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London calling: Martin Herbert on Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Ralph Rugoff.

IT IS MARCH 2006, AND WE'RE IN London--"the beating heart of Europe's contemporary art scene," as the New York Times puts it--and we're touring the commercial galleries. Plush international dealerships hum to the north and west, increasingly slick indigenous operations cluster in the east, and myriad penurious venues percolate determinedly at various distances from the art scene's main drags. The dynamism--whatever one might think of the art on display--is tangible.

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In order to determine how all this effervescence is aerating the city's institutional echelons, let's say we go to the Hayward Gallery and the Serpentine Gallery, the leading public spaces in central London not overseen by Sir Nicholas Serota and his gimlet eye. What do we find? Monographic shows on Dan Flavin and Ellsworth Kelly, that's what: two graceful, intelligently installed, historically unassailable, risk-free zones that could have materialized at any time in the last three decades (albeit the Kelly paintings are recent). If these venues had sought to signpost their respective needs for a less conservative curatorial outlook (or, to return to the Times's anatomical metaphor, advertise themselves as London's hardening artery) they could hardly have done better.

Of course, the Hayward and the Serpentine do regularly showcase the work of younger artists--their previous shows, respectively, were last year's group exhibition "Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist's Eye" (curated by Francesco Bonami, it originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago) and a solo presentation of Elmgreen & Dragset--but neither gallery has seemed inclined to fundamentally rethink what an art institution could be in our contemporary moment. Happily, bold input is on the horizon. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who was curator at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for thirteen years and whose name is usually preceded by the words ubiquitous, peripatetic, uber-curator--or all three--recently arrived at the Serpentine to take up the full-time dual position of codirector of exhibitions and programs and director of international projects, while Ralph Rugoff will shortly leave his post of six years' standing as director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco to become director of the Hayward.

Obrist has a bond with the Serpentine that dates back to his first curatorial project in London--1995's "Take Me (I'm Yours)," a group show that tweaked the relationship between art and audience, whose exhibits, as he told Artforum at the time, "visitors could touch, use, test, buy, or take away"--and stretches all the way up to his advisory role on the unorthodox Rirkrit Tiravanija retrospective in 2005. Between those points, his record of endeavors elsewhere in London has been short but effectively spotless. After an extended period of in-situ research for "Life/Live," the survey of British art in the '90s that Obrist and Laurence Bosse curated for the Musee d'Art Moderne in 1996, he cocurated (with Hou Hanru) "Cities on the Move" (1999). One of the most far-reaching shows London saw that decade, its brilliant exhibition design rendered the Hayward's spaces virtually unrecognizable, and its internationalist outlook flagged Obrist as a curator with his eyes wide open to burgeoning nexuses of contemporary art. He then set up the labyrinthine temporal involutions of another group show, "Retrace Your Steps Remember Tomorrow" (1999-2000), which, for the first time, brought contemporary artists into Bloomsbury's sepulchral and eccentric Sir John Soane's Museum. Obrist revels in being granted freedom and in locating previously unnoticed pockets of latitude. Will he be able to play to these strengths at the Serpentine?

The signs are favorable. His appointment, Obrist says, "resulted from conversations with [Serpentine director] Julia Peyton-Jones about the role of a public institution in the twenty-first century. I think art institutions should not be about filling spaces but about necessities and urgencies." For Obrist--leaning, he says, on the ideas of writer/philosopher/poet Edouard Glissant--this means considering shows as sheltering "archipelagos" rather than imposing "continents." As a blueprint for producing exhibitions that consist of segmented islets of activity, this starts to make some sense when he's quizzed about the second part of his job description, "director of international projects" (which sounds like it might suit Obrist's insatiable yen for travel). The Swiss curator says that his responsibilities in this position will entail creating "a different form of expansion of an institution; rather than adding new wings, the programming is the extension," and he uncoils the catchphrase he's been using lately: "The gallery, the park, the world." What might this mean for the Serpentine, which was founded in 1970 and which has a reputation for graceful, monographic shows that follow, rather than push, the development of contemporary art? It's hard to imagine Obrist installing something like "Utopia Station"--the mazy exhibition-in-perpetual-progress that he coordinated with Molly Nesbit, Martha Rosler, and Tiravanija for the 2003 Venice Biennale--in this former tea garden. But one envisions a tighter tracking of changes within contemporary art at the Serpentine from now on, and more (and perhaps younger) exhibitors from far-flung zones. Obrist is playing his cards fairly close to his vest, promising more details in the summer. It's not yet clear who he'll be working with, since no successor to chief curator Rochelle Steiner--who recently departed to become director of New York's Public Art Fund--has yet been announced.

Rugoff, meanwhile, has a different set of challenges ahead of him. The Hayward, which was founded in 1968, and which inhabits the Brutalist edifice that is London's South Bank Centre, has long enjoyed a reputation for mounting powerful, in-depth surveys of work by major-league international artists. But the venue has been effectively rudderless since mid-2004, when Susan Ferleger Brades quit after eight years as director (and twenty-four years within the institution). While the acting director, Martin Caiger-Smith, has apparently rolled out Brades's programming plans--the Hayward's May exhibition, "Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miro, Masson, and the Vision of Georges Bataille," was being talked up at the time of her resignation--in recent months its shows have been increasingly anemic and/or generated by another venue. By contrast, Rugoff has a history of taking beguilingly oblique routes through contemporary art. London audiences got a taste of this in 2000 with the American curator/writer's split-site project for the Serpentine and the Natural History Museum, "The Greenhouse Effect" (cocurated with then-Serpentine curator Lisa Corrin), which interleaved art and natural science by introducing specimen-like artworks into the gallery and surveillance-themed video art into the museum. Elsewhere, Rugoff has coupled artistic practice with forensics ("Scene of the Crime," UCLA Hammer Museum, 1997); comedy ("Sudden Glory: Sight Gags and Slapstick in Contemporary Art," 2002); politics ("Monuments for the USA," 2005); and offbeat phenomenology ("A Brief History of Invisible Art," 2005-2006). The last three were mounted at CCA Wattis and no doubt contributed to Rugoff's winning the $100,000 Ordway Prize (a biannual award given to a curator or critic) in 2005.

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"I may not be doing surveys of 'invisible art' at the Hayward," says Rugoff, who hopes to act as a "director/curator" during his tenure, "though I'm sure we will continue to do adventurous programming. I think that if it's introduced in the right way, even invisible art can be immensely rewarding for a general public." That adventurousness may well manifest itself in several ways. Though he predicts that under his stewardship "the main shift will be toward generating more exhibitions and projects and developing a program that more actively involves and reflects the practices and thinking of living artists," Rugoff also has plans to make the venue more flexible and modular. "I hope to put a project space or two in place at the Hayward--a mini-Turbine Hall, as it were--and these spaces, some of which might be off-site, will be more experimental in nature."

Beyond this, the Hayward's being part of the South Bank Centre, whose various halls stage rock concerts, theater, and dance productions, is music to Rugoff's ears. "The fact that it's also part of a larger cultural complex, with a remit to develop cross-disciplinary programming, is also very appealing to me," he enthuses. "What I hope I can add is a willingness to take risks and to explore the ways in which a wide range of cultural issues are crucial to this moment." Another positive sign is that, like Obrist, Rugoff is building on a long-standing association with the city. London was his home for several years before he moved to San Francisco--his wife is British--and he was previously a research fellow at Goldsmiths College.

The danger for both curators is that their loose-limbed thinking might end up buried under layers of bureaucracy. For a possible corrective to this pitfall, it's worth looking at the recent work of Jens Hoffman, who left Berlin, where he was an independent curator, to become director of exhibitions at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2004. While that institution is, admittedly, inextricably wedded to the cutting-edge, it's notable that Hoffman is currently in the midst of a proper innovation: a staggered exhibition project with Tino Seghal, in which audiences will have a chance to see the latter's "deproduced" model of art evolve over three exhibitions in three years. "Around the World in Eighty Days," meanwhile--which, opening at the end of May, was cocurated by Hoffman with Claire Fitzsimmons and utilizes both the ICA and the South London Gallery, vaulting over territorial rivalries in the process--combines commissioned artistic responses to Jules Verne's novel with existing works that bear on themes explored in the text to meditate on the globalization of the London art scene. Traditional solo presentations are, at today's ICA, conspicuous by virtue of their scarcity.

Appointments such as Rugoff's, Obrist's, and Hoffman's are, of course, major contributions to that aforementioned internationalizing, which now has a momentum of its own. As Rugoff points out, London's cultural-capital status attracts artists to live and work there; this tempts international curators, who in turn extend the mix of art being shown. Hoffman, then, deserves credit for his part within that domino effect--not for being the first international curator to come and work in London (there've been plenty of those; indeed, the three most recent curators at the Serpentine have been non-Brits), but for importing a riskier style of curating whose manifest potential has paved the way for the arrival of Obrist and Rugoff. The latter two's moves could speculatively entrain a sea change in the way that contemporary art is presented in London on an institutional level. Beyond that--and bearing in mind that both Goldsmiths College and the Royal College of Art run well-regarded curating courses--the influx of new talent might help to turn the city into a center of innovative curating practice.

The gravitation of Obrist and Hoffman to London, however, also suggests a broader dissatisfaction with the hulking biennales and endless one-off projects to which their work was increasingly becoming hitched, a wish to hunker down and extend their strategies over time in one place. Without hunting for conspiracy, one might also glimpse a communal ambition to spatialize a less hidebound model of curating across the city, mutating its public spaces into nodes of blue-sky thinking. In 2005 Obrist was hotly tipped as the ICA's next artistic director; he demurred, claiming too many commitments. In practice, with Hoffman ripping up the rule book in the galleries, he wasn't needed there. (The job went to critic Ekow Eshun.) Meanwhile, Obrist's appearance at the Serpentine and Rugoff's at the Hayward appear at this stage to be nothing but boons to the city. If the London art world is transitioning into a scene that feels comfortable about celebrating itself, as exhibitions like the Verne-themed adventure suggest, it is figures such as these who will likely ensure that even the city's statelier institutions deliver exhibitions worth celebrating.

MARTIN HERBERT IS A WRITER AND CRITIC BASED IN TUNBRIDGE WELLS, KENT.
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Author:Herbert, Martin
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:1963
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