A curtained poster caused by the collective Taring Padi from Indonesia has now become the warning sign of Documenta fifteen. A bitter motive, because it demonstrates how far apart Europe, more precisely: the Federal Republic and the Asian country, the understanding of what is considered critically acceptable and what is anti-Semitic hurtful.
The subsequent statement by the group of artists hardly explains how it was possible that the banner installation “People’s Justice” from 2002 with anti-Semitic depictions of figures found its way to the central square of the Documenta of all places.
The statement by Documenta general director Sabine Schormann that the management is not an authority that would allow the artistic exhibits to be submitted for inspection in advance is downright annoyed in view of the scandal. So shouldn’t anyone have seen the poster before? Didn’t ring an alarm bell anywhere when it finally hung?
The work was last seen at the Polyphonic Southeast Asia Art exhibition in Nanjing, China, in 2019, and at the Taring Padi retrospective in Yogyakarta the year before. So you could have found out what would be hanging 10 by 10 meters from the Documenta hall. The fact that the work was only installed at the last moment was due to bearing damage, which first had to be repaired in a saddlery, it was said.
So there was a culture clash. Taring Padi’s crude, satirical imagery is disturbing, although distorting representation is part of George Grosz’s arsenal. Dadaist exaggeration is one thing, anti-Semitic defamation is another and unacceptable.
However, the collective Taring Padi, founded in Yogykarta in 1998 by artists and activists, uses a visual language that comes from a completely different cultural background. Wall paintings, temple paintings, posters in public spaces are much more common there, panel painting only came to Indonesia during the colonial period.
The political charge, the collaboration on a work are further characteristics in the work of Taring Padi – just like the collective as a carrier of artistic expression is typical for Indonesia. Ruangrupa, the Indonesian curatorial team, also works in a collective and is precisely why this form of work is being promoted at its Documenta.
The collective provided protection of anonymity in the so-called Reformarsi period after the resignation of then-dictator Suharto in 1998 and the end of the three-decade New Order regime. This did not mean freedom for the artists, many of them still risked imprisonment, they said critically.
Unlike in the countries of the Global North, it is already common practice for them to work on the streets and with people. Commitment to the common cause, enlightenment, is in the foreground. “Rice fangs” is translated as Taring Padi, and the rice farmer was chosen as the symbolic figure.
“The banner installation People’s Justice (2002) is part of a campaign against militarism and the violence we witnessed during the 32-year Suharto military dictatorship in Indonesia and its legacy, which continues to have an impact today,” the collective now writes in explanation of his work on the Documenta website.
“The depiction of military figures on the banner reflects those experiences. All of the figures depicted on the banner refer to symbolism widespread in Indonesia’s political context, for example for the corrupt administration, the military generals and their soldiers, who are symbolized as pigs, dogs and rats, in order to promote an exploitative capitalist system and military violence criticize.”
This statement does not explain the anti-Semitic stereotypes on the banner. The “details” were understood differently in Kassel “than their original purpose,” it said to justify the anger. Although Taring Padi denounce the conditions in their country, they apparently share the political line of their government, which does not recognize Israel as a state.
Her apology for the “injuries caused in this context” sounds lame: the work itself is not questioned by the collective, not even the “details”.
The veiled image will now become a memorial of sadness at the impossibility of dialogue at this moment, Taring Padi said in the statement. “We hope that this memorial can now be the starting point for a new dialogue.” That sounds presumptuous given the clarity of what is permitted as a caricature in Germany and what is considered anti-Semitic. There is no discussion about that.
As late as Monday evening, the “People’s Justice” banner was covered with black fabric panels. Due to the towering central section, however, the installation suddenly looked like a curtained altarpiece during Lent, an equally disturbing association.
Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth therefore called for the work to be dismantled – a correct reaction. A darkly draped, monumental picture at the central location of the documenta would only burden the world exhibition of art even more. She would bear her remaining 96 days of mourning.
Kassel’s Lord Mayor Christian Geselle accordingly ordered the dismantling of the installation on the same day. It’s a disaster for the Documenta. The work then stood for only three days, the empty space remains and will have an after-effect. “In addition, we will obtain further external expertise,” announced Documenta Director General Schormann. Too late.