I Suggest You Look Outside The Window

Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries since 2006, is arguably the art world’s busiest curator. This year, however, his most intriguing show is at The Design Museum – a retrospective on Enzo Mari, a designer, artist and teacher who continues to resist categorisation. Here Deyan Sudjic and Hans Ulrich discuss Mari, his work, and the particular challenges of a show as ambitious as this

Lo zoo di Enzo by Nanda Vigo. 2020. © Triennale Milano.Photo by Gianluca Di Ioia

How did you come to have the idea of working on an exhibition with Enzo Mari?

In a way, it began when I met him. The late 90s were a really interesting moment at the Iuav , the Venice architecture school. They invited Olafur Eliasson, Stefano Boeri who later became the editor of Domus and me to do a series of seminars. Basically we said, you know, let’s not divide architecture and art in the Vasari way. Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects – we combined our seminars, which was kind of a thing, but it actually worked. It was before I moved to London, I was a curator at the Musée d’Arte Moderne in Paris at the time. Every second week I took the night train to Venice on a Thursday. I would arrive in the morning, teach on Friday, and then go for the weekend to Milan to work with Stefano on Domus. Then there would always be these dinners at Stefano’s home in via Donizetti. They were extraordinary, Vico Magistretti would be there, Nanda Vigo would be there, very often on the same evening. Achille Castiglioni was still alive, Ettore Sottsass would come. There would be Stefano’s mother Cini Boeri and Enzo Mari.

Even before that, a key thing in my encountering Mari was a show called Do It, that I did with Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier. It began 30 years ago and it’s still going on. We thought that it would be nice to do an exhibition based on instructions and how-to-do-it manuals. I was in the art world, so I knew the history, from Duchamp to Moholy-Nagy, conceptual art, and Fluxus. But it’s only through Do It’s endless tour that I started to learn about what role instruction art plays in Asia, in Tropicalía and Brazilian art history, and what role it plays in African art history. People started to say, “You should also look into other disciplines.” Initially I was only looking at art, and then I started to research architecture, design and music.

And design is a set of instructions.

Exactly, and I came across Mari. Even before I met him in the 90s, we invited him for Do It. Autoprogettazione was always, I think, very, very popular.

I was kind of amazed by Mari. There was a book of his which I came across. [The Function of Aesthetic Research, published in 1970] It’s an incredible masterpiece, which he designed himself. It was his first retrospective when he was around 40. He made the graphic design. I think it’s genius, and so I’ll always carry it with me.

He was fascinating because he brought all these disciplines together. Industrial design, design, science, visual art. He was part of Arte Programmata . I started to have deeper conversations with him. I would go and visit him and make recordings of our conversations. I realised that the complexity of his world was almost irreducible. Each time we met, we could cover another ground. For example, we did one session just on book design. He had an amazing practice. He not only designed his own books, but also did books for Antonio Negri .

We did another interview about Arte Programmata with Nanda Vigo. It was quite a short period when Mari really was a visual artist. Then we did another one on environmental questions.

I was always saying to Stefano Boeri, you know, I dream one day that we can do a big show about Mari. Each of those conversations would be a chapter. One could do an extraordinary, big show about Mari, that had never happened before.

Boeri said we needed to do this show one day, but we didn’t really know exactly where. It wasn’t completely right to do it in an art museum. The Musée d’Arte Moderne in Paris, where I was at the time, wouldn’t feel completely right. Even if he had a period as a visual artist, he needed to be contextualised as a designer. So it was a project which didn’t have a home for years. Then Boeri was appointed as the president of the Triennale [in 2018]. Literally the hour he got appointed, he rang me, and he said, “we have the venue”.

Mari was always positive about this? Because he did need quite careful handling. He could become quite abrasive in the wrong circumstances, but he was always positive about the idea?

You and I met through the jury for the Kiesler Prize that went to Cedric Price. In that respect Mari is quite similar. Both Cedric Price and Mari had a quite strong antagonism to their field. I mean to their main field – I would say Mari’s main field is design – and he had an extreme antagonism, particularly to the commercial side of it. In a similar way to Cedric Price, who had a very big resistance to architecture.

Enzo Mari. Photo by Ramak Fazel

But paradoxically he would also work for Hermès. And make objects for Danesi?

Exactly. And he would also design shows for Cartier. He did do that. But he did have a resistance… I don’t think it was so much the idea of working with brands he was against, because he did it himself. But he was really against the idea that things would be done and wouldn’t last. When we went to see design shows, he would always say “this will not last”. But also, I had the feeling that because of my not coming from the design world, it was kind of easier, maybe. 

You weren’t part of a tribe.

In a way. Maybe I was more neutral.

And did he have any involvement in the way that the exhibition shaped itself?

He had a very strong involvement. I went to see him with Boeri multiple times. There was actually an exhibition in Turin in 2008, part of the Torino World Design Capital, which I went to visit. That was, of course, before we could start on the exhibition, we just went from curiosity to see the show. It’s the last show he designed during his lifetime. He was very, very involved in that. He supervised the exhibition design and grouped the whole oeuvre of thousands of works according to different themes and groupings. He also developed a plinth for the display.

When I started on the exhibition, he was already quite frail. It was the last two or three years of his life. He couldn’t attend the opening of the show. It was a complete tragedy. He died the day after the opening, and Lea Vergine the day after him.

That last show of his was a departure point. I have always found it interesting to see how one can restage exhibitions and exhibition designs. From there he was comfortable for us to let it evolve. Lea Virgine was very involved. We had many conversations with her. Both Mari and Virgine loved my suggestion that we should invite artists and a few of his designer friends – Nanda Vigo was the foremost, to do homages. He loved this idea. He was very interdisciplinary. It went from Dozie Kanu, who is a young artist, to Virgil Abloh, who was obsessed by Mari, and they all did tributes to him.

Do you think people understand what he really was? Perhaps that is a ridiculous question. He was so many things, he was the kind of designer that you can take what you want from.

I think that’s the idea of the show, that everyone can find their own thing in it. There seems to be an ever-increasing interest in Mari by younger generations. And I was wondering, what’s the reason? We started to do design shows at the Serpentine where we give carte blanche to a designer; Konstantin Grcic, FormaFantasma and then Martino Gamper. All roads always led to Mari. When I asked them, “Who are the designers who inspire you?” they all said Mari. Martino Gamper even included Mari in his show at the Serpentine.

I think it’s also Mari’s environmentalist approach and his idea of never doing anything which is not needed that interests an even younger generation, like FormaFantasma.

I was looking again at an interview with Mari. He told me, “I suggest you look outside the window, if you like what you see, there’s no reason for new projects. If, on the other hand, there are things that fill you with horror to the point of making you want to kill those responsible, then there are good reasons for your project.” That has to be a very Mari sentence. So transformation comes from need in a way.

A couple of times during the Salone , I would ring him up, and say, “Do you want to go and see some shows?” And he obviously wouldn’t really do that usually, but then he found it amusing. I remember once he stopped and began to scream: “This is not going to last!” A crowd of people started to gather, it was a whole scene.

I don’t know the notion in design… in fashion it’s fast fashion. Maybe a word is needed to describe it in design. FormaFantasma, in their exhibition at the Serpentine, analysed that an IKEA chair would have to last several generations in order for the resources to be justified, And I think that’s how they explained to me why Mari is so relevant for them. But then every generation will find something else in him, no?

Equipment for research on colour and volume
relations. 1952. Photo attributed to Paolo Monti

What is the story about his donation – to the Triennale – of his archive, with the proviso that it’s not shown again for 30 years?

That was also quite an extraordinary moment. It was the last time we recorded him – about a year before the opening. Stefano Boeri and I went to see him. At the moment when it all seemed to be falling into place, the retrospective would be happening, all of a sudden, in his last interview (which we then published in La Repubblica because he asked us to make it public) he announced, in a very determined way, that though he does want to give the work to Milan, he does not want the work to be shown again for 30 years.

What was in his head when he said, after 30 years?

I just think it’s this act of resistance.

Was he just trying to be difficult?

An act of resistance, but also, no, he did say in this interview that he just feels that the state of design today is such that he feels it needs a pause.

He wants to wait for better times?

Yes, wait for better times. And then I explained to him that maybe actually for people to see his work might make the situation better. It was a whole thing, you know.

Making an exhibition about design, is that entirely a different activity from making an exhibition about art?

It’s different. I clearly come from the art world. I’m a curator who learned to do exhibitions in the art context. But then I always felt that it’s important to kind of connect. And that’s also why the interest in Mari, to connect art to design, to architecture, to science, to music, and to have a very interdisciplinary kind of curation. I think exhibitions are a great way of bringing all these fields together. I found it interesting to bring designers and architects into my shows in the 90s. When we did Cities on the Move, Toyo Ito, and Isozaki and Sejima would send maquettes, and then they came to see our show, and they realised, “wow, actually, artists are doing experiences, so for your next iteration, we’re going to send you something else.”

But then, of course, at a certain moment, after having done for many years this idea of bringing designers and architects into the art world, I started to be invited into the design and architecture world, every now and then. It doesn’t happen that often, but it happens every now and then.

Maybe you can shoot this down, but I’ve always had in my mind this idea that design needs more help when it is being exhibited.

It needs more scenography, possibly, and that is somehow seen as being inappropriate in an art context. Every so often I read Remy Zaugg’s book The Art Museum of My Dreams… and I find him excoriating everything I’ve ever tried in an architecture exhibition.

I’m aware I haven’t answered your question. I was sort of circling around it because it’s a really interesting and complex question. I think with architecture – which is the reason why we’re doing pavilions here at the Serpentine – that the best way to solve the conundrum is basically just build it. In the sense that I think maquettes of architecture are really difficult for an audience who isn’t so familiar with architecture. That doesn’t mean only to do pavilions, it can also be very interesting with architecture that architects come up with a display feature or an experience inside, like Norman Foster’s brilliant Pompidou show (2023). But then with designers, to come back to your question, it’s not that one shows maquettes, they are the actual work. So it’s a less big conundrum.

I worked in the Barragán house [in Mexico City] I curated a show there. And then I also did one in the Lina Bo Bardi house [in Sao Paolo]. That’s another connection to design and architecture – I curate these shows in these houses, and then it’s almost like one lives in these houses for the time one curates the show. Inhabiting and keeping it in your life.

I will never forget we were in the Barragán house, with Cerith Wyn Evans and with Philippe Parreno and Roni Horn, and various other artists were there. All of a sudden, the record player worked again, because he had a record player in every room. And Cerith started to put records on, and then we were looking at some videos with Barragán’s voice. The house suddenly came alive.

With Mari, it’s different, of course, because the exhibition is not in his house. Sadly, that’s my biggest regret.

That is something which society is missing out on. These important apartments and offices, which are like Gesamtkunstwerk, where visionary artists or designers work for their entire life. They should be kept so people can visit them in the future. With Mari, sadly, it couldn’t be preserved. But in any case, we are obviously not in the house. I do believe that it makes a huge difference in an exhibition to have videos in which he talks. In a one-to-one situation people can sit in front of the monitor, put the headphones on, and almost meet him. We met him, but the majority of the people who see the show will never have met him.

I hope that the Mari show can give people different entry points and experiences, more than just the objects.

The Nature Series. No. 2/ the pear with Elio Mari. 1961. Photo Danese Milano

I loved his office and his filing system, two piles marked ‘Importante’ and ‘Meno Importante’.

That’s why I think his office should have been preserved, that would be magical. The idea was always that we wanted people to visit the Triennale and then, in small groups, the office. That was my kind of premise, you know, so that the exhibition would be in both places. I then was having a sleepless night, and Stefano called me and said, “This is not possible.” And that kind of – undermined is a bit of a strong word – it sort of weakened the curatorial premise of the show in Milan, because I had this idea of having these two places, you know. And then I came up the next morning with this idea that we could ring the great Mimmo Jodice. Who is now, I mean, he’s very old. and one of the greatest photographers of his generation, he’s based in Napoli. And who also knew Mari since the 60s. We would get Mimmo Jodice to absolutely, mimetically photographically document the now no-longer-existing studio. So at least we would have that for posterity as a sort of photography thing. The photos then became part of the show.

There’s a different time scale, strangely, for furniture and for technology. Furniture can still be relevant 100 years after it was designed.

Mari has that total timelessness. It’s also not a design show only, because there are all these other dimensions to his work. So in the exhibition, at certain moments you are in an art show, because you have his Arte Programmata period, then you’re at certain moments in an industrial design show. Then you’re in a furniture show, and then at a certain moment, you know, you’re in a… you have his whole educational thing, you know, these are the lessons.

Is curating changing? You might be described as the successor of Harald Szeemann, and one could say, of the creative use of what curating can be, are we now moving into a more collective period?

I have always thought of curating as a collective process. I worked with Kasper König, who was my mentor. But I did interview Szeemann. I studied his work and I met him as a teenager growing up in Switzerland in the 1980s. So it was certainly important just to be aware at such an early age that the idea of curator, and the kind of role they can play in society, existed as a profession. He was important in that way, but from the beginning I never followed the model of signature exhibitions. For me it’s always a collaboration, it’s always a collaborative practice, a hugely collaborative practice. It’s a collaborative practice with the designer, with all the artists who are involved, with Francesca Giacomelli, who is the scholar, and a great expert on Mari. It’s a collaborative practice with Stefano Boeri, because this has clearly been developed with him, you know, from the beginning. It’s a collaborative practice in many different ways. I would say all my shows have been the collaborative kind of endeavours. I never really curated a show on my own, or very rarely.


This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here