A much-anticipated Documenta panel exposed the obstacles to combating antisemitism in art and offered some learning opportunities
Before the panel began, Ade Darmawan, a member of the Ruangrupa collective and one of this year’s Documenta curators, stood up in front of the audience and took the microphone.
“We are here to learn and to listen,” Darmawan said of the conference, which was organized quite suddenly to address the anti-Semitic imagery that had been identified in the collective’s exhibit. “We hope this event will be a trigger for other important events and discussions that will take place during Documenta.”
The panel, organized by Documenta’s parent company and the Anne Frank Education Center, did not include Ruangrupa members or artists. It came yesterday after months of media speculation over what some feared were anti-Semitic attitudes on the show. Suspicions intensified when viewers discovered an artwork contained anti-Semitic imagery. The Indonesian collective Taring Padi’s People’s justice (2002), which reflects on the end of their country’s brutal dictatorship, contains many satirical characters, but also includes a fanged, bloody-eyed Orthodox Jew with an SS badge on his hat. A panel further, an Israeli soldier is represented as a pig.
The work was removed from the prestigious exhibition just days after it opened on June 18, and administrative organizers Ruangrupa, Taring Padi and Documenta sent in statements of apology. Still, it seemed the event’s reputation had been damaged.
In the drama saga that has been unfolding since January, the notion of who should have a public voice on the subject has become a central point of contention. Last night’s emergency discussion on anti-Semitism in art only came after Documenta canceled a series of earlier conversations in April when it was accused of bias.
In particular, the Central Council for Jews raised concerns about being excluded from the organization or council on the previous event, and on the third panel, which focused on anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian racism in Germany.
“There were no invitations from Israeli Jewish artists and that showed us that something was getting out of hand,” said Doron Kiesel of the Central Council for Jews, which represents the Jewish people in Germany. “Something happened then that in our worst nightmares couldn’t happen,” he added, referring to the momentary presence of Taring Padi’s artwork. “Our confidence is in tatters.”
The June 29 panel included a panel of experts steeped in the German context: Nikita Dhawan, professor of political theory and history of ideas at Dresden; Kiesel, scientific director of the education department of the Central Council for Jews; Meron Mendel, Director of the Anne Frank Education Center in Frankfurt; Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel; and Hortensia Völckers, artistic director of the German Federal Cultural Foundation.
German Culture Minister Claudia Roth, who has faced calls for her impeachment, was in the audience. On Friday, Roth outlined a five-point plan proposing reforms to the exhibition, which receives more than 40 million euros (nearly $42 million) each edition, some of which comes from the federal government. She said “fundamental structural reform,” including greater federal oversight, would be a prerequisite for the show’s future government funding.
In a letter to Roth shared with local media, the mayor of Kassel later retorted that the city is able to handle the funding for the event itself. (The federal government provides less than 5 million euros.) Documenta does not need “state censorship”, said the mayor, Christian Geselle. For years, Documenta was largely run by the city of Kassel and an autonomous organization there, Documenta gGmBh.
“Documenta’s primarily local responsibility is out of all proportion to its importance as one of the world’s most important art exhibitions,” Roth said in the statement.
In recent weeks there have been calls to shut down the exhibit altogether. And while this panel brought some much-needed nuance to the discussion, less than 200 people watched the English version, while 600 watched the German version. Documenta’s future has never looked so threatened.
Specific members of the artistic team, artists and curatorial team have faced allegations of anti-Semitism since earlier this year, when an anonymous blog questioned some of the participants’ ties to the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. . A media storm followed, and many felt that the exhibit participants and organizers in question were not open enough to dialogue. Ruangrupa said the allegations were “bad faith attempts” to delegitimize them.
In her keynote address to the June 29 panel, Angela Dorn, the regional Minister for Higher Education, Research and the Arts, said these early concerns “were not being taken seriously enough”. .
Much of the discussion has focused on whether increased government oversight is indeed the best solution. Dorn pointed to Roth’s official statement that structural change is needed.
Völckers, artistic director of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, one of the main funding bodies in Europe, warned against this. “Things like [the current scandal] threaten to destroy trust, and we must protect the autonomy of these institutions,” she said. “The damage caused… is major.
Dhawan, a postcolonial scholar, also spoke out in favor of maintaining independence. “We have to ask ourselves if we want bureaucrats to tell us what to think,” she said. “If we were to take it seriously and be consistent in calling for the censorship of hate speech, our museums would empty.”
Kiesel, from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said there must be limits on freedom of expression, a position shared by all panelists. “If you don’t deal responsibly with what liberal democracy has made you responsible for, we will all lose,” Kiesel said. “We cannot be guardians of the situation,” he added, referring to his organization.
Mendel of the Anne Frank Institution also pointed to the lack of Jewish-Israeli performers in the show. “The Israeli art scene is very much tied to the peace movement, and they are a minority in Israel,” Mendel said. “I can’t prove if [the exclusion of Israeli-Jewish artists] was intentional or not. Was it anti-Semitism? Was it an anti-Israeli attitude? These are open questions. »
In the fallout from the People Justice, Mendel has been invited as an expert advisor to Documenta as he scours the exhibit for other examples of anti-Semitic art. In his conversations over the past week, he said he kept hearing about a “silent boycott” against Jewish Israeli artists. “It’s getting stronger. Yet there is no evidence that this is happening.
Mendel also called for moderation and de-escalation in what has become an incredibly tense environment. The opening of the show saw both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
“If it was just this mural and someone saw it and took it down, we wouldn’t have this scandal,” Mendel said. “But this is now the consequence of the fact that since January we have not been able to dialogue. I know Ruangrupa worked with their concept, but we still haven’t managed to have an exchange.
Szymczyk, who curated the latest edition of Documenta, pointed out that curatorial and artistic teams are under pressure when it comes to German discourse. “If the result is, in the opinion of the public – and I’m not talking about academic circles – that the Global South becomes a toxin that brings anti-Semitism, that’s a huge loss.”
Ruangrupa vehemently denied the accusations of anti-Semitism. Around the time the group called off talks on the matter, one of the venues housing a Palestinian collective was vandalized with “187” tags, which stands for a US penal code, and was interpreted as a threat of murder , and the name “Peralta”, a far-right Spanish politician.
A moment of tension in the panel emerged around the discussion of postcolonialism, a major topic in an exhibition of artists largely from countries in the Global South. Kiesel criticized what he saw as the confusion of the Israeli government with the Israeli state in postcolonial discourse. He also said that the exchange on this topic seems impossible.
“You can’t talk about colonialism without talking about anti-Semitism,” Dhawan said. “I am discouraged that you say dialogue is not possible.” She added, “Rejecting postcolonial discourse is an ideological maneuver, in some cases, not to address the legacy of European colonialism and crimes against colonial peoples.” His statement drew applause from the audience.
There was both a sense of frustration at the end and a seed of optimism as, finally, the dialogue that the media and public were calling for was beginning. “Documenta once again proves its relevance as a place where discussion can begin, although I regret that it began in such violence,” said curator Szymczyk. “We can’t exclude one for the other.”
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