Here Time Becomes Space: A Conversation with Harald Szeemann

Harald Szeemann is a standard-bearer of change within the European curatorial tradition. He holds degrees in art history, archaeology, and journalism. Between 1961 and 1969 he served as director of the Kunsthalle Bern. Since he declared his independence by resigning his directorship in 1969, he has become one of the most important and active international independent curators, organizing such major exhibitions as “When Attitudes Become Form” (1969), “Happening and Fluxus” (1970), Documenta 5 (1972), “Bachelor Machines” (1975), “Monte Verità: Mountain of Truth” (1978), “Charles Baudelaire” (1987), and “Austria in a Lacework of Roses” (1996). He co-organized the Venice Biennale of 1980, where he created the Aperto, an exhibition for younger and emerging artists. Since 1981 he has been an independent curator affiliated with the Kunsthaus Zurich. He was the director of the 1997 Lyon Biennale, a commissioner of the 1997 Kwangju Biennial, and has been director of the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001. His exhibition in the Italian Pavilion of the Biennale, “The Plateau of Mankind,” officially opens June 9th and closes November 4th.

Collaborative work by Barry McGee, Stephen Powers, and James Todd. Artists chosen by Harald Szeemann for the 2001 Venice Biennale exhibition, “The Plateau of Mankind.”

Carolee Thea: The artist’s work is a seismograph of change in a society. When contemplating an exhibition, the curator must have a finger on this pulse, on the collective concerns of the moment, as well as on the more individual ones that inform an artist’s narrative.

Harald Szeemann: Yes, I also think that the curator has his own evolution. When you’ve been doing exhibitions for 43 years, you come to a certain point: the facteur Cheval said that with 43 years a human being reaches the equinox of life and can start to build his castle in the air, his “Palais idéal.” From this moment on, even if you do a show with contemporary artists, you want it to be not just a group show but a temporary world. And maybe this is why my exhibitions become bigger—because the inner world is getting bigger.

It is true that the changes you see with artists’ works are the best societal seismographs. Artists, like curators, work on their own, grappling with their attempts to make a world in which to survive. I always said that if I lived in the 19th century as King Ludwig II, when I felt the need to identify myself with another world I would build a castle. Instead, as a curator I do temporary exhibitions. We are lonely people, faced with superficial politicians, with donors and sponsors, and one must deal with all of this. I think it is here that the artist finds a way to form his own world and live his obsessions. For me, this is the real society.

CT: At the end of the 19th century there was a schism between art and technology; at the end of the 20th century there was a reunion. Aside from pragmatic information, the Internet has become a fantasy, a dream machine for the wired masses and a catalyst for globalization. What do you think about the effect of this technological revolution?

HS: This new technology makes an illusion of globalization, but again it creates a social split between those who can use it and those who cannot. In art we still have to go see the original object and discuss it with the artist. New technology does not know how to deal with the erotic element, with art that is spatial. This was always a problem. Think of Robert Ryman: he was always reproduced badly, but the originals are beautiful. We’re finally very old-fashioned—we must go around looking at originals. This is absurd, but it’s beautiful. When I was a student, hundreds of us had to go through the same books to find certain masterpieces; we marked our findings with pieces of paper. With the Internet, it is easier not to have to look through a thousand books—wonderful! But with art itself, we must go to the three dimensions.

View from the 1999 Venice Biennale.

CT: Mass production has been encroaching on the handmade for more than a century and was anointed into the art culture by Duchamp and Warhol. Now, in the computer age, the reproduction, the virtual, and the fictive have encroached further as products of information.

HS: Globalization would be perfect if it brought more justice and equality to the world, but it doesn’t. Artists dream of using computer or digital means to have contact and to bring continents closer. But once you have the information, it’s up to you what you do with it. Globalization without roots is meaningless in art.

CT: Do you mean, by “roots,” the individual narratives within the global village?

HS: Well, yes. An artist like Jason Rhoades uses technology, but he brings it into the service of the personal, as in the evocation of his father’s garden. The art is a new interpretation of something that possesses him. Also, a lot of things on the Internet are verbal. Only five percent is visual. The majority of people look through the ear. The Internet is good for information, but it never replaces eye contact. It also overloads you with a lot of trash. In a recent interview, Jeff Bezos defined the Internet as a narrow horizontal level of competence over all industrial fields. He compared it with electricity at the beginning of the 20th century, increasing speed for some things while revolutionizing others. Also, the digital image has extended possibilities. For me it is mainly information, but not art in itself.

View from the 1999 Venice Biennale.

CT: Jason’s accumulations come across as a trash heap that camouflages a narrative.

HS: That’s what I like about his work: he’s not isolating an object, ambiguous objects, “polybiguous” objects—he’s showing us that we all have the obsession to consume. All these objects in a structure are his obsessions. It’s no longer Duchamp’s pissoir, which is isolated. Accumulations were a revolt against Duchamp, but then, they too became objects, a strategy to make a new object—as in Jason’s case, albeit a temporary one. Of course you have inner rules, like a museum of obsessions in your head. Then there are the freedoms or constrictions that we have from place to place. For instance, I can work in the North as a freelance curator, but in the South, I must accept the position of director, as in the case of the Venice Biennale.

View from the 1999 Venice Biennale.

CT: You are considered the first independent curator. How did this occur?

HS: It was a rebellion aimed at having more freedom, because I already had eight years as Director of the Kunsthalle in Bern. Well, I was director, but we didn’t say director. We wanted to open up the institution as a laboratory, more as a confirmation of the non-financial aspect of art. Then I curated Documenta 5, which is considered the end of a career.

CT: Yes, to curate this exhibition, more than others, is to open oneself up to enormous scrutiny.

HS: Frankly, if you insist on power, then you keep going on in this way. But you must throw the power away after each experience, otherwise it’s not renewing. I’ve done a lot of shows, but if the next one is not an adventure, it’s not important for me and I refuse to do it.

View from the 1999 Venice Biennale.

CT: Conceptually oriented installation art and the foregrounding of the histories of exhibition spaces suggest a democratization of art challenges the museum’s elitism. In 1986 you took over unconventional, frequently gigantic venues: former stables in Vienna, the Salpetrière hospital in Paris, the palace in the Retiro park in Madrid. You invited artists to set up dialogues between their work and the chosen spaces.

HS: In Venice I was glad I had white-cube spaces, but I also had the Arsenale, where the artists had to accept the historical space as it was. From the space problem came the question of the demand for objectivity and intervention, and how to give life to memory. During the last number of years in Venice, this was all about the survival of the institution of the Biennale. If you stay only in the Giardini, you maintain the nationalist aspect; for the institution to survive the 21st century, new spaces were needed.

Work by Maaria Wirkkala. Artists selected for the 2001 Venice Biennale exhibition, “The Plateau of Mankind.”

CT: What does it mean to be Director of the Biennale after being an independent curator for so long?

HS: In Venice, only when you are Director can you show what you want. In ’95, I wasn’t Director and the planned exhibition “100 Years of Cinema” didn’t take place. I worked for the Biennale in different years; in 1975, I did “Bachelor Machines.” Of course, the contracts never came on time; I had to get money from a bank, and I paid the interest. Finally, I gave all museum contracts to the bank, and the museum paid the sum, which was 15,000 Swiss francs, directly to the bank. There are the usual delays in Italy with contracts, so we first started the exhibition in Bern, although it was produced for Venice. At this time I was taking over new spaces for art, specifically the Magazzini de Sal, the Salt Depository. In 1980, there were five curators. The theme was the ’70s. At that point I told them that we were in a moment when things were changing, so let’s not stop with Stella and the German painters. I told them we had to do Aperto or I would leave. The Aperto was not just a salon for artists under 35; I showed Richard Artschwager and Susan Rothenberg, Ulrike Ottienger and Friederike Pezold.

CT: The 1999 Aperto did not seem to focus only on young artists. Louise Bourgeois, Dieter Appelt, Dieter Roth, Franz Gertsch, and James Lee Byars were among your choices.

HS: The Biennale of 1999, d’APERTtutto, was more in the spirit of the first Aperto, not limiting “young” to artists under the age of 35. I have always thought that if biennials wanted a future, they should emulate the structure of Documenta. And today, the oldest biennial—in Venice—when faced with so many biennials, should be the youngest.

Work by Gerd Rohling. Artists chosen for the 2001 Venice Biennale exhibition “The Plateau of Mankind.”

CT: At Documenta, finally, does the curator have autonomy from the bureaucratic duties?

HS: Until 1968, there was a huge Documenta council; its founder, Arnold Bode, was a “degenerate” painter under Hitler. They wanted to show Germany what it missed in the “thousand years” of Nazism. After 1968, the council became quite absurd. They were missing many important issues, and for this reason they asked me to be the artistic director. All the former Documentas followed the old-hat, thesis/antithesis dialectic: Constructivism/Surrealism, Pop/Minimalism, Realism/Concept. That’s why I invented the term, “individual mythologies”—not a style, but a human right. An artist could be a geometric painter or a gestural artist; each can live his or her own mythology. Style is no longer the important issue.

Work by Joseph Beuys. Artists selected for the 2001 Venice Biennale exhibition, “The Plateau of Mankind.”

CT: In 1969 you curated the exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form: Live In Your Head.” It presented for the first time in Europe artists such as Beuys, Serra, and Weiner. With this exhibition, the process of creation was recognized as a work of art. It was also at this time that you became an independent curator.

HS: Yes, it was in March, only a couple of months after the end of Documenta 4, when I curated “When Attitudes Become Form.” How can you do this big exhibition, Documenta 4, and miss showing the works of new artists? So I did it in Bern in March. Of course, this made a big impact. Then I was asked to do the next Documenta with my own strategy. I dissolved the committee. It costs a lot to convene a committee of 40 people, and half are never present, anyway. Also it’s cheaper when one person travels to see colleagues and explore what is new in their region.

Documenta became the first of this new style. It became the image of the curator, a show by an author. In Venice, I also felt that we needed a good start like in the ’60s and ’70s—a complete change of structure—so I suggested that we adapt to this new system in 1999. I dissolved the national spatial unity of the Italian pavilion, causing a lot of trouble in Italy, where it was felt that a foreigner was destroying their country. But the artists preferred this. They didn’t like being only with Italians. They wanted to be with their international colleagues, where they learned more and were more competitive.

Work by Hans Schmidt and Erich Bödeker.

CT: After suffering the difficulties of the bureaucracy, why do you feel that in 1999 and 2001 you were able to take the position of Director of the Biennale?

HS: Even though I am an independent curator, I took on the directorship because Venice is worth making the effort. The structure goes from a state organization to a foundation, and you’re always faced with the bureaucratic structure and financial problems. Now the Biennale is not only the visual arts; it incorporates architecture, film, theater, dance, and music, and there is enough space in the Arsenale to include the other arts. The Biennale is interested in continuity and collaboration among the arts, not only in isolated big events; it will become a laboratory and a place of creation. This is the future.

Yet it’s always the same in Venice: They promise you the space on January 10th and give it to you on May 10th. They’re renovating, patching all the walls and opening the roof. When all is done, you will be able to walk through from the Corderie to the Artiglierie. And now they’re restoring Isolotto, the location of Serge Spitzer’s installation Re/Cycle (Don’t Hold Your Breath) (1999). This installation was fascinating. Where once to see art only frontally disgusted everyone, now some artists with a theatrical touch show in spaces where you can see only a frontal view from the entrance.

Work by the Cracking Art Group.

CT: How will the 2001 Biennale differ from that of 1999?

HS: When you work with artists for 40 years, it’s no longer just a collaboration, but a going-together. Perhaps this will be an opportunity to show artists who were important figures from the late ’60s on. But there are also two, new, theater-like spaces, so you can play on the notion of performance. I have proposed to begin with two buildings that will form an international exhibition, a “Plateau of Mankind”: half-theatrical and half-projected. The entrance to the exhibition will be given a large space that will cover theater, social problems, all the races, what man can do to man, and then you are free again to give another accent, one from your unconscious. There are other ways of describing globalism, of being together. For instance, in old Paris, the Ballets Russes was a collaboration between artists, including Diaghilev, Picasso, Picabia, Satie, and Nijinsky.

CT: Does this early 20th-century model influence the way you will choose your artists for the Biennale?

HS: Well, I’m a European. It’s very strange that when you do an exhibition like the Biennale, you have only four months to make the show. So you cannot normally travel around the world. You go to the artists you want to show; you visit them and discuss the space, or you have them come. I did make lightning trips and discovered some things at the last minute, like the two Serbians, Tatiana Ristowski and Vesna Vesic. The Serbs were despised people in the world. It was like being in a second stage of seismographic culture. In the end, you must leave yourself open—to keep spaces free and to make room for surprise.

Work by Niele Toroni.

CT: Creating such a large exhibition is like making a film, but in compressed time.

HS: I was glad when people said that the exhibition was cut like in film. It really did correspond.

CT: What are some of the ideas for the new Biennale?

Work by Maurizio Cattelan.

HS: Well, I call it a “Plateau of Mankind.” So it is less a theme than a mood that gives to each art and artist the freedom of expression. The narrative will be, again, a walk from one surprise to the other.

CT: Last year, there was a lot of walking involved, but this was mitigated by surprise.

HS: Although one brain imagines the structure and themes, the walking leaves people free to decide the distance they want to take—an inner one or outer one. It’s another way of walking. In the cinema you are sitting and with video you can stand, but if it’s too long, you just sit. Exhibitions have a lot to do with space; the freedom is the space. In Parsifal, Wagner says, “Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit” (Here time becomes space).

This interview appears in different form in Foci: Interviews with 10 International Curators, a series of interviews by Carolee Thea published by Apex Art Curatorial Program in 2001. Several of the interviews appeared first in Sculpture.