Harald Szeemann, the Visionary
Interview by Camilla Boemio for CALAMITA/À
Lucrezia De Domizio Durini is an atypical persona in the realm of contemporary art. She has worked for over forty years in the field of international culture as a journalist, writer, curator, editor and patron. In 1971 she met German artist Joseph Beuys, igniting a collaboration that would eventually see them travel the world together. Their meeting yielded the first discussion, Incontro with Beuys, in 1974; it was followed by The Foundation of the Rebirth of Agriculture on February 12 and The Defense of Nature on February 13, 1984. On May 13, 1999, the Oscar award for International Curators was created, in close collaboration with Harald Szeemann. The inauguration was held in Piazza Joseph Beuys in Bolognano, a place built according to “Beuysian” concepts and a unique example of the phenomenological in world art history. She is the OFFICIAL APPOINTED CURATOR at CONTEMPORARY ART INTERNATIONAL BIENNIAL ART & INDUSTRY to 2016 in Labin Istria / Croatia.
Harald Szeemann was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1933. He studied art history, archaeology and journalism at the University of Bern, and by 1961 was head of the Kunsthalle Bern. Harald Szeemann forged his reputation there by transforming a very provincial institution dominated by local artists, evolving it into a meeting point for the rising generation of European and American artists and organizing about a dozen exhibitions each year, including the wrapping of the Kunsthalle building by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1968. His groundbreaking 1968-69 event, When Attitudes Become Form, featured nearly 70 artists, including Eva Hesse, Walter de Maria, Joseph Beuys, and Richard Serra. After heavy criticism of his influential exhibition, in 1969 Szeemann left the Kunsthalle to become a freelance curator. That year he co-founded IKT, the International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art. The following year, he organized another large, even more improbable show, Happenings and Fluxus, at the Kunstverein in Cologne. In 1972 he was appointed as curator of the Documenta 5 in Kassel and introduced installation and performance-oriented art to an even broader audience.
After Documenta 5, Mr. Szeemann developed a nomadic method of working. He created an imaginary museum, The Museum of Obsessions, a concept from which he derived his program, and organized Bachelor Machines for the Venice Biennale in 1975. In 1980, he was appointed co-commissioner of the Biennale, and created the first Aperto, or Open, section, a cacophonous exhibit held in a gigantic former rope factory and ignoring the national divisions of the Biennale’s pavilions. In 1981 Mr. Szeemann became the independent curator at the Kunsthaus Zurich, mounting shows comprising a dizzying mix of 19th and 20th century artists and writers, including Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Eugene Delacroix, James Ensor, Sigmar Polke, Cy Twombly and Richard Serra. His thematic exhibitions included In Search of the Total Artwork, Austria in a Lacework of Roses and Swiss Visionaries. He continued to work independently, organizing the Lyon Biennale and the Kwangju Biennial in Korea in 1997, and serving as commissioner of the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001. In 2003 he organized a survey of Spanish art at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, Queens. The last exhibition he curated, Visionary Belgium, will be inaugurated on March 4th at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
CALAMITA/À: Like you, Harald Szeemann is a curatorial icon. After a brief experience in contemporary theater, he dedicated himself to art. In the sixties he become director of the Kunsthalle in Bern, where he produced a number of exhibitions, including When Attitudes Become Form, which introduces new languages and ways of understanding art, with the participation of artists such as Joseph Beuys, Franz Gertschnot, Richard Serra, Mimmo Paladino, Jörg Immendorff, Gian Ruggero Manzoni, Markus Lüpertz and Dieter Roth. Could you describe your relationship, one of esteem and friendship, with Harald Szeemann?
Lucrezia De Domizio Durini: Harald Szeemann was one of the most coherent contemporary art thinkers in the world during the post-World War II era, a critic of intensity and a profound art historian. Throughout his life he created and organized deeply researched exhibitions, changing historiography and the systems of critical and international expository methodology. He loved “les finesses” of culture, as he used to define the minimal research of comparative analysis which he grafted admirably onto his atypical exhibitions. From Kassel’s Documenta to the various Biennali, from the famous historical reconstruction of Monte Verità to the memorable exhibitions of the Unmarried Machines, from Beuys to Duchamp and more… his idea of Visionary was consistently expressed in his Museum of Obsessions, where everything and nothing, the possible and the impossible, experiences, intuition, courage, freedom, humanity and imagination rendered him a destabilizing force in the face of models imposed by the power structures. He defined himself as an independent curator. The 1999 Venice Biennale at the close of a century and that of 2001 at the start of the third millennium will remain in contemporary art history as tangible marks of an intellectual “Super Partes”, a forerunner who, shouldering the complex responsibilities assigned to him by institutions, taught and anticipated the times and sociability of art.
My working relationship and loyal friendship [with Harry] came of the deep affection we both had for, and the work we did with, Joseph Beuys, one of the most significant and emblematic figures of art in the world after the second World War. The humility, brotherhood, generosity, work ethic and respect for the fundamental principles of Man and Mother Nature led us to thirty-five years of joint collaboration. With his wife Ingeborg Lüscher and his daughter Una, Harry was my savior during tragic moments of my existence, which caused me to understand the meaning of life and death. My book, the only one in Italian, Harald Szeeman. Il pensatore selvaggio (Silvana Editoriale, Milan 2005), is an irrefutable historical document.
Buby Durini, Joseph Beuys, Harald Szeemann and Pierre Restany are the four signposts of my existence in and beyond art. I dedicate my work to these rare personalities.
A/À: To what extent have curatorial practices changed in the past ten years? How much longer will the persona of Szeemann influence them?
LDDD: After Harald Szeemann I prefer Silence …
A/À: Utopia is the engine of the imagination. The antidote to the mediocrity of emotions, curatorial projects exert a regenerative force that is not an end in itself. Szeemann has stated repeatedly that his purpose was to create exhibitions that remain in the mind, that change one’s thoughts.
LDDD: We are living an historic moment in which the virus of power has formed an army of men who attempt to destroy myths, dreams and utopias. But they mainly try to transform freedom into a kind of democratic authority, where the obligation of corruption starts with the vanity of thought and quickly extends to good taste, good manners, and all the facets of our daily life, despotically invading even art and its world.
A/À: The Living Sculpture, in Beuys’ philosophy, is based on supportive and free collaboration and communication between men of different cultures, origins and religions, and varying social, economic and political status. Could you also talk about the protection of the Beuys environment and the topics he analyzed for the hundred days at Documenta 6 in Kassel? Beuys says that “no revolutionary force other than the creative power of man exists.” But when art is an actual tool of political strategy, could you give us some examples of issues that have really activated a territory?
LDDD: Before talking about him, it is important to synthetically understand who Joseph Beuys really is.
This means much more than the never-dormant idea of unity between art and life. Beuys, placing himself within a work of art, intends to emphasize the anthropological power of art as a whole. The need to talk, to communicate, to express oneself by any means, has been fully answered through his life’s work. Being an artist for Beuys meant living a life with others, seeking in a relationship of fraternal cooperation that “elementary and profound understanding of what is happening on earth,” because what happens in our world is also what happens within us. We cannot help but talk to each other. And Beuys cannot help but rise again and continue living. As was Beuys, so is every man, every man who has decided to be a real man. This is the message that Beuys has passed on with his work and his life. Joseph Beuys did not invent any method; he worked his entire life for the improvement of the existing methods in society.
There are two concepts that permeate Beuys’ philosophy:
– The free, creative energy that every man on the planet possesses.
– His “Living Sculpture”. A living sculpture comprised of men of different backgrounds, origins, races, religions, and varying social, political, economic and cultural status, linked by free, supportive collaboration.
The two concepts can be summarized in his four famous slogans: All men are artists; We are the Revolution; KUNST=KAPITAL; and Defense of Nature.
Now we can analyze the various issues that you mentioned. Let’s start with the environment.
In Beuys, the relationship with nature has always been a constant theme, a work that began with archetypical drawings in his early years as an artist, and which he resumed in Italy during the last years of his life in Defense of Man and Protecting Nature. It was in Italy where his concept of Concrete Utopia was created through the plantation triad: Seychelles – Bolognano – Kassel, in Earth’s Utopia.
Beuys’ Defense of Nature surpasses the ecological concept (it must be remembered that in the early 70’s he founded the Green Movement, though he withdrew when it became a party) and should be read in an anthropological sense: defense of man, of the individual, of creativity and human values. Still important issues today for the planet.
Regarding the Permanent Conference in 1977 at Documenta – where I was present – it is necessary to remember that Beuys proposed education as society’s primary resource, creating important pedagogical formulas for the rebirth of a civilized nation, such as the Offices of Direct Democracy and the FIU (Free International University). I would also like to mention his promotional initiative, Appeal for an Alternative and Third Way Action, an idea and a practical attempt to create an alternative to existing social systems in the East and West. Beuys warns that humanity is doomed to dramatically and increasingly suffer the ecological crisis. We are defenseless, exposed to the insane and growing menace of war, helplessly watching the continuously widening gap between rich and poor nations. [The world is] constantly tormented by racial hate, religious conflicts, nationalism, exploitation, oppression, humiliation, the violence of economic and political power, and biological and social manipulation. Beuys anticipated the need for the European Union, with its free market and common currency.
These issues were discussed during the hundred days at Documenta 6 in Kassel in 1977, when Beuys presented his Free International University, still important today, to the cultural world for the first time.
Below are the main points discussed over 100 days at Documenta:
– Nuclear and alternative power
– Media, Part I: Manipulation
– Media, Part II: Alternatives
– Human Rights Week
– Urban decay
– Northern Ireland
– The World
– Violent behavior
– Employment and unemployment
The last meeting was dedicated to an analysis of the 100 days of debates. Joseph Beuys harbored the hope that all men would attain the same freedoms and rights. He dedicated himself to a free economy, an organic economic order, a practical alteration of the concept of money and a new order based on the right of employment. He was particularly interested in the preservation of endangered crops and biological plowing. He also started a true partnership for the livelihood and promotion of development in Third World countries. Beuys’ prophetic importance as a forerunner anticipating social needs should be noted, in light of the issues facing us today. The German master was an active precursor to the economic, environmental, humanitarian, political and cultural issues that today, more than ever, afflict all who inhabit Planet Earth.
As long as a single plant and a single man exist on earth, the royal art of Joseph Beuys and all artists who work for social improvement will live.
A/À: To what degree are topics related to catastrophes present in Joseph Beuys’ research and artistic representation?
LDDD: Joseph Beuys was the forerunner of social, economic, political and cultural factors which still afflict the planet today. Irrefutable documents are the 100 Days of the permanent Conference at Documenta 6 – Kassel 1977 – and his famous Little Red Book – The Third Way. Regarding environmental catastrophes, this issue was addressed on May 13, 1984 in Bolognano during the historical discussion Defense of Nature. Marco Bagnoli questioned Beuys, “So, we think we are aware of the tree. Perhaps it is the symbol of our consciousness. Therefore, I ask Beuys: Is this tree aware of us? If it is, is it the tree which has planted us, materially, absorbing our conscience? If not, is it perhaps the dead god who is reborn in our consciousness?”
Beuys replied, “Thank you very much, Marco. I am in perfect agreement with your words. Doing this work, we plant trees, and the trees plant us because we belong to each other and we have to exist together. It is something that happens in a process that moves simultaneously in two different directions. Trees are therefore aware of us, as we are conscious of them. It is extremely important that you try to create or stimulate an interest in this type of interdependence. If we have no respect for the authority of the tree, or for its genius, or intelligence, we will see that its intelligence is so great that it enables it to decide to make a phone call to communicate a message on the sad conditions of human beings. The tree will make its phone call to animals, mountains, clouds, and rivers; it will decide to speak with geological forces, and if humanity fails, nature will have its terrible revenge, so terrible that it will be the expression of nature’s intelligence and an attempt to bring humans back to the light of reason through violence. If men cannot help but remain imprisoned in their stupidity, if they refuse to consider the intelligence of nature, and if they refuse to establish a relationship of collaboration with nature, then nature will resort to violence to force men to take another path. We have reached a point where we have to make a decision. Either we will, or we won’t. And if we don’t, we will find ourselves facing a series of enormous catastrophes that will befall every corner of the planet.” “Cosmic intelligence will direct itself against the human race. But now, for a certain period of time, there is still the possibility of freely making a decision – the decision to take a course that is different from what we have covered in the past. We can still choose to align our intelligence with that of nature.”
“I am very grateful for Marco Bagnoli’s comments, because he is raising a very important aspect of our problem. Although his speech seems mystical, he is actually speaking about reality. This is not, of course, the reality normally meant by this word, according to positivist and materialist thought. When people speak to me about reality, I always ask, “But what kind of reality are you talking about? What reality?” This is the question.” Beuys was not usually so apocalyptic, but it is necessary to emphasize that the German maestro was also very optimistic; reflect on what has happened in the world since his premature death on January 23, 1986.
Beuys is still to be read, analyzed and studied.
A/À: Which other artists have been able to interpret this issue skillfully? With which projects in particular?
LDDD: I consider Vitantonio Russo to be the best. He is the only Italian, or, I would say international, artist-economist who, since the beginning of the sixties, with his Economic Art, has been able to interpret and analyze the different social, economic and cultural conditions of our time compared to events and situations of the past, but always with a clear anthropological vision of the future.
On several occasions, public and private, Russo has compared himself to Joseph Beuys on economic and environmental topics with complete agreement, [saying] “Working for modern society means working for others.” Beuys was clearly an idealist. Russo, an Economics professor, was a rationalist, but with such sensitivity that ethics and aesthetics were a constant value for him.
A famous discussion between the two took place on February 12, 1978 at the Borsa Merci of Pescara during the presentation of the Foundation for the Rebirth of Agriculture. Russo, an expert for over thirty years, had become interested in economic problems related to agriculture, for his work and studies. On that occasion, he pointed out the contradictions of land reform in the 50’s and 60’s, the complex problems of agricultural cooperation, the traumatic conflict between a farming culture and technological progress, and different aspects of the European Community in relation to the existing social and economic inequalities, especially in the so-called Third World.
I clearly remember that Beuys – who always felt that artists must serve society for the common good – addressing the audience, said, “I thank Vitantonio Russo because men like him, coming from practical experience and art, should occupy those positions necessary to effect radical changes to improve society.”
The masterful works exhibited by Russo during the Biennale and other international events were in harmony with his research. They represented an expression of a transubstantiation of a strong belief that, through innate creativity, has uncovered real issues in a scientific world that completely belongs to him.
In order to make the research more truthful and dialectic, Russo uses both archetypal materials such as gold, silver, coins, and everyday objects: umbrellas and safes for the installation-performance The wealth of Nations – Spazio Thetis Venice, 2008; mosquito nets for the installation Value – The Place of Nature, Bolognano 2012-15; and film and video in Natural Force, 2009. Entitling his pieces becomes support for the expansion of the entire work. For example: “To open the debate” – Biennale of Venice 2009; “Supply side economy” – La Maison d’Italie, Paris 2010; and “Gain from trade”, Rome 2012. I don’t know other artists who interpret art and real life amalgamated from their own knowledge, or rather, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet them… even though for my work I often travel the world.
Camilla Boemio is a writer, an independent curator, an university consultant and researcher whose practice deals with investigating the politics of participation in curatorial practices and the intersections between art, technology and science. Boemio co-founded and directed the thematic AAC platform and she is associate curator at APT – Artist Pension Trust.
She was Deputy Curator of the Maldives Pavilion at 55th International Art Exhibition Venice Biennial, and in the summer of 2014 she curated “Apprehension Global Society and Contemporary Art on the Twitter Generation” Symposium, a Parallel Event at 6th Bucharest Biennial. She was one of the selected speakers of the conference at FORMAT15 International Photography Festival. The conference was presented in collaboration with QUAD, the University of Derby and the Digital and Material Arts Research Centre, of the University of Derby.
Her writings have appeared in various international magazines, publications and catalogues.