BY Richard Serra | 12 MAY 05 | Profiles
Featured in
Issue 91

Harald Szeemann 1933 - 2005

Remembering the life and work of one of the most influential and imaginative curators of the last century

BY Richard Serra | 12 MAY 05 in Profiles

Richard Serra

For me, since 9/11, there has been a daily ritual commemoration of the dead. I seem to be surrounded by death. Everything seems to make forgetting impossible. There is a growing voyeuristic detailed description of the terror of death via the media; and the more I consume, the less I grasp. Death as an incomprehensible phenomenon has produced a certain numbness in me and then I am told that a friend of mine for over 30 years has died and I am asked to write a few words. Writing is one form to seek compensation for loss. Death is an all too human fact. You don’t only live out your life, you also live out the lives of your contemporaries. Their mortality affects your living, your daily measure.
Harry was a great man who supported art and artists unequivocally his entire life. For decades he was able to pull forth meaning where others would only find absence – that is, he gave all artists the benefit of the doubt. The last time I was with Harry I laughed so hard I cried and that is the way I want to remember him.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

The curatorial work of Harald Szeemann was highly complex and cannot be seen as having just a single aspect. For me his exhibitions in Zurich – and above all Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk (The Tendency towards the Total Work of Art, 1983), which I visited every day while still at school – were formative experiences. This was due in part to Szeemann’s notion of the exhibition as a toolbox, as an archaeology of knowledge in the spirit of Michel Foucault. Whether he was showing Artaud, Gaudí, Schwitters, Steiner or contemporary artists, Szeemann accomplished the rare feat of bridging the gap between past and present. He tested out so many different modes of exhibiting, as well as curating many important solo shows: Beuys, Delacroix, De Maria, Duchamp, Merz, Nauman, Picabia, Serra … The 1985 Mario Merz exhibition, in particular, made a particularly lasting impression: Merz and Szeemann removed all the walls inside the Kunsthaus and displayed the work as an open field, with Merz’ igloos shown in the resulting space as a visionary and Utopian city: La Città Irreale.
Szeemann also saw his exhibitions as an ‘archive in transformation’. To me this was just as representative of his approach as the fact that he worked simultaneously as an independent curator and curator of Kunsthaus Zürich. Another important facet of his career was the way he oscillated between large and small, private and public. After the 1972 Documenta in Kassel, for example, there was the exhibition dedicated to his grandfather, held in a private apartment in Bern, with no hierarchy between the larger and the smaller show – entirely in keeping with Robert Musil’s observation that art can appear where one is least expecting it. Szeemann’s death is a major blow to the art world.

Visionary Belgium by Aaron Schuster

A mescaline-minded poet (Henri Michaux), the self-styled commissar of a bankrupt museum (Marcel Broodthaers), a bungling megalomaniac raised by a Belgian boulangerie owner and a web-footed French prostitute (Dr Evil in Austin Powers), an amateur scientist in tireless pursuit of the Absolute (Honoré de Balzac’s portrait of the Fleming Balthazar Claes) – Belgium, a country of visionaries? Such was the explicit wager of Harald Szeemann in his sprawling show, La Belgique visionnaire. C’est arrivé près de chez nous (Visionary Belgium. It’s in your neighbourhood) on display until mid-May, 2005 in the Victor Horta designed Palais des Beaux Arts. The late curator liked to refer to his method as one of ‘structured chaos’, and that is precisely what is presented here: a highly varied collection of paintings, advertisements, films, sculptures, books, archival materials and installations without any discernible organizing principle except to reveal that elusive quality known since the late 1970s as la belgitude.
The first thing to mention apropos this exhibition is Szeemann’s brilliant insight into which countries constitute the visionary core of Europe – the repository of its utopian longings, twisted dreams and undialectizable contradictions. ‘Visionary Belgium’ is the last in the sequence of three exhibitions, beginning with ‘Visionary Switzerland’ (1991) and followed by ‘Austria im Rosennetz’ (Austria in the Net of Roses, 1996). Here Szeemann’s intuition was spot on: one simply cannot imagine the same treatment of ‘major’ European nations like Germany, France and, in spite of its eccentricities, England, or even Spain or Italy. Visionary potential must rather be sought in the margins of the margins, in the dissident traditions within those countries that already have a ‘minor’ status. In this respect, one should also mention the Balkans, to which Szeemann consecrated the show ‘Blood and Honey’ in 2003. If the title of this latter exhibition cannot help but conjure up clichéd images of irrational violence on the one hand and the poetry of everyday rustic life on the other, this would seem to point to a more general difficulty implicit in the curator’s method. To borrow a term dear to him, this method might be dubbed ‘pataphysical anthropology’: an attempt to discern the ‘spiritual contours’ of a region via an examination of its most extraordinary and even unclassifiable cultural artifacts. As Szeemann understood, such an enterprise is not without dangers, and ‘Visionary Belgium’ sometimes risks becoming a mere ‘cabinet of curiosities’, reproducing the stereotype of Belgians as a darkly quirky, self-deprecating people. To voice another concern: the show also seems more backward than forward-looking, more retrospective in its approach than interested in divining what (if anything) is new and exciting in the Belgian scene.
These critical suspicions aside, ‘Visionary Belgium’ is an extremely rich exhibition. Apart from collecting together works of famous artists like René Magritte, Léon Spilliaert, Paul Delvaux, Félicien Rops, and Broodthaers, and contemporary stars such as Panamarenko and Wim Delvoye (a new upright version of the shit-machine Cloaca 2005), the main merit of the show lies in its unearthing of lesser known figures and events. To mention just a few: an extensive documentation of the avant-garde festival EXPRMNTL held each winter at the seaside resort Knokke from 1949 to 1974; the space reserved for pataphysician André Blavier’s personal library, including Professor Dewulf’s 1950s Debraining Machine; and, a large card catalogue transported from the archives of the Mundaneum in Mons, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine’s early 20th-century utopian project to gather together all human knowledge. Benoît Poelvoorde’s C’est arrivé près de chez nous (1992), an exceedingly noir exercise in black humour, provides the show with its appropriate subtitle though it could have equally been named ‘The major ordeals of Belgium and the countless minor ones’ – a variation on the title of one of Michaux’s drug-inspired books. That major ordeal is none other than the strained existence of the Belgian state itself, a theme that resonates in many of the displayed works. Though the exhibition takes place within the rubric of Belgium’s 175th anniversary celebrations, it is significant that the country cannot commemorate this event without adding ‘and 25 years of federalism’, which is tantamount to simultaneously celebrating one’s birthday and divorce. Indeed, one could argue that the key to both Belgium’s visionary culture and its reactionary politics is precisely its lack of a well-defined centre or strong sense of national identity. It is therefore fitting that what ought to have the centrepiece of the exhibition, James Ensor’s The Entry of Christ into Brussels (1888) is missing; evidently Christ took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in Los Angeles (the painting is in the Getty Museum). The absence of this remarkable work, mixing Christian theology with the International, in turn echoes another, more fundamental loss: the demolition of Horta’s La Maison du Peuple in 1954 – Brussels’s lost object of desire. It would hardly be a stretch to surmise that it is the populist socialist vision condensed by these two missing works – the breaking up of the dream of social fraternity – that provides the ultimate backdrop for the multiple visions of Belgium.
Szeemann is perhaps the single figure most responsible for the image we have of the curator today: the curator-as-artist, a roaming, freelance designer of exhibitions, or in his own witty formulation, a ‘spiritual guest worker.’ In a way this shift in the role of the curator makes perfect sense. If artists since Marcel Duchamp have affirmed selection and arrangement as legitimate artistic strategies, was it not simply a matter of time before curatorial practice – itself defined by selection and arrangement – would come to be seen as an art that operates on the field of art itself? Daniel Buren first voiced the critique of this development against Szeemann’s curatorship of Documenta 5 in 1972, and since then the polemic has only gained in intensity. Rather than repeating the same stale scripts, however, what would be useful today, and to my knowledge has yet to be written, is a critical history of curating, a study of the transformations in the manner of art’s staging and public presentation.1 It goes without saying that in such a study Szeemann would figure as one of the grand innovators.

1 One of the most interesting books on this subject is L’art de l’exposition. Une documentation sur trente expositions exemplaires du XXe siècle, Paris: Editions de Regard, 1998