Richard Hamilton, whose observations here have probably been rehearsed many times before, lesser-known figures keep things lively. The 98-year-old black South African artist Ernst Mancoba talks rivetingly about life under apartheid (he had to argue to be allowed to read Paul Guillaume and Thomas Munro’s 1926 book Primitive Negro Sculpture in a library) and his subsequent membership of the avant-garde movement CoBrA while living in a village near Copenhagen.

Similarly, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, an Iranian artist who emigrated to the US in the 1940s and hung out with Pollock and De Kooning, relates her unusual journey. Others are better known but no less idiosyncratic. Louise Bourgeois tells a story about an albino chambermaid who seduced her brother; Obrist seems flummoxed. “So she’s another peripheral figure, even though you were so close?” he offers, weakly.

The ubiquitous Obrist’s eagerness to place himself in the spotlight, while simultaneously revealing so little of himself, is a major part of his enigma. He presents his questions with the deferential phrasing of the arts professional. He is a shameless name-dropper and speaks, to a disconcerting degree, in references and quotations. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Édouard Glissant and, oddly, Jacques Delors are among his favourites.

Although Obrist is known for his indefatigable energy, this book is editorially rather lazy. The majority of the interviews have been published before, and they are tossed together with virtually no footnoting or contextual information, which often makes them hard to interpret. And in between the occasional anecdotal zinger, inevitably the conversations tend to be rather dull.

Talking to Abramovic, Obrist betrays what is probably the most objectionable aspect of his modus operandi: that he does not mind being boring. During the 24-hour “marathon” events that he organises each year at the Serpentine Gallery in London, he notes, people often fall asleep. But that does not matter to Obrist. “The important thing is that you don’t disconnect with the experience,” he writes.

If Obrist died tomorrow, he would be fondly remembered as a sincere enthusiast whose prolific output put him in contact with a plethora of contemporary artists, architects and intellectuals, even if many of his actual exhibitions are less memorable. If, however, he lives to 100 (as some of his interviewees have), then what will be his most enduring legacy?

Aside from being “a protest against forgetting” (a phrase Obrist uses more than once in the book), Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects is a demonstration of a certain kind of transdisciplinary thinking about global culture that is stridently contemporary, and which Obrist and his colleagues have embraced, even pioneered. Architects—and several are included here—take to Obrist’s peripatetic mode of working more naturally than most artists, who by and large prefer to think about themselves.

Koolhaas, who features prominently, talks about participating in a think tank tasked with analysing the iconography of Brussels. Umberto Eco was there, as was “a French movie-maker” and “the guy who invented Swatch”. You can bet that Obrist would have given his right arm to have been part of a conversation like that.