As documenta 15 closes, antisemitic taint lingers

28 Sep

"Antisemitism is misanthropic, no matter where," Central Council of Jews in Germany President Josef Schuster told Deutsche Welle in an interview.


"There are, of course, countries where anti-Jewish, anti-Israel stereotypes are unfortunately commonplace. In a country like Germany, with its history and its responsibility, that should not be the case at all."

Schuster succinctly summed up the debate surrounding antisemitism at this year's documenta: what happened at the event was a failure to recognize open antisemitism that was instead defined as artistic freedom, which didn't just damage the art fair. 

Documenta draws to a close amid scandal and controversy

For that, we need go back to 2019, when the documenta management appointed the Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa as curators for 2022. Ruangrupa themselves, however, do not understand and did not see themselves as curators per se, which subsequently proved to be problematic.

The art show, which has been held since 1955, was to be led for the first time by artists from the so-called Global South: Few well-known names, many collectives from countries that do not have a financially strong art market. The artists wanted to show new perspectives that would positively change the world.  

The ruangrupa artists' collective itself was founded over 20 years ago in Indonesia's capital Jakarta, shortly after the end of the Suharto dictatorship and when the country was in a state of upheaval. Ruangrupa considers its art to be political and activistism-based, with the group aiming to bring artists together and supporting each other.

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This was also the case at documenta 15. Around 1,500 artists and artist collectives — it is not clear exactly how many, because the invited artists and collectives have in turn invited other artists — came to Kassel during the exhibition to engage in an intercultural dialogue.

But even before the exhibition began, accusations of antisemitism against ruangrupa and the participating Palestinian artist collective "The Question Of Funding," published on the blog of the "Kassel Alliance Against Anti-Semitism" began surfacing. 

Members of the collective and some artists' groups were under suspicion because of their support for the anti-Israeli boycott campaign "BDS" ("Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions") — a highly sensitive issue in Germany. As early as 2019, the German Bundestag classified "BDS" as antisemitic in a resolution. 

However, in Kassel, these concerns were dispelled: "We take German responsibility very seriously, are also dealing with it, and the artists here have also dealt with it very closely," explained the art show's then director, Sabine Schormann. The Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Claudia Roth, also backed the curatorial team at the time.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, however, was critical in his opening speech at documenta on June 18, and urged that documenta "do more" to address and come to terms with the issue of antisemitism.

Why is the 'People's Justice' mural so problematic?

Shortly after the opening, a scandal erupted. In the middle of downtown Kassel, hung a nine-by-twelve-meter mural "People's Justice" by the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi. The banner showed a doomsday illustration featuring numerous figures, including anitsemitic stereotypes like a soldier with a pig's face and a Star of David, as well as a figure with sidelocks, fangs and SS runes on his hat.

SS is the acronym for the Schutzstaffel, the organization under Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany that was responsible for administrating concentration camps. Today, depictions of these runes are not only unacceptable in Germany, but may even be punishable by law. SS runes as well as all signs that make a direct reference to Nazi rule can be punishable with a prison sentence of up to three years or a fine.

Taring Padi attempted to explain: The work, which was created in Indonesia in 2002, was intended as a reminder of the brutal military dictatorship of President Suharto and also of those who are said to have supported him, such as the Israeli secret service, known as the Mossad. 

The backlash was swift. "We are outraged by the antisemitic elements on public display at documenta 15, which is currently taking place in Kassel," the Israeli Embassy in Berlin said in a statement. It added that parts of it "are reminiscent of the propaganda of Goebbels and his henchmen in dark times of German history. All the red lines have not only been crossed, they have been smashed."

Despite the fierce reactions, documenta general director at the time, Sabine Schormann, did not have the painting removed, but merely covered it up. She reasoned that dismantling it would have been "a considerable encroachment on artistic freedom." "Artistic freedom has its limits," said Claudia Roth, German Minister of State for Culture, and demanded that ruangrupa face "the necessary consequences."

Why was the work taken down after all?

Two days later, the work was taken down after all. ruangrupa acknowledged that they had collectively failed to recognize those parts in the artwork that evoked classic stereotypes of antisemitism. "We recognize that was our mistake." They acknowledged that the images commemorate "the most horrific episode in German history, in which Jewish people were attacked and murdered on an unprecedented scale."

The artists agreed that they had not been aware of the particular historical context in Germany. Even Sabine Schormann eventually also expressed her horror: "It clearly contains antisemitic images" that "cross borders and hurt feelings," she said. "We all regret this from the bottom of our hearts."

So why did the documenta chief have to leave?

After this first incident, Meron Mendel, head of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt, was supposed to act as a consultant to help identify other possibly antisemitic works at documenta. But for weeks, no one from the documenta management showed any honest interest in doing so, Mendel told DW in an interview. Mendel eventually resigned from the position, and German artist Hito Steyerl also had her video installation withdrawn from the exhibition. 

Calls from politics and society for Sabine Schormann to resign grew increasingly louder, and she eventually did on July 16. The federal government's anti-Semitism commissioner, Felix Klein, described Schormann's resignation as "overdue".

Two days later, the German cultural manager Alexander Farenholtz , who had already been managing director in Kassel more than 30 years ago, was appointed interim director of documenta 15 until its closure on September 25. 

What other antisemitic motifs were discovered?

But the bad news continued even with Farenholtz at the helm. On July 28, a brochure with questionable motifs was discovered in the exhibition of an Algerian women's archive, the "Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie." On display were drawings depicting robots with bared teeth and army helmets with a Star of David, threatening children. Some of the soldiers resembled stereotypical depictions of Jews — for example, by their oversized noses.

The documenta organizers had the works removed, but later reinstated them in the exhibition — accompanied by commentary. Ruangrupa argued that the paintings represented the propaganda art of the time and the Palestinians' point of view toward the military occupation. "In none of the paintings are people of the Jewish faith depicted in the abstract." 

But even that did not restore calm. "One has to ask how far we have actually come in Germany when such images can simply be seen as criticism of Israel," said Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, for example. "Documenta 15 will go down in history as the most antisemitic art exhibition in the world."

Shortly thereafter, there was renewed criticism. At another exhibition venue, the artists' collective "Subversive Film" showed clips of pro-Palestinian propaganda films from the 1960s to 1980s in which Israel and its armed forces are shown exclusively as perpetrators. These were shown throughout the exhibition without any clarifying commentary.

The seven-member panel of experts, convened in early August to investigate the anti-Israel imagery at documenta, recommended that the upcoming screenings be stopped. But the documenta advisory board decided not to remove the videos from the program. In a statement, it said ruangrupa had taken note of the expert panel's assessment but did not want to follow their recommendation to remove the work.

And now what? 

The documenta advisory board, which also includes Frances Morris, director of the Tate Modern, and the South African curator Gabi Ngcobo, has stood behind the ruangrupa curatorial team throughout. The organizers were satisfied with this year's Kassel art show. Neither the antisemitism debate nor the effects of the COVID pandemic had a negative impact, they said. Interim general director Farenholtz even spoke of a "milestone." 

Yet, for many this year, it is not primarily the artists and their works that will be remembered, but the antisemitism allegations that overshadowed the 100-day art exhibition. Some critics even question whether Germany's most renowned art show can continue at all. Or whether it might not at least require more state supervision when the world looks to Kassel again in five years time.

The documenta 15 art show closes on September 25.


Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier, Brenda Haas, Manasi Gopalakrishnan and Susanne Spröer

Author Annabelle Steffes-Halmer, Stuart Braun

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