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The brains behind the Biennale: Interview with Harald Szeemann

The Biennale director who launched the “Aperto” section for young artists is now replacing it with “d’Apertutto” as the theme of Biennale ‘99

The countdown has begun. On 13 June, the forty-eighth International Biennale will open in Venice, only the second in its history to be curated by a non-Italian (the other in 1995, having been Gerard Regnier, director of the Musée Picasso). There are several innovations this year, hardly surprising considering the personality of the Swiss, Harald Szeemann, who is in charge.

In 1980, with the critic Achille Bonito Oliva, Mr Szeemann established “Aperto”, the exhibition space for young artists, which has been closed for the past two editions of the Biennale curated by Jean Clair and Germano Celant, respectively.

“D’Apertutto” (a pun meaning “everywhere”), has been chosen as the buzzword for his Biennale. It is meant to show that the distinctions between emerging artists, established artists and the art establishment no longer remain hard and fast. Curators change, the exhibition space evolves and now, after 100 years, the Biennale no longer has the status of a public institution but has become a “cultural society”. The habit of appointing directors at a very late hour has not, however, changed: Szeemann was nominated last July and was only able to start work on the Biennale six months ago. Here he explains how he has won his race against time.

Harald Szeemann, apart from the slogan “d’Apertutto”, which suggests the total integration of emerging and established artists, what will the general theme of this Biennale be?

“D’Apertutto” is the theme of Biennale 99. The exhibition is not in itself thematic; it is a strolling, horizontal exhibition, a succession of events in exhibition spaces, some of them familiar and some new. I thought the Biennale di Venezia was in need of a new spin, with new artists of the 1990s including a number of Chinese artists. After curating exhibitions in Tokyo and other Asian cities, I wanted to return to that source.

Interest in contemporary Asian art is growing, even in New York. These are artists who are raiding their country’s extraordinary histories for subjects and confronting Western mass-media at the same time. They are highly skilled as painters, trained to a high academic standard. Yang Shaobin, for example, produces paintings reminiscent of the young Baselitz. Otherwise contemporary art in those parts of the world is characterised by the absence of a common style, as once were Pop art and the Transavanguardia. I also see this as a period when art expresses identity, particularly among women artists.

A few days after you were appointed, you said, “I think we need to recover the spirituality of art”. What did you mean exactly?

I meant that we should not create an exhibition based on names; we should base our selection on the artists’ work and on their intentions.

Which will be the most important parts of the Biennale and how will you use the various locations?

The exhibition will take place in the Italian Pavilion, the Corderie and the three new areas, also inside the Arsenale: the Artiglierie, the Tese and the Gaggiandre, which have never before been used as art spaces. Since my intention is to create a single exhibition, every area is crucial. Of course, there are inevitable contrasts between the classic white spaces of the Italian Pavilion and the industrial architecture of the Arsenale. The pavilion is a traditional space; I have asked Jenny Holzer to do the façade; inside Galileo Chini’s cupola there will be James Lee Byars’ “Delphic Oracle”. Also in the Italian pavilion will be two tributes, to Mario Schifano and Gino De Dominicis, juxtaposed with work by young artists.

Two years ago the Biennale lost out to Documenta in Kassel, and not only in respect of numbers of visitors. Documenta was outstanding because of its strongly “virtual” nature: the exhibition contained a great number of “works” that reflected the multimedia society. Will your Biennale promote the “physical” nature of art?

I am very conscious of space as a container for the physical and the spiritual. During my visits to the invited artists’ studios I have always discussed the problem of space, so I hope that all the entries will have room to breathe this year. Because of this I thought of artists who are really able to dominate a room. “D’Apertutto” will contain installations by the Cuban artist Kcho and the Swiss Thomas Hirshorn, both fairly chaotic; then there will be a wall created by a young Dutch artist which will provide a moment of respite. Each person will occupy his own space, without divisions or panels. The Tese, on the other hand, will house the foreign entries with no national pavilion in the Giardini. Finally, in the Gaggiandre, marvellous pergolas over water designed by the Renaissance architect Sansovino, there is going to be a floating object by Bruna Esposito.

Roughly what will be the percentage of entries made specially for the occasion? One of the criticisms levelled against your predecessors was the museum-like quality of their exhibitions.

This vast exhibition had to be set up in only five months, which means that not many artists have had time to produce new work for the occasion. Nevertheless about half of those invited will be presenting work that has not been seen before, or they will present an existing piece in a new arrangement for the Biennale. This is an impressive percentage considering the very short time at our disposal.

The Biennale is an international exhibition, but the Italian entry, for obvious reasons, has always been large. Will your Biennale respect this tendency?

Although there will be an Italian pavilion, no distinction will be made between Italian and international artists: the Italians invited into the international exhibition have no more space than the others. I do not want to exceed ninety-nine artists in the “d’Apertutto” show, few in comparison with past years.

On the subject of Italians, people say that Italy’s young artists are good but do not rate highly internationally. How will your Biennale provide a showcase for these young Italians?

My selection focuses quite closely on young Italian artists, as you will see when you view the exhibition. We have invited Massimo Bartolini, Monica Bonvicini, Maurizio Cattelan, Bruna Esposito, Luisa Lambri, Grazia Toderi and some other artists of Italian origin working abroad.

Still on the subject of Italy, when your appointment was made public someone muttered “It will be the Biennale of Arte Povera”. What is your reply?

No. This time I have not invited my artist friends who have appeared in my exhibitions in the past, such as Documenta 5. This will be a Biennale characterised by the art of the 1990s, with some tributes to artists who have recently died, such as James Lee Byars, De Dominicis and Schifano, Martin Kippenberger and Dieter Roth.

Someone has called you a bit dated, with good ideas at the outset but supported in the long run by “the profession”?

Why not? But I enjoy my job as “freelance curator”.

One of the buzz words of big international exhibitions is “globalisation”. What is your position on this?

In exhibition terms, globalisation means breaking the dominance of Europe and America. But there is no longer an American hegemony based in New York: the centre of art in America has gone west, from New York to Los Angeles. Other countries are emerging, like Denmark and Sweden. We are talking about art, however, and every artist has to be looked at individually. I am delighted that Thomas Hirshorn, in the Artiglierie, has created an anti-globalisation piece—by demonstrating the consequences of excessive nationalism. Art today is nomadic, but this does not mean it has no local identity. But someone like Morandi, who always painted in the same room in Bologna, could not exist today.

Have you appointed some curatorial staff?

I have found two curatorial assistants, Agnes Kolmeyer and Cecilia Liveriero, for the exhibition and the catalogue. They will work directly with the Biennale staff. There are no academic staff, but some of my usual team will be helping with the hang.

After Gerard Regnier you are the first non-Italian director of a Biennale; his relationship with the Biennale was unhappy and caused a much publicised split. What has your experience been?

We want to make a new Biennale; even the administration has to reject compartmentalisation. The fact that six directors have been appointed for the six different sectors makes one dream of an integration of the visual and performing arts. For example, Carolyn Carlson is director of the new sector devoted to dance during the Biennale; she will be in charge of organising performances in the Teatro Verde in the Fondazione Cini. She could produce something in the Gaggiandre too.

It has been said that big international exhibitions have become a disease that threatens contemporary art. But at the same time people extol the Biennale system in general, from Istanbul to Santa Fe, provided it is outside the traditional geographical locations. What do you think?

I’m in favour of an increase in the number of Biennales. For some countries it is their only way of becoming familiar with the art of the present. Make no mistake, however: everything depends on the curator.

Who’s who

President Paolo Baratta Board of Directors Laura Barbiani, Gianfranco Mossetto (vice president), Giorgio Orsoni, giorgio van Straten Committee of Experts Alberto Barbera (Cinema), Giorgio Barberio Corsetti (Theatre), Bruno Canino (Music)

Carolyn Carlson (Dance), Massimiliano Fuksas (Architecture), Gianfranco Pontel (Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts), Harald Szeeman (Visual Arts), Director General Giovanna Legnani

Venice Biennale Diary

Press/preview days: 9-10 June: 9am-9pm; 11 June 9am-2pm. N.B. The Giardini will be closed on Friday-pm during press days.

Official inauguration and prize-giving: 12 June (N.B. Giardini closed all day)

Open to the public: 13 June-7 November

Hours: 10am-7pm until 30 September, 10am-5pm until 7 November. Closed Tuesdays, except Tuesday 15 June

Vaporetto lines: 1, 82, 41 and 42 (via the Canale Grande); 51 and 52 (via Canale della Giudecca); 61 and 62 (only holidays). All stop at train station & piazzale Roma. Special ferry service from Giardini to Arsenale.

Cost: L25,000 (approximately £9; $14), entrance to all Biennale exhibitions

Looks good to us

o Rap concert by Grand Master Flash (hip, hop, a hibby to the hobby . . . ) in Campo Santa Margherita to celebrate the opening of an exhibition by Victor Matthews and Rene Cox,10 June, 10pm

o Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man”, a treasure of the Accademia Galleries, is on rare public display, until 25 July

o Anthony Caro’s “Last Judgement”, new sculptures meditating on the atrocities of war, at the Antichi Granai della Giudecca, 9 June-7 November)

o Croatian artist Zlatan Vrkljan’s exhibition is located in the beautifully restored Romanesque cloister of Santa Apollonia, worth a look for its own sake.

o Bill Fontana’s “Acoustical Visions of Venice” provides an added reason to visit the Punta della Dogana and consider what a new Guggenheim might look like here

o Luxembourg artist Simone Deckerf’s exhibition is located in the courtyard of the Ca’ del Duca, a remarkable, unfinished palazzo begun by Bartolomeo Bon in the fifteenth century