Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35

hans ulrich obrist

ART

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
artwork by RONAN BOUROULLEC
portrait by JUERGEN TELLER 

since his teens — traveling on night trains across europe, visiting one artist’s studio after another, searching, talking, interviewing — the swiss curator, a passionate pollinator of art, has never stopped opening the world to unprecedented curatorial possibilities. a vision that is ever inclusive, breaking boundaries and barriers between generations, races, and genders, as well as categories, from architecture to science and philosophy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m thrilled to have you in the Island issue, Hans, exploring the island as a metaphor for new possibilities: utopian or creative ideas that we can experiment with in these complex, chaotic times. And one of the possibilities that you are always working on is words, the importance of exchange. Basically, the idea of an interview. This will be the first-ever Purple interview about the interview. [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — It’s a meta-interview.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, let’s start at the beginning. How did your conversations with artists come about? What’s the story?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — The beginning… I was actually thinking about that today because it really goes back to my high-school days. I grew up in a town called Weinfelden, in the canton of Thurgau in Switzerland, and every morning I’d take a train to Kreuzlingen, where my school was. And on my way to the school from the station, I’d pass by this spooky, abandoned building that reminded me of a sanatorium, with this Thomas Mann vibe. So, one day I asked our teacher about it, and she confirmed it was once a sanatorium that belonged to a famous psychiatrist, [Ludwig] Binswanger, who wrote the pioneering essay in existential psychiatry, “Dream and Existence,” in 1930.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Really?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — She also told me about a famous patient who stayed there, Aby Warburg. And I wanted to find out more about this Aby Warburg, a son of a banker who refused to become a banker and who negotiated with his family to have them give him a payout and buy him as many books as he wanted for the rest of his life. So, he started to build this amazing library, but what was particularly interesting is that he started to do this Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, an ensemble of 63 panels covered in images, photos, and photocopies. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of  pre-Internet, with this idea of associating images, assemblages. Last year, there was an amazing exhibition of his Atlas at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, which brought the originals together from the 1920s, and now, 91 years after his death, there’s also an encyclopedia on this Atlas.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — I started to study the Bilderatlas, and that made me start to have a conversation with art from the past. So, I bought several postcards, and in my room in my parents’ house, I started to do a musée imaginaire [imaginary museum] made out of shoeboxes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — I made an entire museum. My parents were always worried that it would collapse because I put shoeboxes on top, and floors. I built my first museum when I was, like, 15. I was fascinated by this idea of the future being invented with fragments from the past, how signs migrate over time, and by Warburg’s concept of bilderfahrzeuge [image vehicles], based on the automobile quality of images, how images travel through time. I was also obsessed with this idea that he’d created this library. And then something strange happened when I was 17. I went to see an exhibition by Claude Sandoz, a Swiss artist from Lucerne who was having a show in St. Gallen. And after seeing his work, which I got super excited about, I went up to this person and said, “I want to meet the artist.” And she said, “I can’t really give you the number, but we can send him a letter.” This was pre-e-mail.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — So, they wrote him a letter, and he received me in his studio, and it all went very quickly from there. The next week, I went to see Fischli & Weiss, and I arrived in the studio of Peter and David, and that was a kind of revelation because they were doing this extraordinary Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go), which is this amazing chain reaction, where one thing triggers another. So, I’m 17 years old, I’m in the studio, and I witness the making of this amazing film.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Wow.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — From then on, it became a kind of addiction. I would obsessively visit artist’s studios. And I would take the night train — which I do now, actually, because it’s more carbon-neutral. I took the night train all over Europe… I didn’t have money for hotels, so I would just always be overnight in the train.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — I would go to Rome, Vienna… I’d do 60 cities in 60 days. It was a kind of European Grand Tour, only very low budget. I would visit Alighiero Boetti in Rome, Gerhard Richter or Rosemarie Trockel in Cologne, Maria Lassnig in Vienna. Basically, it became this nonstop studio visit.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But beyond the art, it was also very much about speaking with the artist.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes, I was always fascinated by this idea of a conversation with an artist. As a teenager, I read the book Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester over and over. Sylvester, over many years, approached Bacon from all kinds of angles, and I always thought one day I would love to have such conversations with artists. So, that became a kind of trigger. But you’re right: the idea of it being a conversation was clearly part of it. Obviously, at the beginning, I didn’t record them, so the first couple of years are strangely lost. I only have memories of the early conversations.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Mental archives.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — I would go from city to city, and I was also inspired by this idea that one would carry knowledge to the next city and then learn more — that after visiting hundreds of studios, I would also be able to share stories, you know? I was obviously very naive, but from the beginning it was this idea that it would be an exchange, a reciprocal situation. It was 1986-87, there was no Internet, and I had been to many cities in Europe, and I had seen all these studios. So, I had a lot of stories.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you were recommended by the artists, also?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Of course. If you look at The Way Things Go, that’s kind of my early years in the art world: one thing led to the next. So, Fischli & Weiss would send me to Alighiero Boetti. And quite a lot of the methodology was outlined in these early conversations. For example, Alighiero Boetti would say that no one ever asks him about his unrealized projects.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Artists are always invited to do gallery shows, or museum shows, or biennales, but no one ever asks: “Alighiero, what would you like to do? What’s your dream?” And he said: “I wish a curator would come with that question. You should be that person.” So, I was like, “Wow, that could be my task.” And then Rosemarie Trockel would say: “Louise Bourgeois has just become famous, which is great, but there are so many other extraordinary women artists out there who have not been recognized. Someone should just go from city to city and ask, ‘Who is the Louise Bourgeois in town?” It was when she was doing Eau de Cologne, published by her gallerist Monika Sprüth, along with Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger… Artists gave me tasks, and I’ve done these tasks ever since. As you know, I’ve just edited this little magazine, a study in unrealized projects. I still do it every week; I ask artists about their unrealized projects and try to make them a reality.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I love that.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — We recently held shows on Luchita Hurtado and Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and that still comes out of the Rosemarie Trockel methodology. So, in a way, those early night-train journeys very much defined the DNA of everything that would come later.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, these conversations with artists are not just about exploring their methodologies. It’s also basically about the art community, pre-Internet.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — But then obviously, after the ’90s, I started to work a lot with the Internet. Either way, I was still putting in hours to make studio visits. And it’s not only to go back in history and show artists who have been overlooked. It’s also always looking into emerging practitioners and supporting artists at the very beginning. So, the timeline goes in both directions.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the conversation can lead to other projects.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes, exactly, I would then start to work with these artists. I’m a museum director and a curator, so I do my medium, exhibitions, but I’ll sometimes work on books with artists, digital projects, apps, and AR or VR projects. I think it also has to do with visualizing the imaginary of an artist, and of course the imagination of an artist is not something static, but a fluid process that anchors into a relationship with the imagination of the onlooker, of the viewer, and opens up doors to new possibilities of visualizing the world and of multiplying poetic and creolized intentions, instead of reducing everything to a single, uncontaminated meaning. I think it’s important to multiply the meanings, the poetic and creolized intentions, which brings us to my mentor, Édouard Glissant, who is very connected to your Island theme.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell us about him.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — That for me is one of the most important conversations of my life, it completely transformed me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You met him?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Oh yes, we were very good friends, we traveled together, he was my mentor.

OLIVIER ZAHM — At what point did you realize that you should start to record your conversations? Do you do it systematically now?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes, absolutely. So, I began the studio visits in 1986-87, and in around 1991-92, I started to record them. This year, strangely, has actually been the most productive year because I probably recorded 500 or 600 conversations. Because of Covid-19, I did Zoom conversations every day. Then various happenstances led me to do videos. One involved Jonas Mekas, with whom I’ve worked a lot, and who said, “You should just film them, like I do, you just have a little camera on the table, and one day you will be very happy to have it.” So, I’m deeply grateful to Jonas, because maybe a third of my conversations have also been filmed. Then I went to Chicago to see Studs Terkel, he’s one of the greatest oral historians of the 20th century, and he said, “It needs to be a bit shaky and improvised because if you are too good at technology, and you have this really posh equipment, it’s intimidating to people.” So I never have a tripod, I often put the camera or the phone into a coffee cup, or on a book, and then at some point it collapses and falls on the floor…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes [laughs]. It’s interesting that you mention Mekas, because he’s your connection to Warhol in a way. And Warhol was the first to create a magazine and develop a methodology of interviewing. Was Interview magazine an influence?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes definitely, and the idea of recording all the time had a lot to do with Warhol. That I would have this archive of thousands of hours; that I would never not record a conversation with an artist.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, and he would transcribe the entire discussion, leaving in the empty or superficial moments. Do you edit much out?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — That’s an interesting question, because I always love to have the full transcript so that it’s not lost. Then, based on that, there can be sharper edits for magazines or longer edits for books. I never really do the conversations for one context only. I do them because I’m curious…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — And then often people publish them. It can be an art magazine, a fashion magazine, an academic publication, or a museum catalogue. And off it goes, for a specialized academic context, say, or a much more pop context, which I also like.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you consider your conversation as an open, multiple form?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — No, it’s about change, in a way. The other reason Glissant was so important to me was he made me understand that the archive had to be about mondialité. Everything I’ve done since ‘92, ‘93, has in some way been directly inspired by Glissant, whether it’s Do It, or Utopia Station, or Cities on the Move, or Indian Highway. Even now, the work over the last couple of years… I read Glissant every morning for 15 minutes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — In relation to your Island theme, he made me understand that the archive should be an archipelago. That we can actually learn from Antillean geography because, in a way, they are designing groups that don’t have a center, but there are different islands and cultures, and there is an exchange. As Glissant told me, “It’s in these islands that the idea of creolization, the blend of cultures, was brilliantly fulfilled. Because continents reject mixing, whereas archipelagic thought makes it possible to say that neither each person’s identity nor the collective identity are fixed and established once and for all.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — So interesting.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — I can change through the exchange with the other, without losing or diluting my sense of self. And that’s what archipelagic thought teaches us. I loved this idea. My sense of self becomes more complex and more urgent. And this idea of Glissant’s, of the archipelago, we often discussed the idea that the archive of interviews should be a kind of archipelago. And then that the feverish aspect of me recording in so many places in the world has also got to do with the fact that when I entered the art world — and I entered it more or less at the same time as you, in the mid to late ’80s, early ’90s — there were very interesting forces.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — In the mid-’80s, it was a Western-centric art world, and I really wanted to change that, and Glissant gave me a kind of tool to change that by encouraging mondialité. In the late ’80s, globalization started to gain momentum, though this is not the first time the world experienced globalization. There was globalization during the Roman Empire and later on as well. But with the Internet, it became one of the most extreme moments of globalization, and that leads to homogenizing globalization, the disappearance of languages, of many things: extinction, ecological disasters… Glissant was all about resisting the homogenizing forces of globalization, and he also predicted a negative counterreaction in the worrying re-emergence of nationalism, new forms of localism and the refusal of solidarity. He offered the metaphor of the archipelago as an alternative model of global thinking, based on an exchange from one island to the other that doesn’t cause the loss of identity, but enriches it. To quote Etel Adnan: “The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love, not suspicion. A common future, not isolation.” Architecture, like art, is very much exposed to these forces of globalization — how will it respond? I think he can provide a framework for this. And these are things I think about every morning when I read 15 minutes of Glissant.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s one of your rituals.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes. The most important thing he told me is that he imagined this island, or utopia, to be a quivering place, which transcends established systems of thought, and is looking for the utopian point where all the world’s cultures and imaginations can meet and hear one another. For me, it has a lot to do with listening. The core of my conversation project is to learn to listen. This idea that we can maybe create the archive where all the world’s cultures and all the world’s imaginations can meet and hear one another, that’s my utopia. We also worked on Utopia Station, with Rirkrit Tiravanija and Molly Nesbit. And I’ll never forget, we were at Café de Flore, upstairs, and Glissant said, “Utopia is so difficult.” He was very much against many notions of utopia, like Thomas More, Plato, you know, The Republic…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Because he said it’s basically static systems. He wanted a new alternative form of a utopia, a continuous dialogue, which in a way is my conversation project. Glissant wrote a novel called Sartorius in 1999 where he describes these people — the Batoutos people — and they derive their identity not from their genealogy but from being in constant exchange with each other. And so, at the Café de Flore, Glissant told me that utopia is a quivering or trembling space. And that’s not uncertainty, it’s not fear, trembling thought, for him — and every utopia passes through this kind of thought — it’s an instinctive feeling that we must reject categories of fixed thought and imperial thought, so the whole world trembles — physically, geologically, mentally, spiritually — because the whole world is looking for this point where these cultures can all meet. That’s what the archive of my interviews is, in a way, trying to do. So, it is really directly following this Glissant vision.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Where did Glissant live?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — He was from Martinique, but he spent most of his later years in Paris. In the ’60s he lived in Martinique, and in ’67 he founded the Institut Martiniquais d’Études, and lots of people came out of that, like Patrick Chamoiseau, whom he mentored.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — This school is really important. Then he wanted to build a museum on Martinique, which sadly remained unrealized. It was his archipelago museum. He formulated it so that we can use it today as a toolbox. And he also fought a lot of independent struggles. He was friends with Frantz Fanon, and he came to Paris and went to New York a lot. He was teaching at NYU, but he spent more of the last years of his life in Paris, and that’s when I got to meet him.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay. Now I understand a dimension of your interviews that I didn’t know before. It’s much more than interview after interview, it’s a sort of utopian communication that creates a new geography of art. You connect one artist to another through your meetings and create a sort of pollination of words. You’re creating a living encyclopedia through conversation.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST — It’s an infinite conversation. In the beginning, I didn’t really have a master plan… For me, it’s also about bringing people together, because I think the world needs togetherness and not separation. It’s also very inspired by Grace Lee Boggs, the American activist who imagined all people of different ages coming together. It’s also a very transgenerational project, in a way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It seems you never do the same interview twice. Do you prepare your questions?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — I have different formats. The main format is sprawling conversations which are often very long. Just last week, we did a joint interview with Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, an extraordinary couple in their 80s who cofounded AfriCOBRA, a very important avant-garde movement of African-American artists in Chicago… Jae used to have a shop and is a legendary sculptor and clothes designer, and Wadsworth Jarrell is a legendary painter. I got so excited that the conversation went on for three hours.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — That happens quite often. They can become very long conversations, a bit like Buckminster Fuller who did six-hour lectures. I also have the “Interview Marathon” format, which is more like a Q&A where we have an interview with 50 people. It’s an exercise in portraiture through conversations.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — There are a couple of recurring questions that always come back. One is about how it all began. Because I had this epiphany in the studio of Fischli & Weiss, and I always say I was born in May 1968 in Zurich, and I was born again in May 1985, in the studio of Fischli & Weiss.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — I’m always really interested in how it began. How did someone become an artist? How did someone become a poet? Was there an epiphany? So, like Bas Jan Ader would say, I begin with the beginning. I also think the unrealized project is so important, because we know a lot about architects’ unrealized projects, but we know very little about those of visual artists, poets, designers, fashion designers, scientists. And there are so many reasons why a project remains unrealized; it can be too big to be realized, too small to be realized, it can be an unrealizable topic. It can be too expensive, too cheap. It can also be forgotten in a locker, or in a studio, in a lair, or in a folder. It can be a public art commission that is lost. It can be a project that is too time-intensive. It can be a project that has been censored. Or, as my friend Doris Lessing would say, it can also be a project which we haven’t dared to do. The other question I always ask is the Rainer Maria Rilke question: what advice would you give to a young artist? Rilke did a book called Letters to a Young Poet. A lot of young artists, or curators, or scholars, they might read the books or the magazine. And I always think it’s a very generous thing to give advice.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now I understand better why people see you as the artist of the interview, because it’s a free form.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — A conversation is a bit like how Wayne Shorter describes jazz: jumping into the unknown. But free form also requires a lot of preparation, which is kind of a paradox. For one of my next conversations — we’re working on a show with Hervé Télémaque, a Paris-based painter of Haitian origin who is one of the pioneers of narrative figuration, so I thought the Haitian poet René Depestre would be interesting to look at. And then I’ll also do a conversation with Sylvia Wynter, so I’m reading all of her books. There’s a lot of reading. And I love that. My conversation project is sort of to never grow up, to be a student forever, which I love. The idea that we always learn.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s your permanent university. Have you ever faced an artist who wouldn’t speak? You mentioned Bacon, who refused interviews. Richter doesn’t do interviews. A lot of artists don’t want to speak about their art and are pretty difficult.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes. So, with Gerhard Richter I did a book of seven or eight conversations. We’ve had a friendship now for more than 30 years, and every three, four, five years, he agrees to record a conversation. Yeah, I think the idea of patience — very often it needs many conversations. The first conversation is just the beginning. But you’re right, there are artists who don’t give interviews, most famously, of course, On Kawara. I worked with him, but he never wanted to be recorded. I have memories of endless conversations, chess games, and other things with him.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a paradox. Someone who works on letters and words who refuses to speak.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes, exactly. And then Stanley Brouwn, the conceptual artist, famously never gave interviews, but I recorded him once. It’s a bit like our meta-interview, I recorded him talking about why he didn’t want to give interviews. Then I have unpublished interviews. Rosemarie Trockel, at one point, didn’t sleep at night or slept very late, so she always wanted me to call her at three, four in the morning.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Oof.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — So we had many conversations at 3 A.M. And we edited it and had a long manuscript, and Walther König, the publisher, had already announced the book. The book has an ISBN number, it’s even on Amazon. The only thing is… [laughs] the book never came out because, all of a sudden, she had doubts. Then, of course, there are the conversations that go wrong. There’s only one that went totally wrong to the point that I was screamed at.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — And that was with Stanisław Lem. I was thrown out of the house on a snowy day. The dogs were barking, and I was on the outskirts of Kraków. He wrote Solaris, The Futurological Congress and many other fabulous books, but when I visited him, he was in his 70s. He no longer wanted to talk about literature. He said he had become a scientist. So, it was a little bit strange that the great science-fiction writer no longer wanted to be a science-fiction writer, but a scientist. I asked him about Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of Solaris because I’ve always loved Tarkovsky, and he became all red and upset and started to swear horribly and said: “In my house, that name cannot be mentioned. That man destroyed my book; he made his own artwork out of my book; it’s no longer my artwork. And the fact that you’ve mentioned his name means that this interview is finished, and you have to leave my house right away.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Then there are those who give really short answers, like Rei Kawakubo.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, she’s the master of that. [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster once said that one should make a theater piece out of my Rei Kawakubo interview, because it’s almost like a Beckett play. And I actually think it’s a great idea, that some interviews could become plays. That’s how the Marathon started. I was invited in 2005 by the late Marie Zimmermann to a theater festival in Stuttgart to do a production. I arrived for a site visit, and she said, “I really want you to direct the show.” And I replied, “But I’m a curator, this is a terrible malentendu.” But then later we had dinner, and she was amazing. She said: “Oh, you know, I’ve seen you do these interviews and they’re almost like a play, and at the same time it’s real, so it’s not staged. It’s very strange.” And that’s when the penny dropped, and I suddenly thought, “Wow, we could stage an interview festival.” That’s when I had the idea of the Marathon — that we could do a big polyphony. Of course, some people say that the Marathons are a contradiction to my other conversations because they’re so short, they’re only 15-minute fragments, but for me they’re more about the sparks, and a lot of new encounters happen because you have a science audience, an architecture audience, a music audience, the fashion world, people who never usually meet…

OLIVIER ZAHM — And do you interview each person one after the other?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes. And when I did it in Stuttgart for 24 hours all on my own, it was actually quite lonely [laughs]. It was quite difficult because I would have to do the next interview, and all my friends would go for dinner.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — That’s why I chose to do a Marathon with Rem Koolhaas at the Serpentine in 2006, as a double act. I also do Mini-Marathons, but one of the things that I always find interesting is that through conversations, we can also map movements and collectives. I mentioned the AfriCOBRA movement. I also did a book with Rem about the architecture movement Metabolism. We went to see all the Metabolists: Kikutake, Kurokawa, Isozaki, and so on. And when I thought the book was finished, Rem protested because Tange, who had triggered the whole Metabolism movement, had passed away, and for him the book would only be understandable if he also interviewed the two widows of Tange. With the Marathon, we can make a portrait of a theme or a movement, but one can also make a portrait of a group or a collective. Two or three years ago, in Assisi with Joseph Grima, we did a long interview, a whole afternoon, on the story of Superstudio. And everybody had a slightly different story.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] This is almost creating history with no filter.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes, it’s both the work of the historian and the extreme present. Before, you asked me about the interviews that have been challenging or failed. One interview that didn’t fail, but that was very emotional for me, was when I went to see the father of Butoh dance, Kazuo Ohno. He was around 100 years old when I went to interview him.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In Japan?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yes, outside Yokohama. I was co-curating a Yokohama Triennale, so it was convenient to visit him. And I was obsessed by him because I’d seen his final Butoh dance in Venice. And when we arrived at his house, the son took me aside and said, “My father can’t speak anymore.” He’d had a stroke, I believe. I was kind of confused that they had agreed to do the interview. I said, “I’m sorry, should we maybe postpone it?” “No, no,” the son said. “My father absolutely wants to talk to you, he’s been looking forward to it all week.” So, that was the first symbolic conversation…

OLIVIER ZAHM — He just listened.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Yeah, he listened and answered with eye movements, which his son would interpret. They found this language, you know? Then at the end, I said goodbye, and the son said, “You should give my father your hand.” And I was kind of concerned because he was obviously paralyzed, and it was the strongest handshake of my life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — To interview someone as a duo is also an important part of the methodology of my interviews. When I was in Paris, I did so many joint conversations with Philippe Parreno. We’d meet up, and he would say, “I really want to meet Pierre Boulez.” So, I’d call Pierre Boulez, and we’d go to see him. The same with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: we would go and see Marta Pan and André Wogenscky.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s a trio.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — Exactly, three’s a crowd, but it actually isn’t. And for me, visiting the people who inspire artists is also part of the portrait. I did a book of around 10 interviews and conversations with Dominique, but three or four are with other people. We have a conversation in the book with Nicolas Ghesquière and Dominique, and then we have a conversation with Marta Pan and Dominique. People often also have a close relationship to an animal. And the conversation becomes a trialogue between me, the artist, and the animal. For example, Helen Levitt had a cat, and because the apartment was a bit cold, the one warm place was under the lamp, so you had Helen, me, and the cat between us.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — The cat would look at her, then when I asked a question, look at me. So, it clearly was super present. When we did the book with Yona Friedman,
he wanted his dog Balkis to be part of it. And recently, I did a conversation for the Cartier Foundation with Precious Okoyomon, the amazing artist and poet, and her dog Rainbow, who is a magical being.

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
HANS ULRICH OBRIST — During the lockdown, I would go for a walk or a run every morning in Kensington Gardens, and one day I was thinking about all these incredible conversations with animals, and then I started reading this great book by Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? All my friends had been saying I should join TikTok, so then suddenly on one of these walks I had this idea, and every day now when I go to the park, I ask an animal about their unrealized project. It’s very simple, it’s just me saying, “What is your unrealized project?” Sometimes you have to wait a while for the answer.

END

RONAN BOUROULLEC, UNTITLED, 2020 RONAN BOUROULLEC, UNTITLED, 2020 PORTRAIT OF HANS ULRICH OBRIST BY JUERGEN TELLER RONAN BOUROULLEC, UNTITLED, 2020

[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35

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