Obrist was born in Zürich, Switzerland. When he was 23, he organized an exhibition of contemporary art in his kitchen. In 1993, he founded the Museum Robert Walser and began to run the Migrateurs program at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris where he served as a curator for contemporary art. In 1996, he co-curated Manifesta 1, the first edition of the roving European biennial of contemporary art. In the November 2009 issue of ArtReview magazine, Obrist was ranked number one in the publication's annual list of the art world's one-hundred most powerful people and that same year he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Obrist first gained art world attention in 1991, when as a student in Politics and Economics in St. Gallen, Switzerland, he mounted an exhibition in the kitchen of his apartment entitled "The Kitchen Show" It featured work by Christian Boltanski and Peter Fischli & David Weiss. Obrist is an advocate and archivist for artists, and has said "I really do think artists are the most important people on the planet, and if what I do is a utility and helps them, then that makes me happy. I want to be helpful." Obrist is known for his lively pace and emphasis on inclusion in all cultural activities.
While maintaining official curatorial positions, he is also the co-founder of the Brutally Early Club, a discussion group open to all that meets at Starbucks in London, Berlin, New York and Paris at 6:30 a.m., and is a contributing editor of 032c magazine, Abitare Magazine, Artforum and Paradis Magazine. Hans Ulrich Obrist has lectured internationally at academic and art institutions including European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, University of East Anglia, Southbank Centre, Institute of Historical Research, and Architectural Association. He lives and works in London.