The Reconstruction of 

Kurt Schwitters' MERZ Building

Harald Szeemann

The history of the Merz Building reconstruction (1980-1983)

The MERZ Building, until 1983 only accessible to art lovers by means of the three photographs in Hanover, plus a few close-up pictures by Ernst Schwitters and others, should long ago have inspired somebody to a reconstruction, since in recent art history there is scarcely another image that has provoked such controversy or achieved such mythic status. It was a fate occasionally granted to one or two really ground-breaking works of art, caused here both by its destruction in an air-raid on Hanover in October 1943 and by the contradictory reminiscences of famous eye-witnesses, including Kate T. Steinitz, Hans Arp, Hans Richter, and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart. What was needed was a primordial urge to experience this sculpture for oneself one day, and behind this desire lay the idea of retracing the 'total work of art', the 'Gesamtkunstwerk' that  no longer existed, by means of a realizable and visualizable exhibition entitled 'Tendencies Toward a Total Work of Art'. From this perspective, the MERZ Building was an indispensible central work in Schwitters' oeuvre.

Is it proper to reconstruct a myth? Is it possible to halt a permanently flowing creative process at a fixed state? These questions, turning and turning in my mind over many years, resolved themselves on the day that my egocentric wish as an exhibition organiser to have at least once entered and spent the night in the MERZ Building for myself gained the upper hand. In short, my inner Ludwig II, whose wishes always have to be fulfilled, broke through and sent desire on its long march.

The fist task was to convince the artist's son, Ernst Schwitters, that a reconstruction was necessary, and I set about doing this in the summer of 1980. He was sceptical, and we finally agreed on the following arrangement: Should Werner Schmalenbach, the biographer of Kurt Schwitters, approve of the idea, Ernst Schwitters would agree to the project, despite all his warnings about the difficulties of realizing it. The condition was that the result should not be declared a true reconstruction but 'an attempted reconstruction', wrote Schmalenbach. 'Szeemann convinced me that such a three-dimensional reconstruction would be far more effective than photographs, so that in the end I had no further reservations about it. But actually making the thing will be a hard nut to crack.'

In wise anticipation, but without financial backing, I had already rented a factory floor in Locarno in November 1981, since Ernst Schwitters had in the meantime accepted my suggestion of engaging Peter Bissegger to carry out the task. Ever since my exhibition 'Monte Verità', the stage designer had been my preferred model-builder. Peter Bissegger was the only person to whom I could have entrusted this reconstruction. Driven by his love of representational geometry and the fascinating problem of translating three photographs into three dimensions, he set to work on the project in the spring of 1981 with the full support of Ernst Schwitters and the Sprengel Museum in Hanover. The result is not merely a visual, but also a spacial experience of this monomaniac mixture of cathedral, cave, castle and ivory tower for its creator - an artist whose treatment of material and life-long interplay with serious problems has only today gained its proper recognition as a work of art and has become accepted by a wider public as something beautiful. The three years of hard work were worth it in the end.