do it: the compendium

by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Published by Independent Curators International/D.A.P., April, 2013

May 28th, 2013

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do it is the brainchild of Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist who first made the art world sit up and take notice of his curatorial prowess when at the age of twenty-three he mounted a show in his kitchen. Aptly titled The Kitchen Show, it featured the work of heavyweight artists like Christian Boltanski and collaborators Peter Fischli & David Weiss. One of the most influential curators working today, he is currently Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery and in 2009, ArtReview magazine gave Obrist top billing in its annual round up of the art world’s one hundred most powerful people. do it is a publication documenting a project Obrist dreamed up twenty years ago at the Café Select in Paris over drinks with Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier – the trio were interested in flexible exhibition formats and wondered if they could create shows based on instructions conceived by artists but carried out by others. As the foreword succinctly sums up “ultimately do it is the result of a simple proposition: Create an instruction that someone else can use to make artwork.” Obrist’s idea caught on and do it exhibitions have been incarnated more than fifty times over two decades.

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To begin, Obrist asked 13 artists to send instructions which were translated into nine languages and circulated as a book – this sparked a number of exhibitions globally in which the artists’ works were realized. The exhibition never really ceased and the book’s back cover lists the two hundred and fifty odd artists who have participated since the project’s inception; it reads like a who’s who of contemporary art and includes many of the most influential practitioners working today – from Marina Abramović to Lygia Clark, Sol LeWitt to Lawrence Weiner – a testament both to the importance of this project and to the incredible network Obrist has built up over the years. do it: the compendium brings together texts examining the exhibition’s roots and evolution over the years. Not surprisingly, Obrist’s introductory essay begins with Marcel Duchamp who originated the idea of instructions as artworks. Bruce Altshuler’s essay traces the genesis of this type of artwork, a pre-history of do it as he calls it, back to Duchamp as well who in 1919 sent his sister Suzanne instructions to create a wedding gift for her marriage to Jean Crotti. To enact the work called Unhappy Ready-Made, they were to hang a text on geometry from their balcony so the breeze could “go through the book [and] choose its own problems…” do it also includes an interview between Obrist and Kate Fowle in which Obrist also elucidates the important point that this series of exhibitions was partly inspired by the wish to blur the boundaries between art and life.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Undoubtedly the best part of do it is the incredibly diverse artist instructions it includes which are by turns poetic and profound, wacky and subversive. Maurizio Cattelan’s Instruction, 2004 reads “The curator or organizer of the exhibition must wear only his/her underwear and shoes at the opening of the show.” Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work is a recipe for what seems like a spicy condiment or dip including garlic, jalapeno chilies and shrimp paste. Elmgreen & Dragset’s Dinner for Two, 2002 offers instructions on how to set a table and then pull its tablecloth – the destroyed china and glassware are the desired outcome. Tacita Dean’s Finding a four leaf clover on a sunny day, 2002 offers precise guidance on how this is to be achieved, reading almost as a poem:

Wait for a sunny day
Look for a field full of clovers
Make sure there are no sheep or cows grazing in the field
Walk slowly into the field
Keep your eyes absolutely focused on the clovers
Try not to tread on them
See the clover with the four leaves
Pick it
Press it into a book

Author and artist Douglas Coupland who is a contributor to do it aptly describes it as “…a kind of Catcher in the Rye for the curatorial world; it is a transformative mandatory read that connects a blur of dots into a cohesive and inviting image of both the art universe and the universe of ideas.” do it is a both a testament to the central legacy of Conceptualism amongst contemporary artists today as well as a useful tool in understanding the collaborative and open-ended nature of Obrist’s curatorial practice. While traditional approaches to exhibition creation favour order and permanence, Obrist’s revolutionary approach to curating has profoundly affected the way exhibitions are conceived and achieved today.


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