Documenta to Remove Work Accused of anti-Semitism

The organizers of Documenta 15, which opened in Kassel on June 18, will remove a work over allegations that it is anti-Semitic. Indonesian collective ruangrupa, the curators of the 2022 iteration of the quinquennial, will remove the 2002 work People’s Justice by Yogyakarta, Indonesia–based collective Taring Padi at the behest of Kassel’s mayor, Christian Geselle. The curators and artists on June 21 placed a black drape over the work, a banner first shown twenty years ago at the South Australian Art Festival in Adelaide, after it was discovered to contain caricatured depictions of Jews. These took the form of a clearly labeled Mossad agent with the head of a pig (Mossad is Israel’s secret service), and a caricature of an Orthodox Jewish man wearing a black derby hat bearing the insignia of the SS, the Nazi unit responsible for the mass extermination of Jews.

The members of Taring Padi issued a statement explaining that they frequently depict authority figures as animals and that the banner was originally created as a protest against the militarism of the Suharto dictatorship and that the individuals portrayed were meant to represent its corrupt officials. “It is not meant to be related in any way to antisemitism,” wrote the artists. “We are saddened that details in this banner are understood differently from its original purpose. We apologise for the hurt caused in this context. Therefore, with great regret, we cover up the work. This work then becomes a monument of mourning for the impossibility of dialogue at this moment.”

Taring Padi, ruangrupa, and Documenta officials jointly announced, “Due to a depiction of a figure in the work People’s Justice (2002) by the collective Taring Padi, which triggers antisemitic readings, the collective, together with the management of Documenta and the artistic direction of Documenta 15, has decided to cover up the work in question at Friedrichsplatz and to install an explanation next to the work.” Shortly thereafter Geselle ordered the work dismantled altogether. “We feel ashamed,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Immense damage for the city of Kassel, the state of Hesse and the Documenta has been caused. Something has happened that never should have happened.”

Sabine Schorman, the general director of Documenta and the Fredericianum, affirmed in a statement that the work had not been created for the exhibition and asserted that “documenta management is not, and should not be, an authority to which artistic exhibits must be submitted for inspection in advance.” Schorman additionally noted, “All parties involved regret that feelings were hurt in this way,”

The appearance of the work and the attendant uproar it has engendered represent the latest twist in a saga that saw ruangrupa accused of anti-Semitism over their failure to include Israeli artists and their decision to include several artists who, alongside Jewish signatories, had condemned Germany’s 2019 anti-BDS Resolution as a “threat to artistic freedom and freedom of speech.” The measure labels the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel as anti-Semitic and thus illegal, as anti-Semitism is a crime in Germany. The original unsupported allegations, made anonymously on a blog earlier this year and containing factual errors, were circulated by the mainstream media, with the result that ruangrupa organized a series of  conversations on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to clear the air ahead of Documenta 15’s launch. These were canceled after participants dropped out as the atmosphere grew tense. Shortly thereafter, in late May, the exhibition space allotted Documenta participants The Question of Funding, a Palestinian collective, was spray-painted with terms thought be expressive of anti-Islam sentiment and of a death threat.

Following the vandalism, more than 130 artists participating in Documenta released a statement in support of ruangrupa. Also buttressing the collective were Kassel mayor Geselle—who in the wake of the damage noted that “intimidating artists by committing crimes goes far beyond the pale and damages the image of the city of Kassel as a place of artistic freedom and host to artists from all over the world”—and German culture minister Claudia Roth, who reinforced her support of artistic freedom.

Prior to the concealment of the Taring Padi work, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier addressed the allegations of anti-Semitism in a speech at Documenta’s opening. Assaying that “there are limits” to artistic freedom, Steinmeier referenced Germany’s painful history in regard to Judaism and asserted that “recognizing Israeli statehood means recognizing the dignity and security of the modern Jewish community.” Since the revelations regarding People’s Justice, both Geselle and Roth have condemned the work’s display, with Roth calling for an investigation into how the banner came to be shown in the first place. “The removal of this mural, which shows clearly antisemitic pictorial elements, is overdue,” she said in a statement. “The mere covering up and the statement by the Taring Padi artist collective on the matter were absolutely unacceptable.”


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