Harald Szeemann’s travel sculpture
Cover Story, September 2018
Summer vacations have a habit of turning into busman’s holidays in Latitudes’s agenda. Undoubtedly the Swiss curator phenomenon Harald Szeemann (1933–2005) also often sensed, or engineered, that trips for pleasure and travel for research and work would inevitably dovetail. Museum of Obsessions, a fascinating but flawed exhibition dedicated to his life and work has just closed at Kunsthalle Bern (it will tour to Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Castello di Rivoli, and the Swiss Institute, New York). Among the ephemera, correspondence, artworks, and photographs that documented exhibitions such as Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form (1968), Happening & Fluxus (1970) and The Bachelor Machines (1975) was a mass of luggage tags accumulated from more than fifty years of flights in and out of ZRH, GVA and BRN. Bar-code strips, gate-check dockets, and business-class labels, were peppered with the words “Priority”, “Rush”, and “Short Connection”. Credited as an artwork by Szeemann (Travel Sculpture, late 1960s–2004, mixed media) this bag-tag totem hung for many years in the Fabbrica Rosa, his archive and library in Maggia, Switzerland, before it was purchased by the Getty Research Institute along with more than 50,000 photographs, 22,000 artist files, and 25,000 books, and transported to Los Angeles. Travel Sculpture is an irrefutably uncomfortable object, a testament to frequent-flyer Szeemann’s curiosity, celebrity, and privileged right to roam, yet evidence of the relentless growth of air travel during his lifetime, and the climate peril of normalising hypermobility.
If it can be argued that excessive discretionary air travel damages not only the global atmosphere, but neighbourhoods and domestic space, then the full-scale reconstruction of the 1972 exhibition Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us in its original location on Bern’s Gerechtigkeitsgasse, offered an unpretentious counterpoint to the ethical effects of so much globe spanning and networking. Following the conclusion of the mammoth exhibition documenta 5 in 1972, Szeemann found himself with no immediate work. He turned to the biography and belongings of his beloved granddad, Étienne Szeemann—a local hairdresser and wigmaker—to put together a remarkable, idiosyncratic, touching and humble exhibition in his own apartment.