For three days, the installation 'People's Justice' by the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi hung on a scaffold in the center of Kassel, before it was taken down after accusations of antisemitism.
It showed a kind of doomsday illustration featuring, among many figures, a soldier with a pig's face and a Star of David, as well as a man with sidecurls, sharp teeth and SS runes on his hat.
"Our imagery has taken on a specific meaning in the historic context of Germany"
"We deeply regret the extent to which the imagery of our work People’s Justice has offended so many people," Taring Padi wrote in a statement on the documenta website. "We apologize to all viewers and the team of documenta fifteen, the public in Germany and especially the Jewish community. We have learned from our mistake, and recognize now that our imagery has taken on a specific meaning in the historic context of Germany. Therefore, we removed the banner from our exhibition, together with documenta fifteen."
This last statement, however, has come under criticism. Antisemitic motifs have no place at documenta or anywhere else, said Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt am Main: "Depicting Jews as bloodsuckers should not only be a problem in the German context, but everywhere in the world."
However, Taring Padi clearly counter the accusation that they are antisemitic: "As a collective of artists who denounce racism in all its forms, we are shocked and saddened by the media furor that has labelled us as anti-semitic. Through this statement, we want to reaffirm our respect for all human beings, regardless of their ethnicity, race, religion, gender or sexuality."
"Anti-semitism does not have a place in our hearts and minds."
The eight-by-twelve-meter banner was created collaboratively in 2002 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia by several members of the artists' collective, wrote Taring Padi: "The banner was born out of our struggles of living under Suharto’s military dictatorship, where violence, exploitation and censorship were a daily reality. Like all of our artwork, the banner attempts to expose the complex power relationships that are at play behind these injustices and the erasure of public memory surrounding the Indonesian genocide in 1965, where more than 500,000 people were murdered."
The artwork "presents these internal and external powers in a pictorial scene and tries to capture the complex historical circumstances through a visual language that is at once as disturbing as the reality of the violence itself," the collective said. However, it was "never intended as hatred directed at a particular ethnic or religious group, but as a critique of militarism and state violence. We depicted the involvement of the government of the state of Israel in the wrong way – and we apologize. Anti-semitism does not have a place in our hearts and minds."
In response to the controversy, documenta, together with the Anne Frank Educational Center, is organizing a panel on "Anti-Semitism in Art" on June 29 in Kassel. Among others, Mendel and Hortensia Völckers, artistic director and member of the board of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, will discuss the issue. "We apologize for the disappointment, shame, frustration, betrayal, and shock this stereotype has caused the viewers and the whole team," wrote Indonesian art collective and documenta fifteen curators, Ruangrupa, in a statement on Thursday.
The curators acknowledged that the imagery contained in a mural banner that on Tuesday was removed from a public square in Kassel — where documenta has been staged every five years since 1955 — "connects seamlessly to the most horrific episode of German history in which Jewish people were targeted and murdered on an unprecedented scale." The group called the Jewish community in Kassel and Germany "our allies," adding that they continue to "live under the trauma of the past and the continued presence of discrimination, prejudice and marginalization."
Jewish groups demand resignations
But for Jewish groups like the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the apology has come too late as calls grow for documenta general director Sabine Schormann to resign. She remains in the job, however, and is determined to move forward with the event, saying her priority is "getting the ship back on course." Speaking Thursday in Kassel to German press agency, dpa, she said that "in rough seas, a captain does not jump ship."
In an interview with Spiegel magazine, she also stated that she has "organizational responsibility" for documenta 15 and is "not responsible for the artistic processes" in which the mural was hung. She explained that the work went up a day before the art show opening due to some last-minute repairs, and that there was no time to properly inspect the large banner.
The curators acknowledged that they had "collectively failed to spot the figure in the work, which is a character that evokes classical stereotypes of antisemitism.'' "It clearly contains antisemitic imagery" that "crosses borders and hurts feelings," said Schormann. "We all regret this from the bottom of our hearts." Taring Padi, the Indonesia artist collective who produced the offending work, "People's Justice," have also apologized.
Meanwhile, Jörg Sperling, the chairman of a supporting body for the event, documenta Forum, has resigned after criticizing the removal of the Taring Padi work.
Putting artwork in historical context
Despite the wave of apologies in the wake of the antisemitism scandal, Schormann also noted that Taring Padi created the mural twenty years ago "in a completely different context." She said it was important to take into account that "the disputed motifs are frequently used in the visual language in Indonesia," mentioning, for example, "satirically exaggerated" figures in local puppet theater.
The members of the Finding Committee for the Artistic Direction of documenta fifteen also backed Taring Padi, expressing "respect for … their long struggle against the oppression and dictatorship of the Suharto years in Indonesia." In a statement, the committee also said that "we stand fully behind our selection of ruangrupa to curate this year's edition of the historic exhibition in Kassel."
Documenta to have more federal influence?
Meanwhile, German State Minister for Culture and the Media, Claudia Roth, has called for potential restructuring of the global art exhibition so that the federal government oversees the event to ensure that no further antisemitic works appear. She said the federal government's withdrawal from documenta's supervisory board in 2018 was a "serious mistake."
The federal government has otherwise distanced itself from the current scandal, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz confirming on Wednesday evening that he will not attend the global art show. "Chancellor Olaf Scholz finds the said image in Kassel disgusting," said a spokesperson.
Author Stuart Braun
Permalink - https://p.dw.com/p/4DCRL