From Ways of Curating, by Hans Ulrich Obrist, out this month from Faber and Faber. Obrist is the codirector of exhibitions and programs and of international projects at the Serpentine Galleries in London.
In 1986, during a school trip to Rome, I decided to go my own way and visit Alighiero Boetti. At the time, he was working on ideas relating to maps and mapmaking. In 1971, Boetti had begun making embroidered maps of the world. He collaborated with embroiderers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, traveling and collaborating at a distance, especially following the Soviet occupation of Aghanistan in 1979. Boetti understood that his maps only recorded a temporary state of world affairs and could not remain accurate over time. In the midst of 1989’s global realignments and paroxysms, Boetti’s World Map appeared with an immaculate sense of timing.
One striking thing about Boetti, which was almost immediately noticeable, was the rapidity of both his speech and his actions. This was especially encouraging for me, as I was often criticized in Switzerland for speaking too quickly. Here was someone with whom I had to keep up. In his studio, with typical velocity, Boetti began to question me about my goals. I replied that I would like to curate exhibitions but that I was unsure of how to start.
Boetti told me that if I wanted to curate, I should under no circumstances do what everybody else was doing — just giving artists a certain room and suggesting that they fill it. More important would be to talk to the artists and ask them which projects they could not realize under existing conditions. Ever since, this has been a central theme of my exhibitions. I don’t believe in the creativity of the curator. I don’t think that the exhibition-maker has brilliant ideas around which the ideas of artists must fit. Instead, the process always starts with a conversation, in which I ask the artists what their unrealized projects are and then find the means to realize them. At our first meeting, Boetti said curating could be about making impossible things possible.
Soon after I arrived at his door, we were in Boetti’s car, racing through the streets of Rome so he could introduce me to other artists. He mentioned that a young curator could find great value not only in working in a museum, in a gallery, or on a biennial, but also in making artists’ dreams come true. He kept saying, “Don’t be a boring curator.” He told me that one of his main unrealized projects was to do an exhibition for one year in all the planes of an airline, so that they would fly the exhibition around the world every day and, in some cases, return each evening. He wanted to present a serial work that featured airplanes, in which you see one plane in the first image and then more and more planes until the sky of the canvas is filled with them.
At the time, I was too young to help Boetti realize his ambition. But a few years later I told the museum in progress in Vienna about the idea, and we got in contact with Austrian Airlines. The airline allowed us to feature Boetti’s images of airplanes on a double-page spread in each issue of their magazine (which was published every two months) for one year, so we had six issues for the project. Then, one week before the first edition was going to be printed, Boetti sent me a telegram from Milan, where he was working on a large bronze sculpture, and said that the images in the magazine were not sufficient. We needed to add something more physical than the mere magazine page, he continued, and his new idea was that we should create a jigsaw puzzle. Now, a puzzle featuring many airplanes in the sky would be very easy to solve — but a jigsaw of monochrome blue and only one plane in it would take hours.
We produced various jigsaws of the different airplane motifs, with escalating degrees of difficulty. They were exactly the size of the seat-back tables of the aircraft, and they were given away for free for a year on every flight of Austrian Airlines. The airline began with an edition of 40,000. When they finally received the jigsaw featuring the image of only one plane in an expansive sky, it occurred to them that this might trigger a fear or dislike of flying because none of the passengers would be able to solve it. The jigsaw couldn’t even be solved on long-distance flights with several passengers working together. But it was already too late, and so the jigsaws were distributed in the planes regardless. After this interesting experiment, Boetti asked me to come up with ideas not only for different kinds of exhibition space but also addressed to a different audience, to insert art into spaces where it normally isn’t found; for example, today you can find the jigsaws we did for Austrian Airlines at flea markets, as well as in art bookstores and on eBay.
These conversations with Boetti lay behind my first attempts to supplement existing exhibitions by creating new formats. He instilled in me not only the necessity of urgency but also my first ideas of what might still urgently need doing.