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Inside The Creative Mind Of Hans Ulrich Obrist

And it’s a mess in there! Here’s proof that you don’t have to be a neat freak to be wildly successful.

Swiss-born curator and art historian Hans Ulrich Obrist is arguably one of the most active minds in the art world today. Named art’s second most powerful figure by Art Review in 2010, he’s currently the co-director of exhibitions at London’s Serpentine Gallery and he used to work as head curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. A new book from Badlands Unlimited, Think Like Clouds, offers an intimate and surprising peek into his frenetic mind: it’s an anthology of notes-to-self from Obrist’s archives spanning a period of 15 years.

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The book is essentially a download of Obrist’s chaotic mind, featuring notes taken during phone calls, sketches for gallery shows, and obsessive, illegible writing that Obrist did before public speaking events to combat extreme nervousness. There are printouts of spreadsheets full of big-name artists like Brian Eno, Zaha Hadid, Yinka Shonibare, and Damien Hirst, all but defaced by Obrist’s hypergraphic hand. For a curator, his notes are impressively un-curated.


Some readers probably can’t help but ask: Why publish a book of illegible scribbles, regardless of how famous and accomplished the scribbler? A publication like this might seem akin to selling a jar of air breathed by Angelina Jolie–its sole value being that it was blessed by the touch of celebrity. But the notes do have a painterly touch–Obrist has enjoyed drawing since he was a teenager in the mid-1980s, and at times, the scrawling in Think Like Clouds resembles abstract graffiti-like compositions.

In his introduction to the book, artist Paul Chan’s justification is that the anthology offers a behind-the-scenes look at the working process of today’s most prestigious curator and gives a topography of an intriguing and active mind. In a society obsessed with analyzing and imitating the work habits of highly successful people, Obrist’s disorganized notes offer a lesson that counters the common assumption that to be successful you have to keep things orderly and efficient at all times.

A scholarly essay by Michael Diers, “Scribbles in the Digital Age: Notes on Obrist’s Notes (And Lines),” points out that in the modern era, where handwriting’s been usurped by typing, looking at someone’s physical writing can feel inherently personal. Diers also offers an analysis of the non-art of the scribble: “Scribbles make it palpably clear that writing is nothing other than a drawing that has proceeded out of a strictly defined and limited inventory of signs and forms, and that a drawing is little other than a form of unfettered writing in ornaments and figures,” Diers writes. “One might almost say that the two halves of the brain seldom cooperate as closely as in scribbling, a word whose etymology goes back to ‘scratching’ and thus calls to mind the earliest days of making marks with techniques of scoring and carving.”

Paul Chan points out that “In making this book, Obrist’s notes, doodles, drawings, and sketches teeter on the edge of being recognized as artworks. They are certainly beautiful and enigmatic. And they capture–as any work ought to–the presence of a real presence in the act of becoming something neither predicted nor pre-established. But are they real works?” What do you think? Are Obrist’s primal ballpoint scratchings art? Click the slideshow above and decide.

If you get bored of all the scholarly analysis, the eBook of Think Like Clouds also has a feature that allows you to click and rotate a digital image of Obrist’s head. All your dreams have come true!

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Think Like Clouds is available from Badlands Unlimited for $5.99.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.

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