PRINT May 1999


Harald Szeemann is the grand, though not so very old, man of avant-garde exhibition-making in Europe. When he speaks despairingly or appreciatively of his “sons” or “grandsons”—from Rudi Fuchs at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to Hans-Ulrich Obrist of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris—Szeemann rhetorically lays claim to patriarchal status at the center of a pool of curatorial talent that has shaped the general public’s perception of experimental art in the postwar era. With Szeemann as their bearded elder, his protégés have been the leading impresarios in the age of Europe’s state-sponsored popularization of the avant-garde.

The worldly patience of his delivery and the sly inflections of his voice are unique—a kind of Swiss drawl with a friendly warning growl around the edges—but Szeemann’s shrewdness is everywhere apparent: in his words, in his decades of survival in a fiercely competitive profession, and most of all in the quirky timeliness of his shows. He looks like something out of Hodler, but without melancholy or violence lurking in his expression; he thinks like Beuys, but without asking you to suspend all disbelief; and he maneuvers with the greatest adroitness without wasteful displays of power or pride—like Machiavelli on a mission from Rudolf Steiner. It may well take someone with Machiavelli’s political skills to disentangle the mess that the Venice Biennale has become, and someone with Steiner’s hieratic confidence to restore a measure of idealism to the routines of the big international shows of contemporary art, of which the Biennale is the paradigm. We shall see. If anyone is capable of doing all this in Venice in the short time between his late appointment and the show’s opening in June, it is Harald Szeemann.

Robert Storr

ROBERT STORR: Tell me about the situation you inherited.

HARALD SZEEMANN: Well, the first thing is that the Biennale is no longer a state-run enterprise. It has become a foundation. It’s no longer a matter of seventeen bureaucrats coming from Rome three times a year and making decisions. Now there are only five people, representing the city, the region, the province, the national government, and then there’s one “civilian.” Paolo Baratta, chairman of the Biennale’s board, came to me and asked me what I thought had to change. I said, for one thing, the way the artists are treated when they come to install their work. That really has to change—and perhaps also the whole structure of the institution.

RS: For example?

HS: Well, when I agreed to do the Biennale, I said that something had to be done about the Italian Pavilion. It doesn’t make any sense to put the Italians in a ghetto. If there are Italian artists you take seriously, then show them the same way as everybody else. In the past, the Italian works were usually displayed in a sequence of rooms; it was called the Italian Pavilion, though it was really a part of the big international exhibition, not a proper national pavilion like all the others.

RS: So the understanding is that you’ll do this installment of the Biennale as well as the next one, in 2001?

HS: Yes. They wanted to begin the two-in-a-row approach with Jean Clair, but he resigned after the first one. I said I would do it twice if I could bring my own people in and create a more flexible structure. So I put in Agnes Kohlmeycr, Cecilia Liveriero, and my usual crew for installation. Agnes is a freelance curator who has been based in Venice for fifteen years; Cecilia studied in Düsseldorf and now teaches in Bologna. Agnes is assisting me on the show, Cecilia on the catalogue.

When I saw the two last Biennales—by Jean Clair and Germano Celant—that helped me decide that the time had come to do a “young” Biennale, not just in the international exhibition but in the national pavilions too. So that’s what I said to all the participating countries: “At the end of the century it’s time for young artists, and women artists.” Of course, because of their selection system this came a little bit late for a lot of nations, but other ones were freer to respond. That’s how I started. Now I have to get the whole thing ready in a short time—like always. But since I’m there for four years we’ll have more time to prepare for the next one.

RS: Could I ask you to spell out what precisely your responsibilities are as director of the Biennale? Not every reader will know how it works—and, frankly, even insiders are a bit confused by the system. What exactly is asked of you? How much input do you have with respect to the national pavilions? Will you be doing the international exhibition and Aperto this year?

HS: Okay. One after the other. Baratta named directors for the different sections—for film, architecture, theater, music, dance, and also the visual arts, which is my territory. So, my job is to organize the international exhibition in the Giardini and Arsenale, to give recommendations for the so-called exhibitions a latere, for contributions outside the pavilions and in the city, to keep contact with the commissioners of the national pavilions, and so on. It’s a triple full-time job to do it all in five months. This year I decided that the international exhibition and Aperto would be combined. It doesn’t make sense any more to divide the artists by age. Since I was the one who invented Aperto, in 1980, I feel free to call the whole show “dAPERTutto,” “APERTO over ALL,” “APERTO par TOUT,” “APERTO über ALL.” Changing the inner structure of the Biennale, breaking up the divisions, and most importantly expanding the space of the Biennale—these are my innovations. Though a great deal of the credit for the expansion must go to Paolo Baratta.

RS: Last Biennale, Yugoslavia was a big problem. Montenegro was supposed to represent Yugoslavia that year, but the Serbian government rejected their selection, Marina Abramovic, so that finally Germano Celant had to move her work to the Italian Pavilion.

HS: The Kosovo war has its deep consequences. The situation is very dramatic now, and despite the campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the regions bordering Serbia, the NATO bombing has provoked demonstrations across Serbia in favor of Milosevic. That’s exactly the contrary of the American experience toward the end of the Vietnam War, though of course the United States itself was never bombed. Meeting intellectuals and artists in the States at that time gave one the impression that self-reflection on power structures would lead to another state of consciousness. Now it’s different.

Macedonia just renounced its participation, and what will happen with the Yugoslavian Pavilion isn’t clear. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the tormented history of Yugoslavia have created a lot of problems for the national pavilions, and every year additional countries demand a presence in Venice. All these nations, or ethnic groups, are looking for a platform to try and bolster their cultural identity or national conscience or whatever it is. This is very touching and frightening, and in the end it may be more interesting psychologically than artistically. There is a problem of First and Third World, between the countries that have national pavilionsin the Giardini and the ones that don’t.

I intend to have two artists represent Serbia in the international exhibition, two women who express the suffering their nation has caused—and is now itself experiencing. The Serbs are sending five artists to the Yugoslavian Pavilion. Their material for the catalogue was mailed the second day of the bombing, as if nothing happened. And of course we will show these artists. We are a society of culture, we don’t judge either side. We show artists. Maybe that helps, maybe it doesn’t.

RS: What about the countries with long-established pavilions? How responsive have they been to your general suggestions? I know that in the last São Paulo Biennale, the chief curator, Paulo Herkenhoff, tried very hard to make a show that had less a strict logic than a coherent emphasis—dare I say “flavor”?—to it, and the theme was anthropophagy. He worked very hard to reach out to participating countries and to encourage them to consider this overall picture. Are the countries that form the long-standing core of the Venice Biennale paying heed to your organizing concepts?

HS: Well, we had a meeting at the end of January, and they all came. I told them that a lot of things had changed. But you know how it is. If you say you want to open the show up, this can be understood in various ways. And every country has its own selection process. So, Germany sends Rosemarie Trockel, while you Americans send Ann Hamilton. Both choices support my belief that, at the end of the century, women artists are making the strongest contribution to overcoming the spirit of the past.

RS: Do you have a specific theme in mind?

HS: My idea for a show—especially a huge show like this—is to draw certain parameters. I always try to make a world using today’s art. So I don’t really have a theme, unless it’s “Aperto all over,” the basic idea of opening up. Of course, I’m composing this exhibition, as I always do.

RS: Isn’t there a problem with the whole proliferation of international biennials? Once there were just two—in Venice and São Paulo, plus the Carnegie International. Now there’s the Berlin Biennale and biennials in Kwangju, Johannesburg, Istanbul, and so on. How many biennials can the world handle, and what distinguishes one from another?

HS: Well, in a way I feel like the person who has to turn the Mama of all biennials back into a young woman again—with nice breasts, you know. I see why everybody makes biennials. The government says: “Okay, let’s do something big every two years.” That’s what happened in Kassel with Documenta. They traded in five years of continuous subsidies for the funding to make one huge event. In 1972, I was given 3.6 million marks: If you divide by five, that makes 700,000 marks a year, which could easily finance a Kunsthalle’s activity on an ongoing basis. But, on the other hand, I suppose it’s a good thing to have all these biennials.

RS: Many of the same artists show up over and over again, on a relatively coordinated schedule, doing work that’s of a relatively similar kind because that’s what the biennials allow for or encourage. This poses some problems, doesn’t it?

HS: Yes. I think it poses problems for the artists. But the explosion of biennials is creating a new type of artist who really lives from project to project. They are very flexible. They go to Santa Fe, they go to Berlin; sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse. These artists are like film directors because they go from job to job, place to place, and make masterpieces as well as failures.

RS: Let me put it another way. Given all the institutional, diplomatic, and economic reasons for having biennials—and given the fact that there are artists for whom such large-scale exhibition formats are, in a sense, their medium, do you think that artmaking is in synch with the proliferating number of occasions to show? Do you see this time as being particularly fertile?

HS: Yes. The proliferation of these occasions is nourished by the spirit of the artists today. Of course things were very different in 1969, when I did “When Attitudes Become Form.” The end of the ’60s was the second and last revolution in the art of this century. The first was in 1911. Today, there is no revolution. Younger artists ask me if I still believe in utopia. Of course I do, that’s why I did all these shows about the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork—which, of course, is a phenomenon that doesn’t really exist—exploring the idea that an individual could create his own world without imposing it on anybody else. When Wagner coined the term, he believed that through musical drama he could create a new society. This is why he’s commonly seen as a forerunner to Hitler. But unlike Hitler, he never forced anybody to belong to the elite he was dreaming of.

In the end, believing that behind what you see there are other possibilities and dimensions engendered by imagination and fantasy—well, that’s really not so utopian. But for me that lesson came out of the legacy of utopian visions—which I must say really wasn’t a topic that you could discuss with young artists during the ’80s. So something is breaking up now, even if it’s not yet “Boom, boom!”

RS: What do you mean by “Boom, boom?” (Laughter)

HS: That means “really breaking through.” You see the danger, but you also see the positive side, the optimism, in artists like Pipilotti Rist or Jason Rhoades. On the other side, you have artists who aren’t quite optimistic, though they’re starting to pop the right questions.

RS: A number of artists are dealing with alternative shelters, or alternative living situations these days. What other points of departure are prevalent and important?

HS: Well, I think the moment’s right to show a bit more about what’s going on in China, and to show it on the same level as artists in the West. And it’s also the moment to make some oppositions.

RS: Oppositions in what sense?

HS: Between European beauty and Chinese double strategy—imagine the woodcut portraits and landscapes by Franz Gertsch and Zhou Tiehai’s portraits of Western capitalists as Joe Camel, for example. There is a kind of political art in China, which I like. You know, to live there, to have this unique history, from Mao to Deng, and at the same moment to dream of the freedom we have and find a form that is accepted on both sides—that fascinates me, and I plan to show a lot of this work.

Zhou Tiehai, a Shanghai artist, paints himself as Chairman in front of unrecognizable flags, pronouncing truths like: “The relations in the art world are the same as the relations between states in the post-Cold War era.” A young artist like Wang Du takes images from the mass media and transcribes them into three dimensions: UN delegates sleeping next to a yawning Arafat; Monica at a press conference; Jang Zemin smiling before the maquette for a new skyscraper; a politician with a topless waitresscrawling onto his lap; and so on. I am also presenting a series of homages to artists who died recently and are important to the younger generation: Dieter Roth, Martin Kippenberger, Gino De Dominicis, Mario Schifano, and James Lee Byars. And you have the eroticism of scratched body parts in Zhang Peili’s video installation Uncertain Pleasure [1996] and the fabric sculptures of Louise Bourgeois.

RS: She doesn’t quit, does she? (Laughter)

HS: She is really unbelievably good. I show her, too. And then, of course, I pair artists like, say, Qui Shihua, a monochrome painter whose works reveal hidden landscapes in them if you look at them long enough. Or think of Katharina Sieverding’s Chinese army group photo. I am also including a young installation artist named John Bock. That’s the general idea, to create a temporary world out of diversity. I’m in the process of composing a big show.

RS: It’s more or less a matter of correspondences among things seen?

HS: Yes. Correspondences or oppositions or breaks. And then, of course, I have fabulous new spaces where I really need artists who will accept the conditions, which may not be ideal museologically speaking. Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy will make a collaboration in one of these spaces in the so-called Artiglierie. There’ll be a fascinating project by Thomas Hirschhorn against globalization, a drum sculpture by Chen Zhen. And then I have spaces that the visitor can’t enter, so the public will have to accept this condition of looking only from the entrance. Actually the new premises in the Arsenale will be an adventure and a beautiful walk. The new Biennale. “APERTutto” will use not just the Corderie (the usual Aperto site) but the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini and several Arsenale buildings, like the Artiglierie and the Tese, where they used to store wood, powder, oil, and so on.

RS: What else can you tell me generally about the parameters of the show? Are there other very senior living artists beyond Bourgeois who will be included in the show?

HS: Yes, Nauman and maybe Polke will each show one work.

RS: How many artists are going to be included in the international exhibition altogether?

HS: Actually, so far I’ve chosen eighty-five, but I think I’ll end up with about ninety-nine. There have never been so few artists in Venice. But I was nominated not only to give the Biennale a new start but to raise the overall quality of the work being shown.

RS: What role should not just Venice but all of these shows play in relationship to the general public? How does one plan a show with a “mass audience” in mind?

HS: Well, you know, I think it’s always the same when we do a show. On the one hand, you do it for yourself, for your own pleasure, but at the same time you hope, for the institution’s sake, that you’ll draw big crowds. But you can’t think “mass audience” from the beginning.

RS: Another aspect of Venice which is different than some of these international shows is that it has a prize structure; that there’s a certain genuine prestige attached to them; and that, also, like the Nobel Prize, it’s conspicuous that some people who should obviously have gotten them didn’t, and vice versa. Could you refresh the reader’s memory as to how exactly the prizes are given, who appoints the jury, and so forth?

HS: I remember ’68, when the police charged us in Venice, where we were out protesting against the whole prize system. After that, there were no more prizes. Now there are again. Why not? Well, the director proposes names of prospective jurors, and the president and the board choose a jury of five, who act independently in awarding the prizes.

RS: Do you place much importance on the prize structure? Do you think it’s an integral part of the show, or is it simply something that tags along behind it?

HS: As I said, in ’68, after we were knocked down by the police for contesting the Biennale, the prize was eliminated for years. Sixty-eight was a real revolution, which for the most part started at universities in the United States, France, Germany, Italy, etc. Students revolted against the politicians, the corrupt system, against the institutional structures. The movement strove to forward the sorts of immaterial, antimaterialistic, values discussed in sit-ins, or on the streets at the barricades. A lot of artists were involved in this. It was a fabulous time, and you might say that a new art came out of it: Think of Beuys, of Serra’s revolutionary sculpture, of Conceptual art as a whole.

For me, the prizes don’t have any real meaning. They’re a leftover from ancient times, when international exhibitions gave gold medals. But since the prizes exist and the money is there, let’s give it away—prizes for artists and a prize for the best pavilion. But it will never be like the old days. After Pipilotti Rist won at the ’97 Biennale, the juries will be a bit more adventurous. It’s no longer a matter of crowning a long, distinguished career. Of course all prize giving gets a lot of criticism, and I have received a lot of letters from critics who propose themselves as jurors, claiming that they would be more neutral than the others. It’s very funny.

RS: To wind up, there’s a circuit of big European exhibitions, and the generation that came out of the ’60s has pretty much been a monopoly over them. Do you think that the moment is coming where there will be a dramatic generational shift in the curatorial outlook? Is the selection of Okwui Enwezor for Documenta a sign of this impending shift?

HS: Oh, yes, that’s very good. I met him in Madrid. He is very intelligent and has thought a lot about what a big show means today. Of course I hope that things keep changing!

RS: Do you see any other movement in this area?

HS: Well, there will be other kinds of exhibitions, I think. Like “Cities on the Move”—which I saw in Vienna and will soon be at the Hayward Gallery—and where maybe we rely even more on our intuition and our knowledge, because the show is more about creating an atmosphere than being an exhibition. That show was really a shock, but in a very positive way. Of course, the artists in it weren’t so happy, because the paintings don’t hang at eye level and so on—but it doesn’t matter. And now the younger curators mostly work in threes. For the Berlin Biennale it was three, for Luxembourg Manifesta it was three. Now, instead of Stanley going alone to the Congo, three people go to explore.

RS: Are there no more impresarios, only committees?

HS: Yes, yes—it’s committees. But they all come out of a certain mood, a certain generation. They’re very curious, very fast, they travel like hell.

RS: One thing we haven’t mentioned is painting. Is there much in the way of painting in the Biennale as it is now shaping up?

HS: Well, there will be some painting.

RS: There was very little in Documenta X—only Kerry James Marshall, David Reeb, and Lari Pittman, if I remember correctly—and very little in Berlin, as well.

HS: There will be more in Venice, because I have some of these Chinese artists and they still really paint. Fang Lijun, Ma Liuming, Qiu Shihua, Wan Xingwei, Xie Nan Xing, Yang Shaobin, Yue Minjun, Zhou Tiehai, to mention a few. And in terms of European artists, there is, for example, a young woman painter like Pia Fries, coming out of the Dorner school. But the gesture—the emphasis on the fact that paint is material—is so well-known. Although I don’t care whether there’s more painting or more video, or whatever, I do think the image in movement has the greatest possibilities for expressing the zeitgeist. But I must say I’ve always had a fondness for painters; they amass a life’s work—it’s beautiful to walk into their world. They create it, and they believe in this reduction of the universe to two dimensions.

RS: But I’m thinking, for example, of Polke, who hasn’t been in these big exhibitions very much, but who has a special prominence given the impact that he’s had on people who make both fix images and moving images. He’s been enormously influential.

HS: Yes, sure.

RS: So if you’re looking for a senior figure of this kind, there Polke is.

HS: Yes. But, if you ask Polke to participate, and then he doesn’t like what you do. . . Let’s put it this way: He likes choosing the work himself. Of course, he is really a great artist; when he’s missing in a show of mine, it’s not that I didn’t ask him. But I would like to have one painting of his in the Biennale, Marienerscheinung, for example.

RS: Among the young artists you’ve considered, have you found anyone with the kind of rabble-rousing, mercurial quality Polke had? Anyone who creates the sort of open-ended situation or problems that Polke did? Is this a moment where, in the absence of a dominant ideology or aesthetic tendency, there’s a special opportunity for a certain kind of temperament that works in the spaces “in between”?

HS: Yes, John Bock. He is a young German artist who is creating his chaotic life in the space between the floor and an elevation built above it. He works and thinks between this double floor. And then, surprisingly, he lets out through holes acts of creativity, manifestations of an underground life. In video he “teaches.” He does it fabulously well. And of course, it’s very, very fragile and ephemeral. When asked if art has a political value, I always say: “Fragility is finally the political statement of art.” Some young artists—mainly women—really bring this dimension in. It’s no longer fragility in the existential sense of a choice to live for art, or something like that. It’s on the edge, between two models of reality, a place that lies between the possibilities that obsession and reflection may dictate or suggest. It’s like going out on a lake that’s just frozen over. I think this is a beautiful moment. A lot of poetry will come out.

RS: It’s figure skating on thin ice.

HS: Exactly.