Even before Documenta opened Saturday in Kassel, Germany, the popular contemporary art fair sparked controversy over the inclusion of artists who have criticized Israel. Now, just four days into the 100-day parade, which runs through September 16, its organizers said on Tuesday that they would remove work that “sparks anti-Semitic readings” after an outcry from lawmakers and diplomats.
This piece, approximately 60 feet tall, a banner painted with the name “People’s Justice”, was created by the Indonesian Society of Tring Padi in 2002, when among its members were activists who had struggled under Indonesia’s military dictatorship. The banner’s crowded, cartoon-like depiction of political resistance includes hundreds of individual characters.
Two of those figures sparked outrage on Monday after circulating pictures of them on social media. One of them was a man with side locks and fangs, wearing a hat decorated with a Nazi crest. The other was a soldier with a pig’s head, wearing a neck scarf in the shape of a Star of David and a helmet with “Mossad” written on it, the name of Israel’s security service. (Other characters in the work have been identified as members of intelligence forces including Britain’s MI5 and the KGB)
The Israeli Embassy in Germany said In the thread of tweets that Documenta was promoting “Goebbels-style propaganda” – a reference to the head of Nazi propaganda. Claudia Roth, German Minister of Culture, said on Statement posted on social media“From my point of view, these are anti-Semitic images.”
“This is where artistic freedom finds its limits,” she added. Within hours of those comments, Documenta covered the work with sheets of black cloth.
Tring Buddy said In a press release Documenta’s organizers issued on Monday that the work “was not supposed to be associated in any way with anti-Semitism” and that it was “sad because the details on this sign are understood differently from its original purpose”. The work was a commentary on the “militarism and violence” experienced by Indonesians During Suharto’s 32-year dictatorship, which ended in 1998group said. “We apologize for the inconvenience caused,” Tring Buddy added. “There is no record in our work that aims to portray any racial groups in a negative way.”
But Documenta’s decision to hide “People’s Justice” failed to draw a line under the controversy, which circulated throughout Tuesday in social media, on radio and television. The body supervising the exhibition, which includes the mayor of Kassel, Christian Gesell, met and decided to remove the artwork, According to a press release issued in the late afternoon from city authorities.
Held every five years, the Documenta is widely regarded as one of the most important artistic events in the world, rivaled only by the Venice Biennale. This year’s edition, fifteenth, is Sponsored by RuangrupaAnother Indonesian art group. Ruangrupa invited 14 other art groups to participate; These groups then invited other groups to join them. Most of the participating artists are from the Global South, with a few participants from Europe and the United States.
In January, a protest group called the Coalition Against Anti-Semitism in Kassel accused Ruangrupa of supporting the Israeli boycott, and also questioned the inclusion of a Palestinian art group in the exhibition called A Question of Funding, which the coalition said was sympathetic to the boycott. Politicians and columnists for German newspapers quickly picked up on these concerns.
In May, Felix Klein, the German government official responsible for combating anti-Semitism, criticized the lack of Israeli artists in the Documenta lineup. same month, Intruders sprayed graffiti on the exhibition space Which was to host a funding question.
By the days of exhibition previews last week, when journalists and art insiders took a look at the show, the debate over anti-Semitism seemed to have subsided. But the issue re-emerged at the event’s opening ceremony on Saturday, when German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier He mentioned it over and over again in a letter. “I want to be honest: I wasn’t sure in the last few weeks if I would be here with you today,” he said. He added that artistic freedom was at the heart of the German constitution, and that criticism of the government of Israel was permitted. But he added, “It is surprising that no Jewish artists from Israel were represented in this important exhibition of contemporary art.”
Steinmeier did not mention People’s Justice, which was only installed on Friday, the last day of the Documenta preview. However, only two days later, she was at the center of the debate.
The pressure on the Documenta organizers is unlikely to end with the removal of the work. Charlotte Knobloch, former head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said in a phone interview Tuesday that “anti-Semitism was not taken seriously as a problem in the run-up to the event,” and more action was also needed at the fair. Documenta’s general manager, Sabine Schuermann, should resign, Knobloch said, and the broader organization should do some “self-searching”.
Documenta’s organizers, Ruangrupa and Taring Paddy, through a spokeswoman, said they were not immediately available for comment.
On Tuesday, German Culture Minister Roth said in a statement that removing the painting was “just a first step,” adding that there must be “other consequences: it must be clarified how this mural with anti-Semitic images could have been installed there.”
Roth added that the document’s organizers and curators should “immediately check” that there are no other anti-Semitic images in any other works on display. “Protecting human dignity and protection from anti-Semitism, racism and any form of inhumanity is the basis of our coexistence,” she said.