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Curators on the move: Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with Victoria Lynn

Cities on the Move: installation view, Hayward Gallery, London, 1999. Courtest Hans Ulrich Obrist. © Kenneth Anger
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For almost two decades the Swiss-born curator, critic and historian Hans Ulrich Obrist has been one of the most influential presenters and shapers of contemporary art. Instrumental in such seminal shows as 'Cities on the Move' and currently Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programs and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Obrist teased out the threads of his experimental curatorial practice with Victoria Lynn.

Victoria Lynn: In your essay 'The storage of time/Museums on the move/The curator as producer' you cite the work of Alexander Dorner, director of Hannover's provincial museum from 1925 until 1937 and a key figure at the Rhode Island School of Design in New York. Dorner commissioned El Lissitzky's Abstract cabinet, 1927, a changeable exhibition installation involving sliding panels that showed work from Lissitzky and other artists. Can we make a comparison between that original avant-gardist spirit and the exhibition you curated with Hou Hanru, 'Cities on the Move'?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: We always build the future out of fragments of the past, as Erwin Panofsky said. Dorner's book The Way Beyond Art (1947) has been a great inspiration for me. It deals with the question of how we can cope with the idea of uncertainty and unpredictability, exploring the idea of process rather than objects and of the museum as a laboratory. It introduces time as a key dimension of a museum exhibition, and even examines the facsimile, the scar, and the notion that objects are one possibility, but that they also travel through space and time.

It is very urgent that we remember Dorner, especially in the context of the amnesia about the history of curating today. My 2008 book A Brief History of Curating shows not only the importance of Dorner but also the whole generation of Pontus Hulten, Lucy Lippard, Harald Szeemann, Walter Zanini and others as curator pioneers. Many of them were inspired by Dorner and by another curator, Willem Sandberg, who is the former director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, an anarchist and graphic designer who also developed the time-based laboratory aspect of the museum, something which Hulten then did in a brilliant way at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. While Gertrude Stein said the museum couldn't be both a museum and modern, under Hulten it could either be time storage or a laboratory; he showed us that it could be both. And it's combining these two elements this oxymoron condition which makes the museum particularly interesting. All of these things were in mind when we did 'Cities on the Move'.

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This article appears in excerpted form. You can read the entire article in Art & Australia's Summer 2011 issue.

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