Private view

The Serpentine's new curator is about to shift British art away from the market manipulations of the Saatchi model to a new era of art theory—or babble
May 19, 2006

Britain has just acquired its very first supercurator. Hans Ulrich Obrist took up his new job as a director of exhibitions and projects at the Serpentine in April. I only realised how seismic the impact of this would be when I overheard an exchange with him at an opening. "So what are your plans for the Serpentine?" one art-lover asked. "Oh, I think we are now post-planning," Obrist replied. This was not an attempt to keep secret his new programme of exhibitions, it was a highly theoretical insight into the state of contemporary civilisation. There should be no plans, since plans always go awry. Or worse—a plan indicates faith in the now discredited notions of progress and the modernist project of social improvement. We are now post-planning, or should be.

This kind of utterance is the mating call of the supercurators, a new globalised species of art organiser. Instead of being attached to one museum or institution for years, and patiently working their way up the ladder, they roam the world, invited to contribute to exhibitions, biennials, fairs, foundations and public spaces, leaving new visions of art in their wake. They have glamorous European-sounding names like Rosa Martinez, Klaus Biesenbach and Massimiliano Gioni. They organise group and theme shows. They commission new site-specific works of art. They keep their gaze firmly trained on the ever-changing fabric of our culture, so that every few months they can tell us what new capitalist subterfuge is directing our destiny, and whatever it is that we are "post"—post-utopian, post-apocalyptic, post-industrial, post-Marxist and one day (though I don't want to jump the gun) presumably post-globalised.

Aged only 37, Obrist holds a dazzling variety of academic and curatorial positions. He's on the board of art foundations in Milan, Turin, Munich and Kitakyushu. He's on the Davos committee of the Global Leaders for Tomorrow. He's already held curatorships at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, the Venice biennale, and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. He's a contributing editor to the most influential art magazines, including Art Forum and Flash Art. No one else on the British art scene comes remotely close to him in terms of inter-institutional international clout. So how is he going to transform art in Britain?

In many ways his appointment is part of a transformation that is already underway. The defensive nationalism of British contemporary art in the 1990s, in which Saatchi, the media and the Tate worked in tandem, is over. We are in a new global phase, typified by Saatchi's greedy spending sprees on young painters from all over the world, and also by the international Cardiff art prize, Artis Mundi, whose £40,000 cheque has just gone to a wonderful Finnish video artist, Eija-Liisa Ahtila.

I got my first taste of Obrist art at the Venice biennale in 2003. He and two colleagues had curated a section of the biennale called the Utopia Station. There was an irritating soundtrack of Venice's wild dogs barking; there was a live chimpanzee playing with minimalist blocks in its own white cube cage; and there were heaps of artists' posters, including one with the slogan "will plan to plan." Yoko Ono sat at a table and patiently glued a broken teacup back together. It was both a charmingly chaotic array of artistic activity and an exercise in art world solipsism. Obrist's enthusiasm, art theory, ambition and self-regard is now coming here.

These days artistic value is not only something that exists in the white cube, it is an aura that artists can attach to anything anywhere, if you pay them to. Corporations, states and local government are taking advantage of the "added value" that a work of art offers—why have just a façade when you can have a façade-as-a-work-of-art. That was the logic behind the decision to invite the British artist Liam Gillick to contribute designs and texts to the architecture of the new home office building in Marsham Street. In the future, the work of art which is simultaneously a useful space or object will be the Gesamtkunstwerk of the 21st century.

With Obrist over here, art in Britain is likely to get a lot more competitively theoretical. Ever since the 1990s our art appreciation has been framed by shocking headlines about elephant poo, dirty beds and frozen blood, and by the purchasing power of one man. All that will fade. In its place we will talk about "topoi," "linear logic" and "utopia." Will this be a good thing? Certainly in Britain we need a counterbalance to the market manipulations of gallerists and collectors, and Obrist is out there at the other end of the spectrum. If you can stomach the impossible art world vanities. In a thousand-page collection of the supercurator's interviews with artists, the introduction makes out that the Obrist interview is itself an "art form," since "it is neither a journey nor a scholarly enterprise, but it rather follows an encyclopaedic-philosophical model, based on a… concept of the conversation as a fruitful/successful exchange of ideas and exemplified in the form of the interview." I drew Obrist's attention to this at the Serpentine party. He looked a little bashful—and quickly pointed out that the introduction had been written by someone else.