Documenta, an art world mega-event held every five years in Kassel, Germany, is no stranger to controversy. Yet this year’s edition has overshadowed everything in the past.
Since the sprawling show opened in June, a major artwork has been removed from the exhibit for containing anti-Semitic cartoons, and the event’s general manager has resigned. Last week, some members of the country’s governing coalition called for Documenta to be shut down until it could be vetted for other anti-Semitic works after it emerged the show also contained drawings made in the 1980s of Israeli soldiers, including one with a hooked nose.
The events of the past 50 days may be unprecedented for an event like Documenta, which is matched in importance in the art world only by the Venice Biennale. The uproar over the images dominated German newspapers for weeks – but it comes on top of months of allegations that ruangrupa, a collective that organized this year’s event, and other artists were supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, which is widely seen in Germany as anti-Semitic. (In 2019, the German parliament declared the BDS movement anti-Semitic, saying it challenged Israel’s right to exist.)
Taken together, Documenta became the latest cultural event to highlight a growing divide between the German establishment’s views on a boycott of Israel and those of artists, musicians and other creatives, especially from outside the country. This has some wondering if it is possible to find a solution that will prevent the fury from repeating itself.
The broadest view in much of the art world is that supporting a boycott is not anti-Semitic and that Israel is acting like a colonial power, said Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank Education Center in Frankfurt. These views contrast sharply with those of German politicians. Both sides seem “fixed in their points of view,” Mendel said, and seemingly unwilling to discuss each other’s concerns.
“The international cultural elite and the German state are in a very fundamental conflict,” he added.
Adam Szymczyk, a curator who was the artistic director of the last edition of Documenta in 2017, said the discussion had become so polarized that it prevented the building of an atmosphere of “trust, understanding and freedom of expression”.
It is not the first time that cultural figures visiting Germany have been embroiled in debates about anti-Semitism, particularly related to support for the BDS movement, which asks companies and individuals to avoid doing business with Israel. to protest his treatment of the Palestinians. In 2018, British group Young Fathers was removed from the poster of a German art festival because of their support for the boycott, which brings back memories in Germany of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses that began in 1933 (The band was later invited back to the event but declined to appear.)
The German parliament had also, in 2019, called on regional authorities to deny public funding to anyone who “actively supports” the movement. In response, the directors of 32 major arts institutions issued an open letter warning that such measures were “dangerous” and risked limiting cultural exchange.
The furor around Documenta began six months before the show even opened, when a protest group, the Alliance Against Antisemitism Kassel, raised accusations of artists supporting the BDS movement. The accusations were made on an anonymous blog, but were picked up by German newspapers and repeated by politicians. Later, a space housing the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding was vandalized.
In June, there was a real scandal when the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi installed an artwork titled “People’s Justice” from 2002 in one of Kassel’s main squares.
Approximately 60 feet in length, it is a political banner that features cartoon-like depictions of activists struggling under Indonesia’s military rule. Among hundreds of figures is a caricature of a Jew with sideburns and fangs, wearing a hat emblazoned with the Nazi SS emblem. The banner also features a military figure with a pig’s head, wearing a Star of David scarf, believed to represent a member of Mossad, Israel’s security service.
Shortly after the artwork was installed, German politicians and Jewish groups condemned it as anti-Semitic. Taring Padi and ruangrupa apologized and the work was withdrawn.
Alexander Supartono, a member of Taring Padi and an art historian at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, said in a video interview that the members of the group were not anti-Semitic, as one of their tenets was to respect people of all religions and races. When told about the cartoon, the group’s reaction was to ask, “How did this happen? How have we not seen this? he added. The group had tried to portray Israeli officials supporting Suharto, the former Indonesian dictator, he said, but ‘knowingly or unknowingly’ drew on stereotypes he said were likely introduced for the first time. once in his country by Dutch settlers.
Supartono said that many artists felt the German media branded Documenta as outright anti-Semitic. The mood was so tense that when it was first announced that “People’s Justice” would be covered up (this was before it was taken down), about 70 artists representing many of the exhibit’s collectives turned up. gathered to discuss what to do. Some demanded that all artwork in the exhibition be covered in protest against what they saw as censorship without any debate or dialogue, which would have meant effectively closing the exhibition themselves.
With so little trust between artists and German media and authorities, even efforts to resolve Documenta hotspots face challenges. On Monday, an academic panel appointed by regional authorities began investigating what had happened at Documenta. One of its tasks is to provide advice in the event of other problematic images.
But many Documenta artists objected to the panel. Farid Rakun, a member of ruangrupa, said in a video interview that he “forced only one reading” of the exhibit, as anti-Semitic; could lead to censorship; and also set a disturbing precedent. “It’s a political decision,” Rakun said, adding, “We can’t accept it.”
The academics said their work would not lead to censorship boards.
In interviews with 10 artists participating in Documenta, all said they were concerned about the potential implications of the dispute. Vidisha-Fadescha, an artist and founder of the Indian arts and social space Party Office, who uses the pronouns they/them, said she wouldn’t even answer the question of whether she supports the BDS movement, because it could endanger their safety. . Artists in Germany could see their ability to find work reduced by voicing their views, Vidisha-Fadescha added.
Some artists have said they believe the row has already had an effect. Eyal Weizman, the director of Forensic Architecture, a group whose investigations of political violence are featured in museums around the world, said in a telephone interview that earlier this year the director of a German museum reported one of his exhibits, citing Weizman’s support for BDS. movement. As anger over Documenta exploded in June, the director canceled Weizman’s show entirely.
But Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, wrote in an email that artists shouldn’t worry about censorship. “The days when Germany dictated from above what was good art and what was bad art are fortunately over,” he said, adding: “But it is also a lesson in story that not everything should be sayable”.
Anti-Semitism is rampant in Germany, he added, and some of Documenta’s artwork could fuel it. “You shouldn’t worry about the attractiveness of Germany as a cultural place,” Schuster also said, adding that “there are enough artists” who have a clear position against the boycott of Israel.
There is a place where the debate seems less pronounced: at the exhibition itself. Daniella Praptono and Mirwan Andan, members of ruangrupa, said in a video interview that every day visitors, including German schoolchildren, viewed the array of artworks now spread across Kassel, met artists, participated in classes and attending events. When asked if any of the visiting children had mentioned anti-Semitism, Praptono replied, “Of course not.”
“They learn, share, make friends,” she added.
Kassel Jewish Community board member Michael Lazar said in a phone interview that he felt a handful of works were “agitprop of the worst kind” or anti-Semitic, but that he there were more than 1,500 artists involved in this edition of Documenta and that he had a good relationship with many of them, including the organizers, ruangrupa.
“Each Documenta is always considered the last, and then it continues,” he said. “I hope the next 50 days will be full of excitement.”