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A Day in the Life of Hans Ulrich Obrist

After 25 years in the art world, the Serpentine Galleries’ artistic director is more prolific than ever.

THE MIND OF SWISS curator Hans Ulrich Obrist twists and turns as he threads together observations, theories and opinions into an infinite web. “I believe in embracing chance in the process—serendipitous moments happen every day,” he says. Obrist, 48, is the artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, and true to his word, he always leaves time in his packed schedule for drop-in meetings. On this particular blustery day in June, unplanned visits from American neurologist Israel Rosenfield and Italian architect Stefano Boeri are interspersed between meetings about upcoming exhibits on interdisciplinary artists Marc Camille Chaimowicz and Helen Marten and the annual Serpentine Marathon, a two-day creative symposium held every October. He uses his frequent bucolic walks between the two Serpentine galleries, on either side of Serpentine Lake, to squeeze in numerous phone calls.

Obrist developed his obsession with art as a teenager in Zurich, collecting postcards from galleries and museums and politely imploring artists he admired, like duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, to let him visit their studios. After studying social science and economics at the University of St. Gallen, he made his official foray into the art world in 1991 with a show staged in the kitchen of his student apartment. It caught the attention of the Fondation Cartier in Paris, which gave him a fellowship; that in turn led the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris to offer him the position of “head of migratory curation.” In 2006, Julia Peyton-Jones brought Obrist to the Serpentine Galleries as her co-director (she recently stepped down and the institution named trustee Yana Peel as CEO).

Throughout his career, Obrist has always taken positions created specifically for him, rather than applying for preset jobs. And his engagement with the art world extends beyond the exhibition hall. Since 1996, for example, he has amassed an estimated 2,700 hours of recorded interviews with creative legends like Zaha Hadid and Gerhard Richter. Ever questioning, he continues to push the boundaries of his role. “The term curator has become overused,” he says. “I prefer the German word Ausstellungsmacher (“maker of exhibitions”) or [J.G.] Ballard’s notion of ‘junction maker’—making connections between objects, non-objects and people.”

Obrist by the Numbers

52 weekends a year The amount of time Obrist regularly spends away from London.

32,240 shows The number of art exhibits Obrist estimates he has attended in his lifetime.

3 quotes The tally of phrases and fragments, written mostly on sticky notes, the curator photographs and posts to his Instagram nearly every day.

320 exhibitions The number of shows Obrist has staged, including his first, a group presentation in the kitchen of his student apartment in 1991.

1 night assistant The person Obrist employs to handle his correspondence overnight. “It means I can wake up more or less rested,” he says.

40,000 books The number of volumes Obrist owns between his homes in London and Berlin. He orders at least one a day.

2,700 hours The total duration of the interviews Obrist has recorded to date. He has published 40 volumes of these conversations.

12,000 email addresses The number saved in Obrist’s contacts.

40 countries The global stops of Obrist’s ongoing exhibition Do It, which has been running since 1994.

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