Marathon Man

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Marathon Man


Byline: Richard Godwin

IN AN information age, when the sheer weight of human knowledge threatens to overwhelm, the art of curating has become almost as important as the art of creating. We need figures who can organise and rationalise, who can make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Few bring such energy and wit to the role than Hans Ulrich Obrist, 41, the Swiss co-director of the Serpentine Gallery. For his numerous commitments (he rises at 5am daily to keep them) he was the first curator ever voted to the top of Art Review's influential global power list.

Along with co-director Julia Peyton-Jones, he has transformed the lakeside space into one of the most interesting institutions in London. It regularly attracts artists of the stature of Gerhard Richter and has established the annual Pavilion as a vital showcase for architects: this year's is designed by Herzog and de Meuron in collaboration with the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. In 2014, the gallery will take over a second space in Hyde Park, about which Obrist cannot reveal further details just yet.

In the meantime, the project that bears his imprint most closely is his Marathon series, an annual programme of talks, interviews and performances held in the Pavilion. It is like a Davos for people who are actually worth listening to.

This weekend, the theme under discussion is memory. The figures involved -- from David Lynch, Michael Stipe and Brian Eno to the mathematician Marcus de Sautoy, film-maker Adam Curtis and Proust scholar Jean-Yves Tadie -- are testament not only to Obrist's contacts book but to his omnivorous mind.

"When the architects speak, you get an architecture crowd; when the scientists speak, you get a science crowd," he proclaims. His speciality is to put them all in the same room and see what happens.

"In the gallery, we are curating space, but here we are curating time," he says, with a gleam of his polygonal spectacles.

We meet in the Serpentine's office. He speaks in a rapid Germanic accent, fixing me with a deep, brown-eyed stare. He takes careful notes throughout the conversation and flings his hands into the air when he is excited. He does so when I place my Dictaphone in the middle of the table and we both notice the message flashing up MEMORY FULL.

"Memory!" he exclaims. "It's such an interesting topic because, in a way, we have more information than ever, and it grows exponentially every day, but the question is does it produce more memory?" A prolific interviewer himself, as author of numerous books full of conversations with artists, he has a habit of turning any question you throw at him into more questions.

"If we delegate our memory to these digital devices, it creates an interesting question about human memory techniques.

Is there maybe amnesia at the core of the digital age? Maybe we have lost the virtue of forgetting?" The first of Obrist's Marathons in 2006 consisted of Obrist and the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas interviewing interesting Londoners for 24 hours continuously. Realising this was something of a drain on his staff, he spread the events out over the weekend, drawing on themes such as Maps and Experiments.

The Memory idea was suggested by Ai Weiwei, whose Pavilion design incorporates "memories" of the past 12 years' worth of Pavilions -- but it is an apt one. Obrist has been at the vanguard of the wider trend towards performative forms, art works that endure not as objects for the art market, but in memory.

"It's really about finding a topic that is relevant for art, for architecture and also digital culture," he says. At a time when it can seem as if the art world is having one big conversation with itself, that's a necessary thing to do. …

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