Listen Up, Documenta!

No curator. Not even a finding commission. What’s happening with Documenta? Is it time for a reboot – or is the end nigh?

Hans Haacke, Fotonotizen, documenta 2, Fotonotizen, documenta 2, 1959. Silver gelatine print, 15,9 x 24,3 cm Sammlung Gegenwartskunst © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021.

On the last day of November this year, Documenta Director Dr Andreas Hoffman will open a conference at Documenta Archiv, the institution that collects everything related to the history of the Kassel quinquennial. The title of the conference is ‘In/Out’, and while we know who is out – all six members of the finding commission – we have no idea who is actually in. The focus on “canonization processes of modern art and the first Documenta” appears off. Aren’t we really dealing with the aftermath – or “canonization processes” – of Documenta fifteen?

Referring to the resignation of Indian poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote from the finding commission in an open letter issued on 13 November by BDS India (part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement), Hoffmann said: “The current developments surrounding the Documenta sixteen search committee show once again how long the road to a consistent processing of Documenta fifteen still is. There is a need for consistent distancing from any form of anti-Semitism. The events of summer 2022 must not be repeated. This is the only way to make a real new beginning after the events of Documenta fifteen.”

But what exactly are the “events of Documenta fifteen”? In much of the German press, Documenta fifteen has become shorthand for a kind of anti-Semitic arts Oktoberfest. The display of certain anti-Semitic symbols is illegal in Germany and can be punished. However, no matter how many newspapers reproduced the undoubtedly anti-Semitic details of specifically one work (the banner People’s Justice [2002] by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi), the state prosecutor never even opened a case against Documenta. By now an in-depth academic study rejecting this accusation has been published, to notably less press coverage.

The first to resign from the finding commission was Bracha L. Ettinger, the only artist on the committee, and the only one based in Israel. In her resignation letter, published on E-flux, she referred to the Hamas massacre on October 7th: “Innocent civilians suffered and died, and my heart cries for each dead on all sides: Palestinians and Israelis.” Following the attack, she requested to delay the selection process, to give time for mourning, to lament, “allow sorrow and agony to unfold.” Ettinger’s request was also a pragmatic response to every daylife in a war zone, which made it impossible to focus fully on or attend crucial meetings. However, her request was denied. Consequently, she stepped down on November 10th, writing: “The question of the meaning of being human is tightly related to the meaning of art. Artists are not here to decorate politics.”

Three days later, in his resignation letter, also published on E-flux, Hoskote addressed these words to Mr. Hoffmann: “It is clear to me that there is no room, in this toxic atmosphere, for a nuanced discussion of the issues at stake.” In particular, he refers to the accusations of anti-Semitism against him, and “being asked to accept a sweeping and untenable definition of anti-Semitism that conflates the Jewish people with the Israeli state; and that, correspondingly, misrepresents any expression of sympathy with the Palestinian people as support for Hamas. My conscience does not permit me to accept this sweeping definition and these strictures on human empathy.”

Here we have the exact problem that we see increasingly in German cultural politics, be it the scandalous withdrawal of the Frankfurt Buchmesse’s literature prize for Palestinian author Adania Shibli, or the recent cancellation of an upcoming exhibition at the Saarbrücken Museum with works by Berlin-based South African (and Jewish) artist Candice Breitz. The board of the museum, as quoted in German news, “makes this decision after careful consideration in light of the media coverage of the artist in connection with her controversial statements in the context of Hamas’s war of aggression against the State of Israel.”

What controversial statements? One doesn’t need to dive into Breitz’s social media activities to find the artist is outspoken and very articulate on many scandals of and beyond the art world, but if one does, it reveals fairly liberal worldviews, such as “the lives of Palestinian children are equivalent to those of Jewish and Israeli children.” Is this too much to say in Germany, these days? Or, rather, that Breitz, along with a thousand other cultural practitioners, in 2019 signed a letter calling for the German government to reconsider labelling BDS anti-Semitic, thereby making the withdrawal of state funding to any associated cultural projects mandatory. What looked like petty symbolic politics at the time (in the face of rising anti-Jewish hate crime in Germany) has today become a political tool: accusations of guilt by association factually silence the expression of diverging views.  

Installation view, Candice Breitz, Whiteface, 2022. Currently on view at Fotografiska in Berlin.

When the remaining members of the finding commission stepped down, they wrote: “Art requires a critical and multi-perspective examination of its diverse forms and contents to be able to resonate and develop its transformative capacity. Categorical, one-sided reductions and over-simplifications of complex contexts threaten to nip any such examination in the bud.” Their colleague Hoskote sums it up: “A system […] which chooses to ignore both criticality and compassion – is a system that has lost its moral compass.”

An astute observation. But how to regain a sense of direction? Should we now give up on Documenta and let it go into the sunset, the way of all dinosaurs? Should we allow the show to go into hiatus and reemerge in glory in seven years? Or should we go McKinsey on it and have it restructured? Should we stay off political discourses and go Documenta-light?

The appeal of Documenta lies in its scale and the freedom it offers. Being curator for Documenta may be the most challenging job, but it also offers an incredible freedom that is arguably unparalleled in the world. And it is this freedom from political influence that we need to preserve. Any restructuring will most certainly see the invention of new bodies to infringe upon the freedom of the curator. So, for the sake of the freedom of the arts, the show must go on.

But how? Maybe we can take cues from another project if not cancelled then indefinitely postponed in the wake of the Hamas attack, a collaboration between Breitz and UCLA literature professor (and 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies) Michael Rothberg: a conference originally scheduled for early December titled ‘We Still Need to Talk’. Forty speakers were disinvited who had been asked to reflect on “relational cultures of memory”, as the online-announcement states, and, as the artist herself put it:  “explore the ethics and aesthetics of dealing with the suffering of others, and attempt to examine the relationship between anti-Semitism and other common forms of hate in view of the increasing normalization of right-wing ideology in political discourse in Germany and beyond.”

Here we have a subject matter that is highly problematic and effects artists and their communities globally. If we understand that it is exactly the freedom of the arts – if not the freedom of expression altogether, that is under threat – we can see that there is a starting point for a curatorial exploration, but also a chance for Documenta, reimagined as a space of possibilities and opportunities. Maybe as a cultural platform where cultural conflicts can be explored in the relative security of the German province and, if not solved, at least addressed and discussed. Imagine the mega-show as a laboratory for reconciliation – even if this appears more utopian than ever at present. But better a utopia than no perspective.

We still need to talk. For this we need to establish a culture in which it is safe to exchange divergent or opposing opinions. This may sound shallow. But it is one thing to talk, and it is another to listen. This, it seems, is the biggest challenge for Documenta right now.

Kunstkritikk, 5. December: The article has been updated to make clear the timeline of events with regards to the resignation letters.

Installation view, Documenta fifteen, Fridskul Common Library, Fridericianum, Kassel, 2022. Photo: Victoria Tomaschko.