Furor Over Documenta Highlights a Widening Chasm in Germany

Documenta, an art world mega-event held every five years in Kassel, Germany, is no stranger to controversy. Yet this year’s edition has ‌eclipsed anything in the past.

Since the sprawling show opened in June, a major artwork has been pulled from display for containing antisemitic caricatures, and the event’s director general 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 further antisemitic works after it emerged that the show also contained drawings made during 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 only rivaled in importance in the art world by the Venice Biennale. The uproar around the images has dominated German newspapers for weeks — but that comes on top of months of allegations that ruangrupa, a collective that curated this year’s event, and other artists, were supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, which is widely viewed in Germany as antisemitic. (Germany’s parliament in 2019 declared the B.D.S. movement antisemitic, saying it questioned Israel’s right to exist.)

Taken together, Documenta has become 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, particularly from outside the country. It is leading some to ask whether a solution can be found that will keep the furor from repeating itself.

The broader opinion in much of the art world is that supporting a boycott is not antisemitic, and that Israel acts as a colonial power, said Meron Mendel, the director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt. Those views are in stark contrast to those held by German politicians. Both sides seem “fixed in their views,” 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 Documenta’s last edition in 2017, said the discussion had become so polarized that it was preventing the building of a climate of “trust, understanding and freedom of expression.”

This is not the first time that cultural figures visiting Germany have become embroiled in debates over antisemitism, particularly linked to support of the B.D.S. movement, which asks companies and people to avoid doing business with Israel in protest of its treatment of Palestinians. In 2018, the British band Young Fathers was dropped from the bill of a German arts festival because of its support for the boycott, which in Germany summons memories of the Nazis’ boycott of Jewish businesses that began in 1933. (The band was later reinvited to the event but declined to appear.)

Germany’s 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 released an open letter warning such moves were “dangerous” and risked limiting cultural exchange.

The furor around Documenta began six months before the show even opened, when a protest group, Alliance Against Antisemitism Kassel, raised accusations of artists supporting the B.D.S. 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 full-blown scandal when the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi installed an artwork called “People’s Justice” from 2002 in one of Kassel’s main squares.

Around 60 feet long, it is a political banner that features cartoonlike depictions of activists struggling under Indonesia’s military rule. Among hundreds of figures is a caricature of a Jew with sidelocks and fangs, wearing a hat emblazoned with the Nazi SS emblem. The banner also contains a military figure with a pig’s head, wearing a Star of David neckerchief, that is meant to represent a member of Mossad, Israel’s security service.

Shortly after the work was installed, German politicians and Jewish groups condemned it as antisemitic. Taring Padi and ruangrupa apologized, and the work was taken down.

Alexander Supartono, a member of Taring Padi and an art historian at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, said in a video interview that members of the group were not antisemitic, as one of their principles was respecting people of all religions and races. When told of the caricature, the group’s reaction was to ask, “How did this happen? How didn’t we see this?” he added. The group had been trying to represent the Israeli officials supporting Suharto, Indonesia’s former dictator, he said, but “consciously or unconsciously,” they drew on stereotypes that he said were likely first introduced into his country by Dutch colonists.

Supartono said that many artists felt the German media was labeling Documenta as antisemitic without discussion. The mood was so tense that when it was first announced that “People’s Justice” would be covered up (this was before it was removed), about 70 artists representing many of the collectives at the exhibition gathered to debate what to do. Some called for all of the artworks in the exhibition to be covered in protest of what they felt was censorship without any debate or dialogue, which would have meant effectively shutting down the exhibition themselves.

With so little trust between the artists and the German media and authorities, even efforts to address the flash points at Documenta are facing challenges. On Monday, an academic panel appointed by regional authorities began studying what had happened at Documenta. Its remit includes providing advice should further problematic images come to light.

But many artists at Documenta have opposed the panel. Farid Rakun, a member of ruangrupa, said in a video interview that it “forced only one reading” of the exhibition, as antisemitic; could lead to censorship; and also set a worrying precedent. “It’s a political move,” Rakun said, adding, “We cannot accept it.”

The academics have said their work would not lead to censorship committees.

In interviews with 10 artists taking part in Documenta, all said they were concerned about the potential implications of the row. Vidisha-Fadescha, an artist and the founder of the Indian-based art and social space Party Office, who uses they/them pronouns, said they would not even answer the question of whether they supported the B.D.S. movement because doing so could endanger their safety. Artists in Germany could have their ability to find work curtailed by stating their views, Vidisha-Fadescha added.

Some artists said they believed the row had already had an effect. Eyal Weizman, the director of Forensic Architecture, a group whose investigations into political violence are shown in museums worldwide, said in a phone interview that earlier this year, the director of a German museum postponed one of his exhibitions, citing Weizman’s support of the B.D.S. movement. As the upset 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 should not be concerned about censorship. “The times when Germany dictated from on high what was good art and what was bad art are fortunately over,” he said, adding, “But it is also a lesson of history that not everything should be sayable.”

Antisemitism is widespread in Germany, he added, and some of the artworks at Documenta could fuel it. “One should not worry about the attractiveness of Germany as a cultural location,” Schuster also said, adding that “there are enough artists” who have a clear stance against boycotting Israel.

There is one 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, were looking at the array of artworks now spread throughout Kassel, meeting artists and taking part in classes and attending events. Asked if any of the visiting children had mentioned antisemitism, Praptono said, “Of course not.”

“They’re learning, sharing, making friends,” she added.

Michael Lazar, a member of the board for the Jewish community in Kassel, said in a phone interview that he felt a handful of pieces of work were “agitprop of the worst kind” or antisemitic, but that there were over 1,500 artists involved in this edition of Documenta and that he had good relations with many of them, including the organizers, ruangrupa.

“Every Documenta is always said to be the last one, then it continues,” he said. “I hope the next 50 days will be full of excitement.”

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