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Kunsthalle Bern marks its 100th anniversary with exhibitions dedicated to Harald Szeemann
Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions, Kunsthalle Bern, 2018, installation view.


BERNE.- To mark the 100th anniversary of the Kunsthalle Bern, the museum draws a line from the past to the present. A view to one’s own history is necessary to move on to the future. At the Kunsthalle Bern, path-breaking exhibitions took place that led to substantial changes in the conception of exhibition formats and the development of curatorial programs. The Kunsthalle Bern is the cradle of the model of the auteur-curator who develops a “narrative.” This development is by far not completed at the Kunsthalle, but continues along changing generations, parameters and value judgements.

The Kunsthalle Bern deals with one of the best-known pasts of the Kunsthalle, the time in which it turned fifty. In societal terms, the period around the revolts of 1968 was a moment in history favorable for new models. Against this background, Harald Szeemann (1933–2005), a native of Bern, took exhibition-making in totally new directions while heading the Kunsthalle from 1961 to 1969, inventing path-breaking curatorial models. With shows such as Science Fiction (1968) or his revolutionary project Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (1969), he firmly inscribed himself in the art history of the 20th century and brought worldwide recognition to the Kunsthalle Bern. Later, as the director of the documenta 5 (1972) and subsequently as independent curator of his “Agentur für geistige Gastarbeit” and his vision of a “Museum of Obsessions,” Szeemann conceived further exhibitions that underpinned his reputation as the originator of the contemporary curator.

In 2011 the Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles acquired the huge estate of the exhibition organizer and obsessive collector that had accumulated on the 2,700 square meters of the Fabbrica Rosa in Ticino, where he lived and worked at the end of his life. In an extremely elaborate cataloging process, the GRI appraised the collection of correspondences, objects and publications from five decades that document Szeemann’s intellectual universe, his research, plans and projects, and his worldwide network. To introduce the work of the curator to a broad public for the first time, the GRI presented two interconnected shows in Los Angeles in February of this year. At the GRI the show Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions and at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) the restaging of the apartment exhibition Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us (1974), one of the most personal and radical shows curated by Szeemann.

As a traveling exhibition, the European itinerary starts at the Kunsthalle Bern, the place where Szeemann’s career began and, viewed in retrospect, the nucleus of his subsequent work can be found. Further stops of the show are the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, the Castello di Rivoli in Turin and the Swiss Institute, New York.

Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions approaches his creative work based on thematic fields that played a pivotal role for him: “Avant-gardes” takes a look at the artists of his generation and his interest in radical pioneers of the early 20th century, covering his time in Bern, his engagement with happenings and Fluxus, and the documenta 5. “Utopias and Visionaries” deals with the exhibition trilogy “Junggesellenmaschinen,” “Monte Verità” and “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk: Europäische Utopien seit 1800,” in which he searched for new ways of reading modernism based on radical and alternative political movements, utopian ideas and mystical worldviews. The “Geographies” section takes up Szeemann’s Swiss identity, his lifelong interest in traveling and later in exhibitions dedicated to national and regional identities.

In Bern the museum also presents the Grandfather exhibition at its original site, in the apartment on Gerechtigkeitsgasse 74.

Following the large-scale documenta 5, Szeemann curated the exhibition Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us in 1974 in his former apartment above the Café du Commerce. It was also the first exhibition by Galerie Toni Gerber. Szeemann dedicated the show to his grandfather, Etienne Szeemann, a famous coiffeur, who was engaged by royal houses and invented a permanent wave device. Harald Szeemann meticulously staged more than 1,200 objects from the estate of the Hungarian migrant. He created the appearance of a reconstructed apartment as the frame to narrate the life story of his ancestor, with whom he felt close on account of the attitude toward life invoked by the title. Szeemann weaved the story of a life into the fascinating arrangement and let the interior installation become a biography. With the exhibition, he invented possibilities of how objects in space can relate a story at multiple levels. For Szeemann, the installation of this exhibition marked an important apprenticeship during which he gained an even greater understanding of the way details can be staged.

These exhibitions have been organized by the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, in cooperation with the Kunsthalle Bern (Director Valérie Knoll). Curated by Glenn Phillips and Philipp Kaiser, with Doris Chon and Pietro Rigolo.





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