Harald the Hero

The father of modern curating, Harald Szeeman, is memorialised at Castello di Rivoli in Turin with a lavish presentation of obsessive archiving and a hint of kitsch.

Harald Szeemann lecturing in front of Werk Nr. 003 (undated) by Emma Kunz, n.d. The Getty Research Institute, 2011. M. 30. Artwork courtesy Emma Kunz Zentrum. © Anton C. Meier

Exhibitions about curators can be counted on one hand. In fact, I can only think of two: Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art at Brooklyn Museum in 2013; and Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art at Stedelijk in 2015.

Despite much paranoid talk about ‘the curator-as-author’ in recent decades, it’s clear that the institutional exhibition apparatus is still strongly linked to its artistic heroes. This is in spite of the fact that it’s been quite a long time since the curator stepped out from behind the scenes, declaring her/himself a creator and storyteller in her/his own right. Just think of Harald Szeeman (1933–2005), the Swiss exhibition creator and museum director who curated more than 150 exhibitions during his fifty-year career, and invented a new form of cultural authorship and entrepreneurship that has since spread so far beyond the field of visual art that it seems almost banal.

The ambitious show Museum of Obsessions at Castello di Rivoli sets out to form an overview of precisely this development. The exhibition title refers to Szeeman’s own name for his hopelessly large archive, comprising more than four thousand archive boxes and twenty-six thousand books, which LA’s Getty Institute spent no less than five years processing after they bought it in 2011.

Since its premiere, the archive-based exhibition has toured to no less than four institutions around the world, ending its journey (for now) at Rivoli’s splendid castle-cum-museum in Turin, while offering a special nod to the city’s Arte Povera heritage, which Szeeman addressed on several occasions during his career. 

Divided into three thematic sections, the show opens with ‘Avant-Gardes’, which focuses on Szeeman’s close involvement with the Western avant-garde movements of 1960s and 1970s. He particularly explored this field at Kunsthalle Bern, where he was appointed director at the tender age of 28.

Exhibition posters presented in display cases speak of monumental moments in art history, such as when Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the entire museum in fabric in 1968, their first ever work of this kind. Bern was also where Szeeman’s most famous exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form – a group show with biennial-like ambitions, involving a wide range of post-minimalists and conceptual artists from Europe and the United States – was realised in 1970 thanks to a generous sponsorship from the multinational tobacco company Philip Morris.

It was here that Richard Serra famously hurled 400 pounds of molten lead onto the museum’s walls and floors, where Joseph Beuys greased the corners of rooms with margarine, and where Robert Morris put together a vast heap of flammable materials and presented it as a sculpture. But in terms of curatorial history, this also marked the first time that an exhibition director spent the bulk of an exhibition budget on research trips around the world, and on inviting artists to Bern to create site-specific works. The controversial show, which left the kunsthalle almost totally destroyed, cost Szeeman his job, but it also created the foundation for the curatorial process seen in our present-day art institutions. In fact, it is difficult today to pinpoint exactly what was so unique about Szeeman’s practice, because it remains the go-to model used by much of the international art world.

Harald Szeemann (seated) on the last night of Documenta 5: Questioning Reality – Image Worlds Today at Museum Fridericianum, 1972. The Getty Research Institute, 2011. Photo: Balthasar Burkhard.

Having been dismissed from Bern, Szeeman was the first curator ever to become self-employed, launching his freelance practice under the auspices of a fictional agency, ‘Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit’ (Agency for spiritual migrant work), whose business-like stamps are presented in the Turin show. With this semi-ironic gesture – entirely in keeping with conceptual art’s critique of the market, and directly commenting on Switzerland’s harsh immigration policies at the time – Szeeman invented the curatorial one-man team. 

On a par with the artistic heroes of When Attitudes Become Form, the exhibition presents Szeeman’s curatorial practice as completely individualistic: as a traveling micro-entrepreneur, a culture-maker-on-demand, as the heroic migrant worker of the culture industry, a point that is poignantly summed up in Szeeman’s own ‘sculpture’ made of airplane luggage strips, Travel Sculpture(1960–2004), which eventually grew to the size of a Christmas tree. “Harald knew the art system better than anyone else,” says Cuban artist Tania Brugera in the somewhat glorifying documentary film Remembering Harry (2017), but it might be more accurate to say that he in fact created it. Szeeman invented the globalised art world’s lingua franca– not just in formal terms (performance, conceptual art, and post-conceptual art) but also in material terms (based on private sponsorships and project-based work).

Front and back of Harald Szeemann’s address list for his visit to New York, 1968. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.

More than anything, Museum of Obsessions is a triumphant demonstration of the archive’s ability to engage and relate art history on a par with more traditional exhibitions of artworks. Actual works of art are notably de-emphasised throughout the show: Attitudes is represented by just four works, while Documenta 5 from 1972 is presented primarily through black and white photographs (also from the archive). However, visitors are never left unstimulated or bored; the show strikes an excellent balance between thematically important documents (such as letters) and more visually stimulating material (Fluxus merchandise, objects, and posters). This is not just the result of great knowledge and skill among the curators, but also reflects Szeeman’s own self-archiving ghost.

Szeeman the archivist is truly felt in the exhibition’s section on his 1979 research project exploring the early twentieth century utopian community of Monte Verità, which saw its residents experimenting with Lebensreform (Life reform) that included veganism and a genderless social structure. Here, Szeeman breaks free from the object of art and wrestles with the basic curatorial exercise of telling stories through objects. Although an archival exhibition about archives may sound tedious, the highly diverse presentation of this year-long project (works of art, drawings, photographs, letters) stands out as the most successful part of the exhibition.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Kunsthalle, Bern, 1967–68. Part of 12 Environments: 50 Years of the Kunsthalle Bern at Kunsthalle Bern, 1968. The building was wrapped from July 18–25, 1968. The Getty Research Institute, 2011.M.30. Photo: Balthasar Burkhard. ©Christo

One clearly feels Szeeman’s idiosyncratic and rebellious approach to cultural production throughout the exhibition, but things go slightly off the rails when the curators try to simulate this by, for example, blasting opera music throughout the exhibition (apparently, a selection of his favourite pieces!?). 

Similar sentiments are evoked by the last part of the exhibition, a complete reconstruction of Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us from 1974, Szeemann’s quirky exhibition about his grandfather, an Eastern European immigrant and well-known hairdresser in Bern. While it is indeed interesting that Szeeman went from curating the world’s most international exhibition to the world’s most local – replacing artworks with bizarre heirlooms from deceased family members – it’s unclear what there really is to learn from the reconstruction, so obviously adapted to match the UNESCO-protected setting of Castello di Rivoli, and where missing elements (such as furniture and wigs) have been recreated by Hollywood production specialists. Here, curatorial philology ends up as pure kitsch.

Museum of Obsessions very effectively tells the story of the world’s first curatorial worker, who rarely followed any other rules than his own. The historical value of his work may be that it is not as easy to copy as one might think.