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Exhibitions > Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist
Ron Arad in Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

London, December 11, 2012

Hans Ulrich Obrist [H.U.O.]
To begin, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the genesis of this exhibition. Obviously it's a very special exhibition for you, and it comes after your big survey exhibition at the MoMA and at the Pompidou, and the show at the Barbican.


Ron Arad [R.A.]
The best one was at the Barbican. I was going to turn it down but then I had a meeting with Kate Bush and Lydia Yee and I couldn't turn it down. I said okay to the Barbican show, and I loved it. And now there's another one pending at the Stedelijk. The building work took forever and it is delayed. I can't do the same show again and again. I don't need to have a collection of my own work on pedestals with dates and materials; it's not that interesting. But enough time has passed and we'll come up with a fresh idea.

So this museum [Design Museum Holon] that I designed, I owed them a show for a long time and I couldn't delay it any more. I had a different idea for it. I'm so glad I went off it, and instead of doing another survey, another retrospective, I thought of a way of doing a retrospective in big chunks of ideas, and we called it In Reverse: that's the name of the show. 

When I started in the 1980s I did very physical things like bashing metal and welding and doing the nearest thing that you could do in three-dimensions to action painting. And recently, the digital world, which I thought was going to leave me behind, sort of took over - a complete dependency on zeros and ones. But I'm still in Camden, in the same place where I was bashing metal. I was sucked into the world of design through the scrapyards. My first ever piece of furniture, before I knew I was going to do furniture, was The Rover Chair (1981).

Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist | Ron Arad: In Reverse
   Arad with Dats Et at Realize workshops, Como, 2012

Recently I found myself in an amazing place in Milan where we crushed a sculpture called Dats Et (2012) to rescue it. It was designed for the atrium and roof of building in France, but the project was cancelled. The sculpture was already being made and had to be altered due to the scale and because it depended on the building for structural support. So we crushed it at the Milan Polytechnic. And I got the idea to crush in reverse. I used to bash metal to make things useful, or usable, and here we're doing the reverse. I was in Italy and I had a long love affair with the Fiat 500, the Cinquecento. I decided to take these three-dimensional beauties and make paintings out of them, to eternalize them.

[H.U.O.]
So that ties in again with the beginning.


[R.A.]
Yes, it does. Also, I've always collected things like that. It was impossible not to collect a can from the street that was crushed by millions of cars. It's like nature, an amazing beauty created by imposing forces on things, and the whole thing is about selecting. I was an unstoppable collector of things like that and I still have a collection. I think I showed Lydia a crushed toy police car that for some reason I brought with me when I came to live in London. That's exhibit number one. So we have on one side the physical crushing and on the other side digital crushing. We can do the latter very, very well in the studio, but I want to make it even more, more something, I don't know what the word is. I'm teaming up with a post-production company called Framestore, whose expertise is making things look so real, and also HyperWorks, a company that simulates accidents to improve car design. Their concern is not visual or artistic - it's safety. We're crushing cars, again it's a Fiat, but it's the new Fiat 500 rather than the old one. The sketches we did in the studio of digital crushing - if it was five or ten years ago, I'd say "Wow, amazing, fantastic, that's it done," but instead we're going out of our way to make it stupidly realistic.

[H.U.O.]
So it's going to be a very different exhibition, it will not be just exhibits of your design objects. It will be more like an exhibition where you use the exhibition as a medium of some sort?


Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist | Ron Arad: In Reverse
    Preliminary exhibition design for In Reverse, 2013

[R.A.]
Yes, but I know I won't get away with not showing some of my things so it's technically two ways. First, the main exhibition hall is very big so I am building an exhibition within the exhibition, and walls that will be painted white like the perfect white cube, and behind them will be the backstage. And in the backstage we will put things that refer to what you see in the main exhibition. For me, when that show will be exhibited somewhere else, indeed in a white cube gallery, I will not need to show these references. But as it is a museum and as there is some expectation there, I am putting it behind the scenes.

[H.U.O.]
Like a battery...

[R.A.]
Like references, like when you do a book and there's the main things and the small illustrations in squares...

[H.U.O.]
Annotations, the reference images, yes.

[R.A.]
And that's one thing I'm doing. The other thing is I'm building a car, a Fiat, in rods. It's a bit like other stuff that I did. I don't know if you remember, like the Thumbprint, and the Gomli, which are made of thousands of stainless steel rods that form contour lines over an armature. In that technique there a very exciting thing happening between the given - your decision to do something, the starting point - and what happens later, which you're not controlling completely. But it's a lot better than if you did control it, because it has unexpected patterns and things. And that piece was going to be shown next to the wooden mould of the original Fiat - which Dante Giacosa, the designer of the Fiat 500, did with his artisans. But then we thought about putting it outside because the museum itself is made of Cor-Ten, and it's rusty, so that the reflective stainless steel will be at the same time very jewel-like, pristine and reflective, but also rusty, because it's like a chameleon. And the rust will move on it as you move around.

Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist | Ron Arad: In Reverse
    Digital collage of the exterior of Design Museum Holon with
    Roddy Giacosa, 2012

And another thing that we want to do with the digital bit is to print the crushed car full size. And the film that we're working on will be shown very, very slowly until it crushes itself, but the crusher will be invisible and then when it's crushed it will start waking up. How fast or how long it will take we don't know yet. So far, I've crushed vintage models of Fiat 500s.

 

[H.U.O.]
But that's already happened?

[R.A.]
Yes, we've already crushed the first big car. I was going to do it first at the Milan Polytechnic where I crushed the sculpture. But Roberto Travaglia, who has been my priceless collaborator for about 25 years, decided to do it near his factory and then at another place. Then he said, "No, no, I'll do it in the workshop where I do the rest of the stuff." I said to him, "How are you going to do it?" - because I know he doesn't have the powerful press that I imagine it takes to do it. I did a cartoon and I said, "Are you going to do it like that?" He looked at me like you'd look at Derren Brown, like "How do you know?" Then he did it. He crushed the first one initially to 50cm, so he could take it
to another powerful press. I'm not completely happy with it now because we did some tests with models and the press was so large and strong in relation to these toy cars, that it makes the manual crushing look pedestrian. But we're just learning. First of all you have to learn, in Italy it's almost illegal to do what we're doing, because to take a car off the road (i.e. to stop paying road tax), you have to give it to a real crusher, and it's a procedure. But we decided to do it anyway.


[H.U.O.]
Before we move on, it's interesting that you said that this exhibition grew out of the Barbican show, and that this was by far your favorite exhibition. The Barbican is in itself a challenging space, so you can't really just install a show. It has this Brutalist structure, which often triggers the invention of the display feature.


[R.A.]
Everyone tells you that the Barbican space is impossible, but I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the mezzanine. And we came up with a device to make it even more interesting with the LED panels.

    Attempt at manually crushing of a Fiat 500 at Realize,
    Como, Italy, 2012

[H.U.O.]

Richard Hamilton said that we only remember exhibitions that also invent a display feature. Other exhibitions are doomed for oblivion. Obviously your Barbican exhibition invented a display feature. Can you tell me about this display device?

[R.A.]

The Barbican has a mezzanine with eight spaces, and rather than build walls and make them rooms, we put LED panels so you could see through them, depending on how bright the picture was, and we had some sentences telling you what happened in each room. 
We came up with verbs ending with the "-ing" form: "tinkering," "scavenging," "superforming," all sorts of buzzwords, and some sentences that we took out of the interviews that we made. Also, you had a relationship with the panels that you don't normally have. Normally you see them from far away. So rather than panic about the low resolution - it was very high resolution for what it was - we sort of enjoyed it. Also, there were eight screens like that, so we didn't make a film for each screen, we made one film that meant that all the rooms were synchronized so you could stand in one place and see the whole thing changing together. So that was the main display device, and it was a tightrope whether we could get it on time, whether we could get it on budget, whether it was going to work... Also we enjoyed the back
side of them, because once you're inside the space you don't see anything, just wires
and things.

[H.U.O.]
The backstage idea started there. We've got already this backstage idea, which now in Design Museum Holon becomes important.

[R.A.]
Yes, but the backstage was the front...

[H.U.O.]
It was inverted, reverted.

Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist | Ron Arad: In Reverse
    Crushed toy police car found by Arad in Tel Aviv in
    the 1960s

[R.A.]

Yes. We also had views of the rest of it [from the mezzanine] and we had an area at the beginning where people could use stuff, because some of the exhibits are really useful things, and part of the enjoyment is not just visual. If you see a ping pong table you want to play on it, or if you see a sofa you want to sit on it. So I enjoyed the space. I know it's common to say about the Barbican that it's an impossible space, but also I like the utopian concrete architecture that is not always the most beautiful. And it was good.

[H.U.O.]
When you describe the display feature on the mezzanine, it is obviously also connected to the work you were doing in 2011 when you invented another display feature with a cinema screen for the Roundhouse, no? I had never seen before films screened on such curtains; it was very strange when people walked in, it created waves and irregularities.

Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist | Ron Arad: In Reverse
    Installation view of Ron Arad: Restless
[R.A.]

And the nice thing about the Roundhouse is that no one, including all the people who prepared work for it, could see it until just a few hours before the opening. We were all believing, yes it's going to be good, it's going to work. I made a little, simple screen in the studio, but the rest - we guessed it was going to be okay, and it was great! I thought we were in the best place for it, that it was never going to find a better place than the Roundhouse. Then it moved outdoors to the Noguchi sculpture garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and it had another life, and the funny thing is that the same work had different meanings outdoors. In Jerusalem, it was 

something that I started with some reluctance, because I thought if it's going to be in that country it's going to be in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem. But they twisted my arm, and I don't regret it. It was pretty amazing.


[H.U.O.]
One thing which is interesting is that in all these exhibitions you use the medium of exhibitions that have happened before, but now for this exhibition at Design Museum Holon, it's obviously the first time you design, develop, and together curate an exhibition for a museum which you have basically built. I think that's a rare occasion that one sort of plays around with a building which...

[R.A.]
My excuse was, look I've done my bit here. It didn't work, so we'll see, maybe...


[H.U.O.]
But Design Museum Holon is a major shift, it's your first really major building I suppose. You've done architecture before and you've done several architecture projects, but until the museum you were much more known as a designer than as an architect. The museum really changed that. So I was wondering, what was the epiphany of Design Museum Holon, how did it come about? How did you have the idea for the museum?

[R.A.]
The thing is that when I designed it, I didn't believe they were going to do it. Like when I started my company, One Off, I didn't believe that they were going to let me stay in England [due to visa problems], so there was nothing to lose. In the same way, I was very difficult, I was very "hard to get" when they asked me to do the museum. I said, "You need a competition. You can't just give a museum to an architect without a competition." The city lawyer said, "It's art, so we don't need a competition." I used to call the building an autistic building, because you look around and there is not much to want to blend with or to react against. I said, okay the museum is going to look at itself. And once you're inside the only outside you can see is basically the sky, wonderful sky. With architecture, there are always negotiations: with clients, with neighbors, with husbands, with wives, with the firemen... it's negotiation. And juggling the compromises is a great part of the profession. And there, because I didn't believe that they were going to go through with it, there was no negotiation. 

Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist | Ron Arad: In Reverse
    Interior of Yamamoto's Y’s showroom, Roppongi Hills,
    Tokyo, 2003

Almost like Yohji Yamamoto. When I did his flagship store in Tokyo, he didn't interfere once. He sent his team of people to scout for an architect in Paris and in London. I thought I'd wasted half a day with them, but then they called me to go to Tokyo. I went, saw the place and met him. I showed him work. He asked me, "Are you crazy?" I said, "Yes, is it a good thing or a bad thing?" And he said, "Good," and that's the last I heard of him, until the opening. The day of the opening we had interviews, and the first one was Figaro, and they asked, "How was it for you two creative people to work together?" And while I was formulating my polite answer, thinking of saying things like, "He was more present in his absence," I didn't need to say that, because he was the first to answer. He said, "Ah, we didn't work together. I selected him and let him do what he wanted."

[H.U.O.]
Perfect.

[R.A.]
Perfect! It wasn't exactly like that in Holon, but they let us get on with it. The only thing they interfered with was the colors. In the original presentation we showed them a gradation of colors in the patina of the Cor-Ten, and then we found out we couldn't get it, because Cor-Ten becomes dark like dark chocolate after two years in the Middle Eastern sun. When we told them that they said, "No no, you showed us gradation, we want gradation," and they threatened to paint it to the color that we showed them in the plans. And then we were forced to go to the Milan Polytechnic again, and get some oil formula that would ensure the colors...

[H.U.O.]
And what gave you the idea for the form? Because it's a very unusual shape that museum, it's a unique shape, but it's also an unusual material. We know Cor-Ten from sculpture, from Richard Serra, but it's not necessarily used as a building material...

[R.A.]
I think it's quite popular in building. I think more and more, because Cor-Ten has a great color, and a great feel, and you don't have to choose colors. The thing I hate most when I'm doing a project is the color scheme, and discussing colors with clients. There is great light, but also it's a place that for nine months a year, you don't need to go inside to circulate, so the outdoors plays a big part. The footprint of the building wasn't great, so by making one space perching over the others you create a hierarchy of outdoor spaces. And again, I think luck plays a big role.

[H.U.O.]
Chance?

[R.A.]
Yes, chance in what you select, but luck as well as chance, because it's a fantastic place for openings. Even on the hottest day, under the "belly" there is the best place to be in the whole area. I can't lie and tell you I knew that - I didn't, we were rewarded by luck.

[H.U.O.]
Luck or chance both also enter with these projects you're going to show inside. I spoke a lot with John Chamberlain, and he crushed his car fragments in a very different way from you. He was always saying that there is a movement he picks up, then he reinforces it. But the finding has often to do with chance. 

Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist | Ron Arad: In Reverse
    Sketch for Fiat 5,000,000, 2007

[R.A.]

That's true, but anyone who starts with a blank canvas, then sees things... Yes, Chamberlain had to come into the discussion here. He was using things to make his compositions, and it's all tasteful and amazing stuff. But here, what happens has a
bigger part. It's more like dropping strings. The only choice you have after you crush a car is which side is better, this one or that one. You have to have a lot of trust. But it's not a big risk, because I've noticed how people respond to the small ones, to the toys, and the responses include: "How can you ruin these amazing things?" and "Wow, so beautiful, amazing!" And it is both. We are working on it now and teaching ourselves what we can take out of the car. Don't tell anyone, but we are taking the bench seat out. We're leaving the back because the back will be visible. But the bench just disturbs. We are learning what we can get away with not having there. Because the first car we crushed, however exciting it is, we're not there yet. 

[H.U.O.]
It's still the early stages.

[R.A.]
It's early but late, because there's a looming deadline...

[H.U.O.]
How did it start with you? Because in the history of art there is a long history of crushed cars. There's obviously the way Chamberlain makes these compositions, he met it by chance when he encountered these fenders at Larry Rivers's studio. He actually quoted Ford who told people they have any color car they want as long as it's black. There wasn't really color at the beginning. And now we have a very different moment of time, and there's a whole long history of art using cars. It's super interesting that you, from a very different angle, suddenly discovered this in a very different way.

[R.A.]
Well, our first family car was a Fiat Topolino "Giardinetta", which is made predominantly out of wood, like the Morris Minor Traveller with the wood panels. The same guy [Dante Giacosa] that did the 500 designed the Fiat Topolino. And one day at 7:30 in the morning, someone knocks on our door and tells us that my father, who had left earlier for work, was involved in a car crash in the Fiat. Me and my brother took our bicycles and saw the wreckage. We thought that there was no chance that anyone was going to come out of it alive. Then we went to the hospital to meet my father (who is still driving by the way, I can't stop him, he's 96), and the first sentence he said to us was, "If my car wasn't made out of wood I wouldn't be here now." I'm still looking for the photo of the wreckage of the car. 

[H.U.O.]
We need an illustration to accompany this interview.

Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist | Ron Arad: In Reverse
    Fiat Topolino 500C Giardiniera, 1949

[R.A.]

We may have to Photoshop it! But yes, my father was saved by the fact that his car was made of wood. It is the sweetest car, this Fiat Topolino. And then like everyone else my age I had this scrapbook with cars. And I remember the Chevrolet '59 with the eyebrows. I don't think I had a love affair with cars. They were there, and of course when I started working with metal, it was always interesting how it's done in the car industry... then discovering superforming, and all sorts of other techniques. And actually the guy that is very instrumental in the studio and in this exhibition, Michael Castellana, his education is in car design. And I was really worried when we got the confidential files from Fiat, which Michael can read much better than me. He got so excited. I said to him, "You're not going back to the car industry are you?!" It is a fascinating industry that used to work with ten years' delay. I used to not like photography because you had to take a photograph now and two weeks later it would come back from the processor. And then Polaroid I thought was going to save us. So the car industry worked on a car that would come out ten years after, now they've reduced it to five, and even to three. That's the most exciting, that they can make things faster. Still whatever we do, the most exciting piece in the show will be the Giacosa car, the wood mould. 

[H.U.O.]
So in a wonderful way your father survived in a wood car? It really connects to this childhood memory, that's very exciting. It's interesting, Ron, how this exhibition seems to tie in with your beginnings, because on one hand there is your childhood experience with your father and the car, and on the other hand there is this incredibly physical thing about metal, which leads us to the beginning of your work.

[R.A.]
Before that, there were the scrapyards, where I found my first ever piece.

[H.U.O.]
And can you tell me about this piece, this is obviously your first design epiphany, the first chair? What do you remember? A couple of years ago, I interviewed Bruno Latour, and he remembered the Wednesday or the Tuesday when he discovered fractals, Albert Hoffmann remembered the day when he...

[R.A.]
It was a Monday.

[H.U.O.]
So on the Monday you found the chair. Can you tell me about that Monday?

Ever Arad / Hans Ulrich Obrist | Ron Arad: In Reverse
    Unfinished Bodyguard, 2009
[R.A.]

Yes. I studied architecture, and I was always a reluctant member of the architectural profession.  And it was fine, because at the AA when I studied, it wasn't about doing buildings, it was about ideas. It was about walking cities, people did everything but building. Then, when I graduated I tried to work for an architect. I always say it's very difficult to work for other people, and it's more difficult to work for other people after lunch. I worked in a practice in Hampstead, and one lunch time I said, "I'm not going back." I went down Haverstock Hill, and behind the Roundhouse there was this amazing scrapyard, run by a Greek guy. I always had the idea, but I never had time to pursue it. They were throwing perfectly ergonomically designed leather seats away, so I thought why don't we make something out of them? I went to choose, because I remember saying, I'm not going to just take any old car seat, I have to choose which one it is, and keep repeating it, not do a Morris, then to do a Vauxhall, and so on. I went and selected the Rover, for all sorts of reasons. First of all they were leather. This is the first one. This is the very first piece of furniture that I ever made. 
 
 
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