The Documenta has become a political issue. First of all, that would be good: art gains relevance, has an effect on life, is taken seriously. Each of the major exhibitions that take place every five years has hoped that the internationally most important show of contemporary art will also be noticed on the political stage. But things have gone completely wrong for the Fifteen – and not just since the opening. The allegations of anti-Semitism against the Indonesian curator collective Ruangrupa had already been raised.
In response, there was an open letter in which Ruangrupa and the Documenta management protested against the allegations. It stayed that way, a planned panel discussion was canceled again after the Israeli sociologist Natan Sznaider withdrew his participation. Nothing more happened on the part of the Documenta. One should first look at the exhibition, according to the strategy.
The Documenta has become a political issue. First of all, that would be good: art gains relevance, has an effect on life, is taken seriously. Every edition of the major exhibition, which takes place every five years, has hoped that the most important international show of contemporary art will also attract attention on the political stage. But things have gone completely wrong for the Fifteen – and not just since the opening. The allegations of anti-Semitism against the Indonesian curator collective Ruangrupa had been in the air long before.
The only reaction was an open letter in which the group, together with the Documenta management, defended themselves against the allegations. It stayed that way, a planned panel discussion was canceled again after the Israeli sociologist Natan Sznaider withdrew his participation. Nothing more happened on the part of the Documenta. One should first look at the exhibition, according to the strategy.
Now it happened, right at the beginning of the 100 days of Documenta. And in public, after the first reviews in the arts pages, nobody talked about the art anymore, only about the suspicion of rampant anti-Semitism. Frank-Walter Steinmeier also made it his own in his opening speech, although the Federal President had not seen anything of it then.
The search for confirmation began during the preview days. The Palestinian collective The Question of Funding did not really find anything either, which was the focus of attention due to its proximity to the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and statements critical of Israel. Everyday scenes from the Gaza Strip, collaged with modern classics – Millet’s peasants, Gauguin’s potato eaters and Picasso’s “Guernica” – do not yet cross a red line and do not question Israel’s right to exist.
Motifs have now appeared on a poster by the artist collective Taring Padi, which “is reviving Indonesia’s protest culture in Kassel”, as the short guide to the Documenta puts it. Over 1000 banners and displays from the Indonesian collective are spread throughout the city. However, the incriminated large poster, on which the stereotypical depiction of a Jew with sidelocks, fangs and SS symbols on a hat is hidden, is in a central location – in front of the Documenta Hall on Friedrichsplatz. It was only completely hung on the day of the opening and therefore went unnoticed during the preview days. Could it even have been intentional to magnify the effect?
With the work, the anti-Semitism debate about the Documenta takes a new turn. Derogatory remarks of this kind are anti-Semitic and out of the question, as is the depiction of the Israeli secret service Mossad as a pig on the same poster. The criminal offense of hate speech was fulfilled, the public prosecutor’s office had to intervene, circulated on Twitter. The Israeli embassy demanded that the items be removed from the exhibition immediately. There was no comment from the Documenta until the evening.
She’s finally going into trouble. Were the wrong artists, even curators, invited? Appointing the Ruangrupa collective to organize the exhibition was not a mistake, it was the right decision. For the first time, the conception of a group from the Global South was entrusted – high time for an art event that claims to be a world exhibition. The idea presented with the application of inviting collectives to present inequality and how to remedy it in social interaction was precisely the reason why Ruangrupa was awarded the Kassel contract.
What has happened now confirms the skeptics of the past few months. Ruangrupa and the Documenta directors were warned. They should have done everything to ensure that no anti-Semitic motive slips through their fingers. The headwind that was noticeable even before the opening may also have its origin in the fact that people wanted to have the art, and certainly not the world, explained to them by a collective from Jakarta that is unknown in this country.
This reservation still resonated in Steinmeier’s speech, when he accused the Documenta management of having “outsourced” responsibility. As if an Indonesian team that doesn’t know the local rules would be too demanding for this task. The rebuke went to both sides: to management like Ruangrupa. And to Claudia Roth, who opened the Documenta with Steinmeier.
The Minister of State for Culture had already offered mediation when the dispute was raised, but did nothing. Better that way, one might think, because politicians should stay out of exhibitions, no matter how representative and highly subsidized by the state. Now Roth has to sweep up the pieces together with the Documenta management, at the latest now public discussions have to take place. The title “We have to talk” originally scheduled for the discussion series still applies.
High time, because the topic of BDS is driving the culture industry. It is already suspected that the strategy of boycotting Israel for the Documenta has worked. As far as it can be said with 1500 participants, whose immense number results from the invitation of further collectives in a snowball system, there are no Jewish artists among them. Not a good picture.
The Documenta is also silent on this. The suspicion could be dispelled, even if it goes without saying that an exhibition like the Documenta should not be based on parity, and that religious or national affiliation should not be a criterion for participation.
The boycott campaign against Israel has hardly gained a foothold in Germany, which would fatally politicize the exhibition business. In 2019, the Bundestag passed a resolution to refuse financial support and the allocation of municipal spaces to the BDS movement or groups close to its goals. The campaign is anti-Semitic. The Federal Republic must not expose itself to this suspicion.
The poster of the Indonesian collective is now all the more burdensome. The documenta doesn’t deserve it, because this 15th edition is carried by a rousing spirit of optimism, the attempt to take joint action against local grievances. This idea, which Taring Padi actually shares, is now corrupted.
Too late: The group of artists, Ruangrupa and management have decided to cover up parts of the depiction in the work in question. But it is foreseeable that the documenta will in turn be accused of censorship. The scandal is unlikely to shake off in the remaining 97 days.