Advertisement

The Grandfather of Contemporary Curating: Harald Szeemann Returns to Kunsthalle Bern

Six-years in the making, the comprehensive ‘Museum of Obsessions’ tracks the life and work of the prolific and enormously ambitious curator 

‘Can life be (artificially) reconstructed from objects?’ Harald Szeemann asked this in a typewritten leaflet accompanying ‘Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us’ (1974), perhaps his smallest, strangest and most personal exhibition. Exhausted by the controversies of overseeing documenta 5 (1972), the Swiss curator set about organizing an exhibition-portrait of his paternal grandfather, a noted Hungarian hairdresser. Comprising some 1,200 things, it was presented in Szeemann’s own apartment in Bern, the city where he grew up, made his name and would soon leave. He spent two months installing these inherited photos and contraptions, trying to give shape to a life.

body2.jpg

'Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions', 2018, installation view, Kunsthalle Bern. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Bern

‘Grandfather’ was recently reconstructed in its original location at 74 Gerechtigkeitsgasse as part of ‘Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions’, curated by Philipp Kaiser and Glenn Phillips. As Phillips writes in the indispensable catalogue, the 1974 exhibition ‘has served as both a fantasy and a symbol of curating in its purest form – exhibition making as a creative act, curating for curating’s sake’. This philosophy remains central to the legend of Szeemann as the grandfather of contemporary curating or, as Hans Ulrich Obrist once remarked, ‘more conjuror than curator’.

‘Museum of Obsessions’ is the culmination of a six-year undertaking by the Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles. When, in 2011, the GRI acquired the contents of Fabbrica Rosa, a former factory in the Italian canton of Switzerland that served as Szeemann’s HQ until his death in 2005, their researchers were confronted with roomfuls of correspondence and hand-drawn exhibition layouts, along with 22,000 artist files and 26,000 books. The scale of this trove is almost mythic, befitting of a man whose towering reputation can sometimes obscure the details of his achievements.

body1.jpg

'Harald Szeeman: Museum of Obsessions', 2018, installation view, Kunsthalle Bern. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Bern 

'Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions', 2018, installation view, Kunsthalle Bern. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Bern 

Kunsthalle Bern is the second stop for ‘Museum of Obsessions’, which began earlier this year in Los Angeles – at the Getty Research Institute, with a satellite presentation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, LA – and will travel to Düsseldorf, Turin and New York. Neatly coinciding with the kunsthalle’s centenary, the occasion has been positioned as a celebration of Bern as the birthplace of the independent curator-as-auteur. This is true, albeit in a backhanded way: Szeemann resigned from Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 in the wake of scandals around ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ (1969). Only then did he become the paradigmatic nomadic freelancer, going on to author (his preferred term) more than 150 exhibitions and biennials around the world. Szeemann initially labelled his activities the Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit (typically translated as ‘Agency for Spiritual Guest Labour’), but this virtual agency soon grew into the Museum of Obsessions, an ever-expanding collection that included both Fabbrica Rosa and what Phillips calls a ‘mental laboratory that encompassed all his interests’.

The presentation at Kunsthalle Bern fillets all of this into several thematic and loosely chronological sections. The opening two rooms address Szeemann’s ground-breaking first decade, from taking over the kunsthalle in 1961 at the age of 28 to documenta 5. The following galleries, titled ‘Utopias and Visionaries’, explore what he did next: a magisterial trio of exhibitions from 1975–83 that explored turn-of-the-century outliers, alternative communities, revolution and uncredentialled creativity. Finally, the downstairs galleries, ‘Geographies’, consider – in an abbreviated way – Szeemann’s keen internationalism alongside his Swiss identity, via his late run of nation exhibitions, from ‘Visionary Switzerland’ (1992) to ‘Visionary Belgium’ (2005).

body3.jpg

'Harald Szeeman: Museum of Obsessions', 2018, installation view, Kunsthalle Bern. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Bern 

'Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions', 2018, installation view, Kunsthalle Bern. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Bern 

Presenting archival displays, slideshows, commissioned video interviews and various artworks, ‘Museum of Obsessions’ tracks Szeemann’s uncompromising process, voluminous correspondence and increasingly cosmic thinking. A number of tendencies come into focus, including his preference for reconstructing models of buildings and environments that were lost or may never have existed. Several are included, such as the ‘sculptural visualization’ of a torture device from a short story by Franz Kafka, which Szeemann commissioned for his 1975 exhibition ‘The Bachelor Machines’. Despite showing thousands of artists over his career, Szeemann remained remarkably faithful to his ‘foundational artists’, principally Hugo Ball, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp and Alfred Jarry. (You cannot help but notice that, with a few exceptions, he paid little sustained attention to women or artists of colour.) In certain respects, Szeemann resembled the solitary visionaries whose lives and works he championed. In her catalogue essay, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev argues that he was the doppelgänger of the reclusive Armand Schulthess, a near-neighbour who spent years inscribing thousands of cans and pieces of wood to build an outdoor encyclopaedia. If Szeemann had a theme, this exhibition suggests, it was obsessions, both his own and those of the obsessives to whom he was drawn.

One of the signal successes of this crucial exhibition is its restraint, a measured sense of balance that brings Szeemann’s omnivorous practice into sharper definition. However, the selection skews heavily towards the first half of Szeemann’s career. His sculpture shows of the 1980s and biennials of the ’90s are almost completely passed over, suggesting a possible sequel to ‘Museum of Obsessions’. Perhaps it was quixotic to contain this protean life and work into a single exhibition. As a 1973 letter to Szeemann, written by Carl Andre in all-caps, concludes: ‘I have for a long time thought that your problem [...] is that art is an activity inadequate to the enormity of your ambition – I mean this fraternally – be well.’

‘Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions’
Getty Research Institute (6 February – 6 May, 2018)
Kunsthalle Bern (9 June – 2 Sept, 2018)
Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (12 Oct, 2018 – 20 Jan, 2019)
Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli (26 Feb – 26 May, 2019)

‘Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us’
Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (4 Feb – 22 April, 2018)
Gerechtigkeitgasse 74, Bern (9 June – 2 Sept, 2018)
Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (12 Oct, 2018 – 20 Jan, 2019)
Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli (26 Feb – 26 May, 2019)
Swiss Institute, New York (Summer 2019)

Main image: 'Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions', 2018, installation view, Kunsthalle Bern. Courtesy: Kunsthalle Bern

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, a contributing editor of frieze and a co-founder of Open School East. His book, School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press this summer. 

Issue 198

First published in Issue 198

October 2018
Advertisement

Latest Magazines

Frieze Masters

September 2018

frieze magazine

October 2018