On first meeting Sergei Diaghilev in 1916, King Alfonso of Spain is said to have inquired of the impresario, ‘What is it that you do in this troupe? You don’t dance. You don’t direct. You don’t play the piano. What is it you do?’ Diaghilev replied, ‘Your Majesty, I am like you. I don’t work, I don’t do anything, but I am indispensable.’
When Hans Ulrich Obrist rehearses this story in Ways of Curating – a brisk, eclectic and at times maddening account of his career as an exhibition maker – it is partly to reassure us that of course he does everything, or near enough. Like Diaghilev, the Swiss curator – who is at present co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London – has been a tireless cultural operator. Since the early 1990s, Obrist’s works (the issue of whether we can use that word about a curator is more or less at the heart of this book) have included exhibitions, biennales, symposia, numerous publications, thousands of hours of recorded interviews and quite the most hectic travel diary in a profession that measures success by airport codes amassed: LAX–LHR–TXL–ICN. He’s even got his own abbreviation: art-world insiders know him simply as HUO.
But the Diaghilev anecdote is also a wry admission that Obrist’s job description has lately acquired an irritating ubiquity – not to say vacuity. In an age when we are enjoined to ‘curate’ online our tastes and consumer choices, when hipster haberdashers peddle ‘curator pants’ with scarcely a shrug of irony, the ‘speculative bubble’ around