Michelle Kasprzak's views on contemporary art curating

Review: A Brief History of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist

Posted by Michelle Kasprzak • Monday, December 27. 2010 • Category: Reviews & Resources

Hans Ulrich Obrist, renowned art world figure who hangs out at the top of the ArtReview Power 100 (which is indicative of something, no matter what one thinks of that list) released a book of interviews with eleven pioneer curators entitled A Brief History of Curating. Despite his status as super-curator, whilst reading this book the larger-than-life personality named on the front cover will fade into the background, as Obrist wields a light touch throughout.

The interview format is a tricky one to master. I attempted to include interviews as a key feature of (see my interviews with Karen Gaskill and Alissa Firth-Eagland), but I put the series on permanent hiatus precisely because the format is demanding on both the interviewer and the interviewee. Interviewers are susceptible to overt attempts to appear clever with unnecessarily ornate questions (one envisions a desperate goose trying to lay a golden egg) and interviewees can veer on the side of over-cautiousness in their responses.

Obrist takes the interview format and works it well. He name drops, but rarely does the reader get the sense that he's doing it gratuitously. Obrist sometimes refers to other interviews that he's included in this book when posing questions, which cleverly develops links between the otherwise discrete stories for the reader. His questions are mostly brief and keep the focus off of him and where it belongs, which is on his subjects. He takes a difficult form that looks easy, and makes it look really easy.

Readers will be appreciative that he is so expert at orchestrating these conversations, because the subjects are truly fascinating. The curators interviewed in the book mostly began their careers in the 60s and 70s, and some of them are now deceased. The book intentionally focuses on this time period, which is not far behind us at all, but feels like a different planet compared to the contemporary art world today: Pontus Hulten describes bringing a "Mondrian to the gallery in a taxicab"; Jean Leering recounts jumping from studying architecture and doing military service to becoming Director of the Van Abbemuseum. While some of those stories are extraordinary and highlight difference, other interviews show that little is changed as well, for good and for ill: Walter Zanini describes how it is "normal" for museum officials to work collaboratively with artists, something that happens routinely today; and Lucy Lippard described protests at MoMA over "neglect of women artists" (among other things), a situation which definitely persists. One cannot help but read the situations described by the curators in the book and speculate on how these same situations might be handled today, and this is fine: it helps us understand what the past was like, get to grips with what our situation is like now, and imagine what ideal amalgam of past and present attitudes we might hope to forge for the future.

This book is definitely for those embedded in the art world. There are too many key exhibitions and historical moments and figures mentioned by both Obrist and his interviewees to make the book accessible to a wider public. That said, in a time of "for Dummies" manuals on one end and highly academic texts on the other, it's wonderful to have a book that is simply an informative and easygoing read, with the interviews so smoothly woven together, and yet still for a specialised audience.

More info and to buy: A Brief History of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist

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