How to host an art exhibition in your kitchen.
During my time at high school and university in Kreuzlingen and St. Gallen, I traveled around Europe looking at art, visiting artists, studios, galleries and museums. I knew that what I wanted to do in life was to work with artists, but I had yet to produce anything. I was searching for a way to make a contribution. What, in this art system, could be a first step, and above all, how could I be useful to artists? I began to think about all the innovative, large-scale museum shows I had seen and whether it was really possible to do something new, combining all the networks I had been enmeshed in, the entire European Thinkbelt. One conviction I had was that it could be interesting to do something smaller, after the gigantism of some of the 1980s art scene which seemed unsustainable after the crash of 1987.
Dependency on endless growth, as the end of each cyclical bull market always teaches us, is unrealistic. I studied political economy with a professor named H. C. Binswanger, who directed the University of St. Gallen’s Institute for Economics and Ecology. Binswanger was examining the historical relationship of economics and alchemy, which he made as interesting as it (at first) sounds outlandish. His goal was to investigate the similarities and differences between aesthetic and economic value, most famously in a book he later published called Money and Magic (1994). At the core of modern economics, Binswanger believed, is the concept of unlimited, eternal growth; he showed how this brash concept was inherited from the medieval discourse of alchemy, the search for a process that could turn lead into gold.
In his childhood, Binswanger had been fascinated by the Faust legend. During his studies he discovered that the invention of paper money in Goethe’s Faust was inspired by the story of the Scottish economist John Law, who in 1716 was the first man to establish a French bank issuing paper money. Even more strikingly, the Duke of Orleans got rid of all his alchemists after Law’s innovation, because he realized that the availability of paper money was more powerful than all attempts to turn lead into gold. In Money and Magic, Binswanger traces the deep association between paper money, alchemy and the concept of eternal growth that underlies modern economics.
Binswanger also connected the economy and art in a novel way. Art, he points out, is based on imagination and is part of the economy. But the process of money creation by a bank is connected to imagination, because the money is printed as a countervalue for something that doesn’t yet exist. So the invention of paper money is based on imagination, or a prospective sense of bringing into being something that has yet to exist. A company imagines producing a good and needs money to realize this, so it takes out a loan from a bank. If the product is sold, the “imaginary” money that was created in the beginning has a countervalue in real products. In classical economic theory, this process can be continued endlessly. Binswanger recognizes that this endless growth exerts a quasi-magical fascination.
In his book Binswanger pointed out that the moderation of growth has become a global necessity: he produces a way of thinking about the problems of rampant capitalist growth.
Binswanger encouraged me to question the mainstream theory of economics, and to recognize how it differs from the real economy. The wisdom of his work is that he recognized early on that endless growth is unsustainable, both in human and planetary terms, but instead of rejecting the market wholesale, he suggests ways to moderate its demands. Thus the market does not have to disappear or be replaced, but can be understood as something to be manipulated for human purposes, rather than obeyed.
Another way of interpreting Binswanger’s ideas is as follows: for most of human history a fundamental problem has been the scarcity of material goods and resources, and so we have become ever more efficient in our methods of production, and created rituals to enshrine the importance of objects in our culture. Less than a century ago, human beings through their rapacious industry made a world-changing transition: we now inhabit a world in which the overproduction of goods, rather than their scarcity, is one of our most fundamental problems. Yet our economy’s growth functions by inciting us to produce more and more with each passing year. In turn, we require cultural forms to enable us to sort through the glut, and our rituals are once again directed towards the immaterial, towards quality and not quantity. Perhaps that is a reason for the shift in our values, from producing objects to selecting amongst those that already exist.
During the days I attended Binswanger’s lectures, I thought about the kinds of exhibition I could make. At the time, two shows, both of them in a domestic environment, were on my mind. In 1974, Harald Szeemann had created a small exhibition about his grandfather, who was a hairdresser, in his apartment in Bern. The second was in 1986 in Belgium, where curator Jan Hoet had hosted a show called Chambres d’Amis (Rooms of Friends) in a very intimate, non-institutional environment: he commissioned more than fifty artists to make works for an equal number of private apartments and homes around Ghent. It was a way of making a sprawling exhibition that also took visitors on a domestic tour of the city. And then both Fischli and Weiss and Christian Boltanski suggested to me that perhaps I was looking too hard, that the solution could be in my own flat, as with the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Purloined Letter.” And we began to think, and an answer occurred to us: my kitchen.
The answer was pragmatic. I didn’t have access to an exhibition space in a gallery or a museum, of course, but I did rent an old flat in St. Gallen. I never cooked. I never even made tea or coffee because I always ate out. The kitchen was just another space where I kept stacks of books and papers. This was exactly the feature that Fischli, Weiss and Boltanski had independently noticed. The non-utility of my kitchen could be transformed into its utility for art. To do a show there would mix art and life, naturally. The idea took shape very quickly. Perhaps because the show’s concept was pithy and fitting for me, artists immediately responded to it. Fischli and Weiss thought it would be great to transform my non-kitchen into a functional kitchen. Then the exhibition would actually produce reality, they joked. Boltanski, meanwhile, liked the thought of a hidden exhibit in the kitchen. As art was conspicuous for its moments of high visibility in the late 1980s, he was attracted to the idea of something more intimate.
I embraced both ideas. Boltanski created a very hidden exhibit: he installed a projection of a candle, visible only through the vertical crack between the cabinet doors under the sink. The candle was like a small miracle where you would normally find the garbage or cleaning supplies. Above the sink was a big cupboard, and here Fischli and Weiss installed a sort of everyday altar, using oversized, commercially packaged food from a restaurant supply store. Everything was giant: a five-kilogram bag of noodles, five litres of ketchup, canned vegetables, huge bottles of sauces and condiments. The installation had an Alice in Wonderland sense about it. It produced a sense of wonder by giving an adult a child’s perspective. All of a sudden reality was, for the adults who beheld this oversized display, almost like it is for children. The only item we ever opened was a chocolate pudding. The rest of the pieces were kept intact as readymades, and eventually returned to the artists, who kept them in their basements—until they began to rot.
Hans-Peter Feldmann decided to make an exhibition within the exhibition in my refrigerator. He found six eggs made out of dark marble, which he placed in the egg rack in the fridge door. And then he placed a board with small feathers on it on the top shelf, setting up a charming visual rhyme in and amongst the few jars and cans that had somehow found their way into even my most under-utilized fridge. Frédéric Bruly Bouabré produced a kitchen drawing with a rose, a cup of coffee and a sliced fish. Richard Wentworth placed a square mirrored plate on top of cans of food. No one attempted to make a spectacular intervention—instead they preserved the function of the kitchen, while subtly adding to it.
Many features of the kitchen show mark my work as a curator to this day. For instance, artists shared in all tasks relating to my exhibitions, not just their individual pieces: Richard Wentworth named the kitchen show World Soup, while Fischli and Weiss took the exhibition photographs. Secondly, I continue to curate exhibitions in people’s houses, which brings a different focus and a special intimacy. To give a very different example, I created an exhibition at the neoclassical architect Sir John Soane’s house in 1999.
Numerous are the posthumous museums and memorials devoted exclusively to one artist, architect or author and designed to preserve or artificially reconstruct the namesake’s original working or living conditions. Much rarer are the museums conceived by artists in their lifetimes as a Gesamtkunstwerk and preserved as such. Sir John Soane’s Museum is a case in point. In 1833, four years before he died, Soane established his house as a museum and negotiated for an Act of Parliament to ensure its preservation after his death. The house is a complex accretion of hallways, windows, hangings, plinths, mirrors and innumerable objects, with unexpected views around every corner. Soane’s holdings fall into four main categories: antique fragments, paintings from Canaletto to Hogarth and Turner, architectural drawings (such as Piranesi’s), and Soane’s own work in the form of architectural models and drawings.
The artist Cerith Wyn Evans once told me: “I was always very stimulated and inspired by the relationships, the interstices in Sir John Soane’s Museum, the conversations that are happening between various narratives, various objects and these extraordinary vistas that you come upon by accident and then you catch a reflection of yourself. It is an incredibly complex, stimulating place, and no one visit is ever the same as the next.” After a while, the idea of an exhibition began to take shape, and, in the course of the following two years, it crystallized in conversation with Margaret Richardson, the Curator of the Museum.
Although Sir John Soane’s Museum has regular opening hours and attracts some 90,000 visitors a year, it has acquired a reputation primarily by word of mouth. The paradox of a well-guarded and yet public secret as well as the permanent pull between visibility and invisibility are the considerations that motivate Cerith Wyn Evans, whose intervention on the staircase was almost invisible. The work slid into the existing context as it subtly changed the sound of the bells. Steve McQueen created a sound montage that revealed itself only at second glance. To bring the various elements of the exhibition into a cohesive whole, each of the artists contributed to the greater picture: Richard Hamilton designed the poster, and each artist created a postcard that was on sale in the museum. The works on view in the exhibition were numbered but not labelled, in keeping with the way Soane displayed his collection. Each visitor was given a foldout leaflet, conceived by Cerith Wyn Evans, with plans by Christopher H. Woodward. There were no didactic panels or sound guides, and visitors moved where they wished through the rooms, encountering unexpected works of art in unexpected places. Cedric Price created symbols for the show and gave a lecture in the old kitchen entitled “Time and Food,” and Douglas Gordon created the title of the exhibition: Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow. Like the works in World Soup, the works in Retrace Your Steps had a sense of playfulness, and both shows were self-organized—instead of beginning with a master concept or plan, they grew organically. Exhibitions should develop a life of their own, more like a conversation between curator and artist than an arrangement of their work to suit a pre-existing idea. The experience with Cerith Wyn Evans at Sir John Soane’s Museum led to an ongoing series of house museums. Next came an exhibition with Pedro Reyes at the Casa Barragán, the architect Luis Barragán’s home in Mexico City. After that I curated an exhibition at the poet Federico García Lorca’s house in Granada, produced by Isabela Mora, followed by another show produced by Isabela Mora at the Lina Bo Bardi house in São Paulo, Brazil.
Excerpted from Ways of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Asad Raza. Published by Faber and Faber, Inc. an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Hans Ulrich Obrist. All rights reserved.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss-born curator and writer. He is the codirector of exhibitions and programs and the codirector of international projects at the Serpentine Galleries, London. His previous books include A Brief History of Curating; A Brief History of New Music; Everything You Always Wanted to Ask About Curating But Were Afraid to Ask; Sharp Tongues, Loose Lips, Open Eyes, Ears to the Ground; Ai Weiwei Speaks, and nearly thirty volumes of his Conversation Series of interviews with contemporary artists.