The Books That Influence Hans Ulrich Obrist

To celebrate the release of his new book, Remember to Dream! 100 Artists, 100 Notes, the author and curator shares a list of literary works that have inspired him

BY Hans Ulrich Obrist in Books , Opinion | 23 JAN 24

To celebrate the recent release of Remember to Dream! 100 Artists, 100 Notes, curator and writer Hans Ulrich Obrist shares a reading list for frieze, consisting of works that have left a lasting impression on his practice and continue to influence his approach to the art of writing.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Remember to Dream, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: HENI Publishing
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Remember to Dream, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: HENI Publishing

Carl Seelig, Walks with Walser, trans. by Anne Posten (2017, New Directions)

ESWRW: Everything started with Robert Walser... Growing up in the eastern part of Switzerland – not far from Herisau where the Swiss writer Robert Walser famously spent his last decades in a sanatorium – I was always fascinated by Carl Seelig’s book Walks with Walser, which begins in 1936 and was originally published in 1957. Seelig, who was Walser’s literary executor, regularly visited the author in the sanatorium, and accompanied him on long meandering walks through the countryside, transcribing their conversations. These amazing accounts of his time with Walser are imbued with a sense of the transitory and suspended existence that he lived during his latter years.

Carl Seelig, Walks with Walker, 2017, book cover. Courtesy: New Directions
Carl Seelig, Walks with Walser, 2017, book cover. Courtesy: New Directions

I was always fascinated by the way the conversations scale down to the rudiments of process, the mixing of high literature and pulp fiction, the immense modesty and attention to the everyday landscape of Walser’s world, which Seelig describes so brilliantly. (The book was only translated into English for the first time in 2017.) Reading Walks with Walser as an adolescent inspired me to record and write down the encounters I have with artists and poets. Seelig’s book was also the reason why in 1992 as a student I founded a small migratory and peripheral museum in memory of Walser in the Hotel Krone in Gais, Switzerland, where he and Seelig often stopped for a drink during their long ambles. My small Walser museum consisted of a discreet, movable vitrine which was surrounded by the daily activities of the restaurant, where I invited artists to make small homages to the writer. In the process, I also got to spend time with Werner Morlang, who, with his colleague Bernhard Echte, devoted several decades to deciphering Walser’s enigmatic ‘microscripts’: short stories and novels often written on small pieces of paper no bigger than a business card. The microscripts were later transcribed and edited in a six-volume publication titled Aus dem Bleistiftgebiet (From the Pencil Zone, 1985–2000). The microscripts also marked the beginning of my interest in handwritten manuscripts, bringing us to my new book Remember to Dream!, which features handwritten notes by 100 artists.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Order and Cleanliness (1981)

Robert Walser’s unique reflections on everyday life bring us to the artists’ book Order and Cleanliness, by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, who were my mentors growing up in Switzerland. Order and Cleanliness was the first artists’ book I ever came across when I was a teenager and I visited Fischli and Weiss in Zurich, the very same day they were filming the endless chain of reactions that would become The Way Things Go (1987). The artists’ book was released a few years earlier and sold as souvenir merchandise for the launch of their early film The Least Resistance (1981). The booklet, designed and self-produced by the artists, is full of magical charts and diagrams, each attempting in vain to impose order on the world. It is rather like another favourite artist’s book of mine, Alighiero Boettis The Thousand Longest Rivers of the World (1976–82), a book which tries to create a hierarchy of all the rivers, but faces the impossible challenge of finding absolute measurements.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Order and Cleanliness, 1981. Courtesy: do you read me?!
Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Order and Cleanliness, 1981, book cover. Courtesy: do you read me?!, Berlin

Friederike Mayröcker and Maria Lassnig, Rosengarten (1984)

Inspired by Carl Seelig's encounters with Walser, as a teenager I started visiting artists’ studios by night train all over Europe. Some of the first studio visits included a visit with Cy Twombly in Rome and with Maria Lassnig in Vienna. Both Cy and Maria spoke to me about poetry and about the importance of bringing artists and poets together. Lassnig told me about her passion for the literary work of Friederike Mayröcker and showed me Rosengarten (Rose Garden), Lassnig and Mayröcker’s collaborative artists’ book. In this publication, Mayröcker’s poems were accompanied by Lassnig’s illustrations – a combination that would leave a lasting impression on me. Lassnig read to me from Rosengarten and explained that her paintings described a bodily awareness, while Mayröcker’s texts dealt with physical contemplation. Mayröcker told me she believes that writing reflects life, naming melancholy as her driving force. She devoted herself fully to writing; the intensity of her dedication resulted in more than a hundred books. As the poet Marcel Beyer wrote: ‘Friederike Mayröcker always spoke with all of us, and she bestowed upon us the gentlest images, the most arousing words, and the most insightful revelations.’

Friederike Mayröcker and Maria Lassnig, Rosengarten, 1984, book cover
Friederike Mayröcker and Maria Lassnig, Rosengarten, 1984, book cover. Courtesy: Eurobuch

Kim Hyesoon, Autobiography of Death, trans. by Don Mee Choi (2018, New Directions)

On 16 April 2014, a ferry travelling with 476 passengers (among them 250 school students) set off for the holiday island Je-judo, South Korea. Illegally overloaded with freight, the boat sank, and 304 people died in the ice-cold sea. The disaster led to mass protests and the resignation of prime minister Lee Wan-koo. In the aftermath the poet Kim Hyesoon started to work on her book The Autobiography of Death, mixing mythology with real-life politics. Kim follows the souls of the deceased victims, each one of the 49 poems representing a day during which their spirits roam in a state of bardo, an intermediate existence between death and rebirth posited in some Buddhist traditions. The victims of the ferry disaster meet other victims who had lost their life to government violence, for instance the many who died during the Gwangju uprising of May 1980. Autobiography of Death, as the author told me, is a book that addresses ‘the structure of death that we remain living in.’

Kim Hyesoon, Autobiography of Death, Autobiography of Death, translated by Don Mee Choi (2018, New Directions)
Kim Hyesoon, Autobiography of Death, translated by Don Mee Choi, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: New Directions

Edouard Glissant, Sartorius (1999, Gallimard)

The author I read every morning when I wake up is the Martinican philosopher and poet Edouard Glissant. I spent a lot of time with Glissant; many of our recorded conversations are currently on display at the Luma Westbau exhibition space in Zurich, alongside a series of artists’ posters made in homage to the author. It is difficult to choose just one book by Glissant, but here I chose his little-known and visionary novel Sartorius, where he tells the tale of the utopian Batouto people, a fictional society that derives its identity not from genealogy but solely from being in constant exchange with others. In our talks over the years, Glissant referred to his idea of society as a quivering utopia because it transcends established systems of thoughts and subjects itself to the unknown. He told me that utopia is not uncertainty, and it is not fear – it is a trembling thought.

Edouard Glissant, Sartorius, 1999. Courtesy: Gallimard
Edouard Glissant, Sartorius, 1999, book cover. Courtesy: Gallimard

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Le fagot de ma memoire (2021, Phillippe Rey)

During the lockdown, whilst I was working on my first, more personal autobiographical book, Une vie in progress (2023, Édition le Seuil), I had a Zoom conversation with the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne. He told me that he was also working on his own memoir. Le fagot de ma memoire (My Bundle of Memories), is a tribute to Bachir Diagne’s two big influences, the philosophers Henri Bergson and Mohamed Iqbal. According to Bachir Diagne, we live in a postcolonial moment where the definition of the universal no longer is an imperial imposition but the inscription of a plurality of the world on a common horizon. To reject a universalism which is the manifestation of a European exceptionalism, means also to walk towards the pluriversal. Bachir Diagne, however, does not read the pluriversal as antithetical to the universal, but as the interpenetration of both entities.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Le fagot de ma memoire (2021, Gallimard)
Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Le fagot de ma memoire, 2021, book cover. Courtesy: Amazon

Helene Cixous, Incendire: Qu’est-ce qu’on emporte (2023, Gallimard)

I keep returning to the work of Helene Cixous, who recently told me I see everything in terms of the future. In our talks, Cixous often emphasizes the importance of multiple identities. In her own words: ‘I am a mass of continents, contradictions, compatible incompatibilities.’ Cixous is a philosopher, novelist, critic, playwright and teacher. Her most recent book, Incendire: Qu’est-ce qu’on emporte (Fire: What to Bring, 2023), is one of the most urgent texts I have read about the climate crisis. Incendire addresses the nightmarish experience of being amid a wildfire. In a year of record temperatures, Cixous writes about the night of black ashes that replace the stars.

Helene Cixous, Incendire: Qu’est-ce qu’on emporte (2023, Gallimard)
Helene Cixous, Incendire: Qu’est-ce qu’on emporte, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Gallimard

Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Remember to Dream! is published by HENI Publishing and is available now.

Main image: Kim Hyesoon, Autobiography of Death, translated by Don Mee Choi, 2018. Courtesy: New Directions

Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London, UK.