Failure as a poetic dimension. A conversation with Harald Szeemann

Jan Winkelmann

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 it’s 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. What’s 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. That’s 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. That’s 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 realised, however.

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 successful?

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.

Thank goodness!

Were you bothered by all the criticism two years ago about your inclusion of so many artists from China in the exhibition?

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 don’t 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. I’ve 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 doesn’t 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.

This interview has been published in: Metropolis M. Tijdschrift over hedendaagse kunst, No. 3, June 2001.

© 2001 Jan Winkelmann

German version