Harald Szeemann | Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us

By Samantha Ozer
Swiss InstituteNew YorkJune 28 – August 18, 2019

Harald Szeemann | Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us, installation view, via Swiss Institute, 2019

 The average person loses about fifty to one hundred hairs every day. Hair that was once so appreciated and even adorned when on one’s head, often incites disgust upon the discovery on the floor, pillow, or clothing. As signals of identity and even beauty, these precious strands largely transform into objects of waste when un-linked from their owner. However, the disembodied cleanliness or uncleanliness associated with fallen hair is a relatively new concept in the western world. From the Victorian era through the early twentieth century, women of a certain class kept small jars called hair receivers on their dressing tables, with the sole purpose of collecting fallen hair. Culled from hairbrushes and combs and identified on the floor of the bedroom, this found hair could be stuffed into pincushions or pillows, and even made into hair wreaths or hair jewellery. Due to its chemical properties, human hair can take hundreds of years to decay, making it the perfect material for spiritual practice. Considered a remnant of the person from which it was cut, memorial hair was a popular piece of craftwork involved in mourning rituals. What we might largely consider a macabre and even morbid gesture, these artefacts instead acted as celebratory tokens for their owners, conjuring memories of a loved one and even standing in for a non-existent body.

Most importantly, hair stored in receivers could also be made into ‘rats,’ small bands of additional hair that were added to the lavish hairstyles of the time to add volume. While wigs, made from the hair of others were also popular during this time, the practice of recycling one’s own hair for fashion and decorum points to an alternative understanding surrounding waste, value, cleanliness, and style. This near-obsessive act of carefully collecting individual strands of hair, to recreate, to honor, to celebrate, and to transform is dually realized in the Swiss Institute’s exhibition, Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us. A restaging of the 1974 exhibition by acclaimed curator Harald Szeemann (1933-2005), Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us includes approximately 1,200 objects from the Getty Research Institute’s Harald Szeemann Archive and Library, and from private collections.


Harald Szeemann | Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us, image courtesy of the Swiss Institute, New York.


A provocative curator known for his close collaborations with artists, Harald was one of Europe’s youngest museum directors, having been appointed the director of Kunsthalle Bern in 1961 at the age of twenty-eight. Following backlash from the high-profile exhibition, Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (1969), Harald resigned as director from Kunsthalle Bern. While this project, in conjunction with his curation of the fifth edition of Documenta, Questioning Reality: Pictorial Worlds Today (1972) cemented his career as a champion of experimental art. His meticulously obsessive archival recreation of his grandfather, Étienne Szeemann’s (1873-1971) life in his Bern apartment spoke to his role as a curator-auteur. An investigation of the life and work of Étienne, a famed hairstylist and inventor, Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us, comprises photographs, letters, hair styling equipment, and a seemingly archaic permanent wave machine that Étienne created.


Harald Szeemann | Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us, installation view, Courtesy of the Swiss Institute, New York.


Étienne’s workshop-cum-archive acts as both a time-capsule for a previous era of beauty and societal standards while also existing as an familial homage. An inventive hairdresser who lived to be ninety-eight, Étienne witnessed and influenced the transformation of hairdressing as a modernist activity as well as the stylistic norms, from neat and intricate up-dos of the Victorian-era hair to the bobs of the First World War, to looser and more ‘natural’ styles following the Second World War. Utilizing human and synthetic hair to create wigs and hairpieces for both women and men, Étienne participated in a system of international trade that connected consumers in Europe with hair that was predominantly grown in India or China, with some exports from Eastern Europe. Furthermore, his work points to migration trends of people across Europe over the twentieth century.*

Similarly to the Victorian women who saved their hair in receivers, Harald built his grandfather’s archive to be re-created and shared. Through manufacturing a room that meets the exact specifications of Harald’s apartment, the staff at the Swiss Institute and the Getty Research Institute transform Étienne’s lifework from a site of historical mysticism which exists in the memory and intentions of Harald, to a meticulously crafted historical receiver. A memorandum of a past time, Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us presents a realm in which beauty, style, memory, and spirituality come to the fore.

*In 2017 the Observatory of Economic Complexity at The MIT Media Lab tracked that international sales of exported human hair were estimated to have been $125 million. For a further history of the complex natured of the hair trade, I recommend Emma Tarlo’s Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair (2016).

Human Hair, Observatory of Economic Complexity (2017)

Samantha Ozer is a researcher, independent curator, and writer. In her role in the Museum of Modern Art’s Research & Development department, she works with Director Paola Antonelli to organize the salon initiative. Through this curated speaker series, MoMA R&D explores timely issues, often with a focus on the intersection between global culture and technology. www.samanthaozer.com