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Swiss Institute pays homage to a Pioneering Swiss Hairdresser, and his grandson Harald Szeemann

Étienne Szeemann, 1968. Photographer: Balthasar Burkhard. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2011.M.30) © J. Paul Getty Trust

By BROCK LOWNES, July 2019

The Swiss Institute was founded by a group of expatriates as a place to showcase the rapidly developing art scene of Switzerland of the late eighties and early nineties. Recently, under the new direction of Simon Castets, and in new building at the end of St Marks in the East Village, the Swiss institute has moved away from that older vision to an exhibition program which generally showcases conceptual sculpture and installations work from younger and foreign artists who have yet to receive institutional recognition in the United States. That being said, the new exhibition at the Swiss Institute “Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us,” which opened June 28, does not follow these post-conceptual aesthetic viewers have grown used to. 

Walking into the Swiss Institute this July is like walking into an early nineteenth century period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition is comprised of a small group of rooms made from plywood. Each houses hundreds of vintage ephemeral objects. In the basement are postcards, Swiss military memorabilia, and vintage family photos. On the first floor there is a bedroom muddled with religious paintings, and heavy antique wooden furniture like Swiss Armoire and His and hers beds. Off the bedroom is a room filled with vernacular hair-care products such as curlers and combs, next to the engraving of women hairdos. 

This exhibition is a recreation of a 1974 exhibition held in the apartment of Herald Szeemann, the innovative Swiss curator known for two groundbreaking exhibitions, “Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” held in 1969 at Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland, as well as “Documenta 5,” a survey of contemporary art held every four years in Kassel, Germany. In both exhibitions Szeemann developed a radical approach to curatorial work, showcasing international artists who created what at the time was considered art that could not, for both reasons of taste and practicality, be included in a museum exhibition: massive sculpture such as Land Art, complicated installations, as well as early proto-performances such as Happenings and Fluxus Event Scores. Often all these artworks were shown in a minimalist setting with little attempt to explain the work to viewers, in order to let the artworks create a dialogue with each other.  This may seem commonplace now—more or less like what the Swiss Institute does in 2019—however, this curatorial style was so radical during its time that the now-infamous “When Attitude Becomes Form,” was closed early, Szeemann's next planned Joseph Beuys show was canceled. As a result, Szeemann resigned as director of the Bern Kunsthalle. 

By 1974 Szeeman found himself out of job with no institutions looking to hire him to curate. Resolute with his vision, he turned away from the art world and he began to curate a radical new exhibition in his apartment. The resulting exhibition Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us looked at the life work of his grandfather Etienne Szeemann an internationally recognized hairdresser. This elegiac exhibition says a lot about the frame of Szeemann’s mind; he was using a curatorial framework to take stock of his life and his chosen profession.

Installation view of entryway with Szeemann family photographs and documents, as installed in Grossvater: Ein Pionier wie wir (Grandfather: A pioneer like us), Galerie Toni Gerber, Bern, February 16–April 20, 1974. Photographer: Balthasar Burkhard. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2011.M.30) © J. Paul Getty Trust

This exhibition being re-staged two reasons: First, having both the historical foresight and a slight egotistical disposition Szeemann documented every exhibition he curated.  Second, the Getty Research Institute acquired Szeemann’s archive, which contained 2,500 linear feet of materials and was so large it was housed in a former watch factory in Switzerland. “Grandfather Like Us” is actually part of a larger traveling retrospective titled “Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions,” an exploration of his archive and life organized by Glenn Phillips and Philip Kaiser, which started in Los Angeles and has traveled to both Switzerland and Germany.

The Swiss Institute is the obvious choice to showcase “Grandfather Like Us” as Szeeman is arguably one of the most notable Swiss art figures in the twenty-first century. Even more, Szeemann helped pioneer this large-scale project and installation-based style that is evident in many of the exhibitions at the Swiss Institute. Though the exhibition helps the Swiss Institute advance its original founding mission the Swiss Institute is not the ideal space to showcase “Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us.” The first recreation of “Grandfather like Us” at the Institute of Contemporary art Los Angeles, exactly rebuilt the floorplan of Szeemann’s Bern with considerably less space, the Swiss institute had split up Szeemann’s recreated apartment in two different gallery spaces. Thus, rather than feeling like a cohesive apartment, the resulting Swiss Institute version of the exhibition feels like a conglomeration of different curated rooms.

Installation view of wig stands and books, as installed in Grossvater: Ein Pionier wie wir (Grandfather: A pioneer like us), Galerie Toni Gerber, Bern, February 16–April 20, 1974. Photographer: Balthasar Burkhard. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2011.M.30) © J. Paul Getty Trust

Additionally, the supporting material on the third floor the Swiss Institute also leaves you with a sense of confusion. The space features many of Harald Szeeman’s exhibition posters, as well as five commissioned posters inspired by Szeemann—an attempt to give the exhibition some contemporary relevance. The newly commissioned posters get lost when compared to the vintage exhibition posters from other Szeemann exhibitions. And even when you find them it is hard to see how they relate to Szeemann’s life work.

On the top two floors there are also three conceptual artworks: Allen Ruppersberg’s Travel Piece (1969) which features four newspapers Ruppersberg collected on a journey from the Midwest to California, Uranyl Nitrate (UO2(NO3)2) (1969) by Robert Barry, the curatorial team at the Swiss Institute has released a capsule containing radioactive compound on Swiss Institute's roof, and Infinito (1971) by Giovanni Anselmo, which is composed of a small blurry projection of the word infinito. Even though these works are from Szeemann’s two most famous exhibitions, “When Attitudes Become Form” and “Documenta 5,” it is not clear that the works are featured in the exhibition to give you a sense of the artists and artwork Szeemann championed in his curatorial work.

While you may not get a sense of Szeeman’s most famous exhibitions, or the artists he supported, going through “Grandfather Like Us” will demonstrate how Szeemann did not just support artists but was an artist in his own right, often pushing the curatorial practice, dare I say curatorial medium, forward. “Grandfather Like Us” is a practice in aestheticizing a life, using a deceased loved one's objects as a sculptural readymade to not only as a means to make one look more closely at the specific life of Ettienne Szeeman, but to look more closely at the way in which objects, photographs, a profession, come together to form a life in general, a life like yours, a life like mine, a life like us. WM

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