Harald Szeemann in context

An international conference curated by Stefano Chiodi, Salvatore Lacagnina and Henri de Riedmatten

Monday 14 and Tuesday 15 November 2011
Fondazione Querini Stampalia (Auditorium G. Piamonte) - Campo Santa Maria Formosa - Venice

Click here for the complete program.

Ten years after the last edition of the Venice Biennale directed by Harald Szeemann, the anniversary that coincides with the nomination of a new Swiss curator at the helm of the oldest international kermesse of contemporary art, the Istituto Svizzero di Roma has organized an international conference, divided into two days and 4 sessions, that analyzes the personal and cultural experience of Szeemann, the new figure of curator that through him was validated in the international field between the Sixties and Seventies and its evolution within the contemporary art system.

Through the contribution of 10 international scholars and critics, “Harald Szeemann in context” critically reflects upon the dual nature of the profession of “independent curator” and a professional linked to institutions, two activities that in Szeemann have always run in parallel – as the intervention of Tobias Bezzola demonstrates, focusing on the years at the Kunsthaus Zurich (where Szeemann had been nominated independent curator in 1981) –  but it does not leave out the theme of the legacy that the activity of Szeemann represents for the new generation of curators, a topic examined by Philip Ursprung, Beat Wyss and Bice Curiger within their respective contributions.

A second part of the conference represents the results of the research by young scholars, carried out in Szeemann’s archives, directly on documents and original sources (Mariana Roquette Teixeira, Pietro Rigolo and Lara Conte) following a historical-artistic methodology, necessary to portray Szeemann beyond the myth.

With regard to the recent acquisition of Szeemann’s archives by the Getty Research Institute, Glenn Plillips describes the context of the Getty Center and the process that precedes the access to the archive.

The conference closes with a look at the current situation and the directions that the curatorial practices have taken more recently (Mary Anne Staniszewski, Michele Dantini).

At the Venice branch of the ISR, a selection of documentaries on Szeemann with interviews with artists and the curator, from the best known When Attitudes Become Form to the exhibitions from 2000 onwards, will precede and conclude the study days dedicated to the greatest exhibition maker.

The contribution of the Swiss curator and art historian Harald Szeemann (1933-2005) has been recognized as one of the most determining for the development of contemporary art in the last decades. More than forty years since his revolutionary exhibition in Bern, When Attitudes Become Form, the conference examines his career by analyzing his historical and critical position, its evolution throughout his career, his original interest in utopian philosophy and the various currents of the anarchic and internationalist ideal emblematically represented by the experience of the Monte Verità and his long and fruitful relationship with Italy and its artistic culture. Through the reflections of qualified scholars, curators and art critics, the conference focuses on the cultural experience of Szeemann and on the evolution of the curator figure in the art system more recently.

Originally from Bern, in 1957 Szeemann organized his first exhibition, Malende Dichter – Dichtende Maler, for the Kunstmuseum of St. Gallen. Director of the Bern Kunsthalle from 1961 to 1969, he transformed the Swiss institution into an experimental laboratory, where exhibition projects of historical stamp interweaved with shows on the international avanguardia. In 1969, the year of When Attitudes Become Form, he founded the Agency for Spiritual Guestwork (“Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit”) and officially became an “independent curator”. As from this date commitments, projects and exhibitions followed. In 1972 he was nominated director of the fifth edition of Documenta in Kassel. In 1973 he created an imaginary museum and an archive of ideas that he called “Museum der Obsessionen”. Starting from the reflection on the “Individual Mythologies” and continuing with the experimentation of new exhibition forms, in 1974 he organized, in his apartment in Bern, the exhibition Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us, presenting a collection of various objects that belonged to his grandfather, who was a hairdresser by profession. Starting from 1975, with a traveling exhibition The Bachelor Machines, he further developed a model of independent curatorial activity able to cross the territory of modernity characterized by original and highly personal angles. In 1978 he began a new series of exhibitions at the Monte Verità (Canton Ticino), developing themes linked to social and political utopias. In 1980 he was co-curator, together with Achille Bonito Oliva, of the Venice Biennale, where he created Aperto to present the works of emerging artists. In 1981 he was nominated “permanent independent curator” of the Kunsthaus Zurich. In parallel he conceived exhibition projects outside museum spaces, such as the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière in Paris and the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg.

In 1992 he curated the Swiss Pavilion at the World Exhibition in Seville. In 1998 he was nominated director of the Visual Arts section of the Venice Biennale, curating the 1999 (dAPERTutto) and the 2001 (Platea dell’Umanità) editions. A few days after he passed away (February 18), in March 2005 his last exhibition Le Belgique visionnaire was inaugurated at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

Like other European intellectuals of his generation, Szeemann grasped before most the signs of the transformation of the Western culture and society under the pressure of the consumer model, of the youth movements that emerged around 1968 and in the perspective of the new international art context between the Sixties and Seventies; by exploring his oeuvre with the tools of historical critique, the conference aims to bring to light the traces of a wider project of ‘regeneration’ of modernity, able to comprise traditions, visions, heretic, marginal and visionary interpretations and to restore to art its fundamental role of opening and poetic illumination of reality.

With Harald Szeemann the independent curator is established as the ‘author’ who develops a real exhibition writing through the choice of the works of art and the spatial organization of the exhibition. His independence, his intransigent dedication to research, his sensitivity to the utopian component of art make him a reference figure for the critical and historical reflection on contemporary society.

A book including all the lectures of the conference and produced by the Istituto Svizzero di Roma will be published in 2012.