Failure as a poetic
dimension. A conversation with Harald Szeemann
Harald Szeemann, charismatic
tower of strength in the exhibition business and prototype of the independent
curator, is this year responsible for the second time in succession for the
international exhibition at the Venice Biennale. As the founder of Aperto in
1980, which did not take place in 1995, he merged this show with the
international exhibition in 1999, calling it "dAPERTutto". By
presenting of a large number of younger artists he succeeded in breathing new
life into the rather worn-out international exhibition in the Italian Pavilion.
This year too he is combining historical heavyweights like Beuys, Serra and
Richter with work from a younger generation. "Plateau of Humankind"
is offering no ordinary state of affairs, however. Szeemann typifies the
exhibition simply as a collection of artworks to be looked at. The presentation
as a whole provides insight into the passions, behaviour patterns and ways of
seeing that all people share in equal measure.
Jan Winkelmann: In 1999 you
had only five months to put together the international exhibition.
Harald Szeemann: That was
inherent in the organisation of the Biennale as a whole. First you have the
film festival in September and then the theatre festival. All the people
involved can only come together from the beginning of January. Before then
you're on your own. The budget only becomes available in January. This year
there's considerably less than last time. The artists' travel and accommodation
expenses are at least 60% lower and for my own travels there's 50% less funding
available, and the number of assistants I can take from outside has also been
reduced. You only find out about these things six months in advance. So its not
possible to start earlier with drawing up a well thought out and realistic
concept. I only heard in March this year that we could use some more spaces
outside the Giardini. All in all it involves a whole load of uncertainties. You
have to keep reviewing things. Whats more, you have to take into account all
the special wishes of the participating artists. But anyway, all these
uncertainties simply belong to a Biennale. They also make it very exciting. You
have to keep making sure you get the maximum out of all the possibilities and
at the same time try to break through the limitations, to make the impossible
happen after all. In the end I want everyone to say it is as it is, a
self-evident whole, not artificial in any way. In my view an exhibition is a
world in itself in which you can understand certain non-verbal polarities.
Thats where the challenge is for me.
The second sentence of the
press release states that Plateau of Humankind has no specific theme. Why is
that stated so categorically? Do you want to parry criticism in advance?
Why shouldn't I say that so
directly? Most people don't read the whole text anyway, but usually they still
read the second sentence. Rather than having a theme, the exhibition delineates
a certain dimension. Because of the exhibitions I made in the past, like
"Das Gesamtkunstwerk" and "The Bachelor Machine"s, people
still expect me to think up a common denominator. So that's not the case, nor
does the exhibition illustrate a particular sort of plateau of humankind. That's
why I brought up Edward Steichen's "Family of Man" by way of
comparison. That tremendous optimism after the Second World War, whereby he
presented all these different portraits as one big family, is no longer the
issue today. Today's artists are much more interested in the physiognomy and
behaviour of people. In addition, the focus is not so much on the individual as
on the outside world. Thats why the exhibition now begins with Joseph Beuys.
His work best embodies the social utopia that emerged from that postwar
optimism the strongest.
That utopia was never
It never is, but a whole lot of
people, myself included, firmly believed in it.
And how was it to experience
that nothing came of it, that utopias are doomed to fail?
The nice thing about utopias is
precisely that they fail. For me failure is a poetic dimension of art. I'm not
talking about a protest against political relations, but about allowing a
fiasco to actually take place. A good example of this, I always think, is Richard
Serra's video Hand Catching Lead from 1969. It makes no difference at all
whether the hand catches the piece of lead or not. It's purely a sculptural
gesture, the failure itself becomes a wonderful story. I've been interested in
the idea of failure for a very long time, for example in the Monte
Veritá exhibition about a utopia from the Twenties that was never
realised. The exhibition itself, however, gave the impression that this ideal
community on Mount Veritá in Switzerland had actually existed. This was
because we were able to show everything simultaneously, the utopia, the anarchy
and everything that happened around it.
To return for a moment to the
ponderous apparatus of the Biennale. Two years ago you wanted to change the
conditions under which the artists could work on their pieces. Was that
I always bring with me my own
team of people whom I've been working with for twenty years. They know exactly
how I deal with artists. The annoying thing about such bureaucratic
organisations at the Biennale is that there are a lot of people running around
who hate artists because they keep wanting to change everything. That's why I
put my own people in between. Besides this I try to hang around with the
artists as much as possible. We make every effort to please them.
Is it true that you spend a
night in every exhibition you make?
I used to do that before, when
there were no alarm systems. I usually did it on the last day of the
exhibition, when it is still something of my own, afterwards no longer.
At the press conference
earlier this year you said, The only thing that interests me is the intensity
of a work of art or an artist. The rest I couldn't care about. With intensity
you pick up quite a lot of course, but you also exclude a lot of things, such
as theoretical and discursive parameters or context-related issues.
I can allow myself to put it so
simplistically because everyone knows how complex my way of thinking is.
For the first time you're also
presenting other art forms such as theatre, music and film in Venice. Is that
because an exhibition such as the one in Venice provides more of an occasion
than other exhibitions to aim towards a Gesamtkunstwerk?
Other forms of art were always
there. Theatre and music are now being accommodated separately in places that
were previously closed to the public. With film it's a bit different. We
invited a number of directors to make something special for the occasion. Some
of them have had to drop out because they were too busy with commercial
productions. We've also invited poets from all over the world. The poems sent
in will be presented on a fence, on the border between the exhibition hall and
the marina area.
Are there any other locations
being used for the exhibition for the first time?
A few places have indeed been
added, and there are others that we were no longer able to use. And there are
locations where you can only look in from the outside, which is not a problem
since there are a lot of artists at the moment who work with distinctly
theatrical elements and set up a sort of stage situation. This would have been
unthinkable previously. Minimal art artists insisted that you could walk around
their work so that you would experience the field of tension between the work
and the spectator. The younger generation, however, are more interested in
theatrical qualities. This began in the Eighties as a counterbalance to
conceptual art which had gradually begun to display rather absurd traits and in
one way or another had itself become fairly theatrical.
The list of artists taking
part includes a few unknown names from Latin America.
Were you bothered by all the
criticism two years ago about your inclusion of so many artists from China in
I got thoroughly fed up with it.
There's always some sourpuss who's angry because he thinks his country is
under-represented. You always have these questions about nationalities, but I
really dont have time to worry about it.
Did you have any influence on
the choice of new countries to be represented at the biennale?
There's no more room in the
Giardini for new pavilions, but it is important as a political signal to admit
new countries. It's in everyone's interest that the new states from the former
Eastern Bloc, for example, take part. They function as cultural ambassadors
and, in a metaphorical sense, are able to bring about integration. That more
countries than ever are now taking part is for me proof that the Biennale is a
living organism. Previously it was not possible for an artist to take part in
both the international exhibition as well as represent his country in a
pavilion presentation. That's now possible. Ive also insisted very
strongly that the national presentation of Italy no longer should take place in
the Italian Pavilion. I also stated, that if you really want the international
exhibition to be comparable with the Documenta then it doesnt make sense to
have the national representation of Italy and the international exhibition
within one and the same building. The alternative I proposed was to select more
Italians, relatively speaking, for Plateau of Humankind, who would then relate
to the others in an open contact. In the end they decided to have an Italian
representation in another building. It was totally absurd that they then asked
me to be the commissioner for that as well.
In 1999 you argued that the
Biennale as a whole should include a lot more younger artists. Also in the
national pavilions. What became of this?
If you look at the examples of
Canada with Janet Cardiff, Germany with Gregor Schneider and Austria with
Gruppe Gelatin, and so on, then it has indeed become much younger. You also
have to see it as a learning process. Last time there was a whole discussion about
the fact that the national presentations in the separate pavilions were so
lifeless in comparison with the international exhibition. This was not my
problem, in my opinion, but that of the individual commissioners. I said at the
time that they should make their shows as strong and young as they wanted. And
of course you had the eternal discussion again about whether to abolish the
national pavilions or not. I find these national presentations of utmost
importance. The outstanding chance for Biennales like those of Venice and Sao
Paolo is that they have these two foundations, the national and the
international. Precisely through this combination you can then build bridges,
and that's where the challenge of the Biennale model lies. All in all you could
say that last time a whole lot of taboos had to be broken. In the organisation
itself they experienced that as revolutionary. For me the most important thing
was to break through that totally rusted bureaucracy.
Thus it seems that you have
not only been able to create better conditions for yourself but also to prepare
the way for your successor.
Precisely that was my aim.
has been published in: Metropolis M. Tijdschrift over hedendaagse kunst, No. 3, June 2001.
© 2001 Jan