born 1933 in Bern, Switzerland
Harald Szeemann studied art history, archaeology and journalism. He had a short but intense career in theatre during the 1950s, which included a homage to Dadaist Hugo Ball and a one-man production of Ur faust where he played all the roles himself. In 1957, he decided to enter the art world and direct exhibitions, and by 1961, at the age of 28, he had been appointed director of the Kunsthalle Bern, which had no permanent collection but a bare-bones venue that encouraged what was to become Szeemann’s signature style – a kind of improvisational, laboratory approach where an exhibition of the most challenging vanguard work from America and Europe opened every month. This was where Christo and Jeanne-Claude had their first major project (wrapping the kunsthalle in 1968) and where Andy Warhol had one of his first shows in a European institution.
Live in your head: when attitudes become form was the first major survey of conceptual art to take place in Europe. Subtitled ‘Works, concepts, processes, situations, information’, this 1969 exhibition marked an important shift as a method and model for exhibition practice, in that artists were more or less free to contribute any work that they felt would be relevant. The 69 artists, in Szeemann’s words, ‘took over the institution’. They also did their best to redefine the physical conditions for the show: Lawrence Weiner removed three square feet of wall space; Michael Heizer demolished the sidewalk with a metal ball; Richard Serra contributed one of his Splash pieces, involving molten lead. Richard Long left the institutional framework behind altogether and went on a three-day hike in the Swiss mountains.
Szeemann travelled to Australia for his Kaldor project in 1971, only the year after he had resigned from the Kunsthalle Bern and officially begun working as world’s first ‘independent curator’, and the year before he would curate his documenta 5 exhibition in Kassel, where he would transform what was once a diet of one-man shows and national and period surveys of art into his first large-scale thematic exhibition.
In his later career Szeemann continued to forge new perspectives, leading international interest in Chinese contemporary artists and art from the Balkan regions. For decades, he worked out of a studio he called The Factory in the small Swiss village of Tegna, conceiving exhibitions that were international in scope and consistently dodging the categories of traditional museum practice, often daring to place historical and contemporary artworks beside anthropological artefacts, sacred objects, technical devices and occult instruments. Szeemann sought, he said, to create shows that were ‘poems in space’, with a genuine belief that art exhibitions were spiritual undertakings with the power to conjure alternative ways of organising society. The curator as meta-artist, utopian thinker, even shaman.
Read more about Harald Szeemann’s 1971 Kaldor project.
Relevant works in the Art Gallery of NSW collection
Jihad Muhammad John Armstrong
Gunter Sylvester Christmann