Never Mind the Germans

Is the scandal engulfing Documenta 15 a tragedy of the arts, criticism, or the German debate on anti-Semitism?

Britto Arts Trust, PAKGHOR – the social kitchen, 2022, Documenta 15, Kassel, June 19, 2022. Photo: Raluca Voinea.

A smoking gun is the ultimate proof. In Kassel, it appeared in the shape of a picture. At the end of the preview days, the night before the public opening of Documenta 15, most of the international visitors had already left, and many were all smiles. The curators of this edition of the Documenta, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, had successfully delivered an alternative version to the superstar line-up typical of biennials and presented an inclusive but challenging show, transparently structured overall and radiating with a let’s-do-it energy grounded in specific local projects from all over the world. It produced a vibe of genuine positivity; it charmed professionals and passersby.

But on Saturday night, the vibe was killed in an instant when, on a large scaffolding in front of the Documenta-Halle on Friedrichsplatz, the now notorious painting People’s Justice (2002) by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi was hoisted up before an audience of grotesque figures painted on cardboard and mounted on sticks. In the huge painting, two figures clearly reproduced anti-Semitic tropes: a rat with sidelocks under a bowler hat bearing the SS insignia and a pig-faced soldier with a star of David on his kerchief and Mossad on its helmet.

Originally made as part of a protest campaign against the Suharto dictatorship, the painting had been presented on two occasions before it went up in Kassel. Apparently, none of the curators had a closer look at it before it came up, and neither had the CEO of Documenta, Sabine Schormann, who pointed out that her role was to enable freedom of the arts, not to control it.

Of course, this is absolutely correct. But the freedom of expression ends where it hurts people. And a prominent display of anti-Semitic imagery so crude that it brings to mind Nazi-era anti-Jewish caricatures – and this in Germany’s most important art exhibition – has to be a scandal. The German press went into hyperventilation mode, even after the painting was covered up and removed completely a day later, amid apologetic statements from the artists, curators, and organisers. For a moment, the newspaper headlines on this overshadowed even the war in Ukraine. The exhibition was now a “documenta of shame,” according to the news magazine Focus; on Der Spiegel’s website, it was suggested that the exhibition should be renamed “antisemita 15,” and one author warned readers: “This art kills.”

The rage of this public outburst surprised many international observers who had witnessed the peace and love of the opening days. Could two figures, albeit nasty ones, in what is best described as a Wimmelbild – an image featuring a plethora of characters, here relating primarily to recent Indonesian history and mainly depicted polluting and oppressing and exploiting the people – really be so harmful to German civil society? Why would two small figures in a large painting eclipse a huge art exhibition spanning many different venues and featuring the work of presumed 1,500 participants in over fifty collectives?

The answer is not that simple. On the one hand, as last year’s presentation Documenta. Politics and Art at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum revealed, the Documenta was not only founded in 1955 as a response to the Nazi purge of modernist art. Not only did it employ contemporary art as a focal lens to ‘Western values’ during the Cold War. It was also a way to leave unpleasant memories behind. Indeed, it is better understood if one focusses on what it did not show. From the beginning, with its emphasis on abstraction, there was a significant absence: no artwork reflecting on the Holocaust, and a bizarre underrepresentation of Jewish artists, to put it mildly.

Taring Padi, Bara Solidaritas: Sekarang Mereka, Besok Kita / The Flame of Solidarity: First they came for them, then they came for us, 2022, Installation view, Documenta 15, Kassel, 14. Juni 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Werner Haftmann, one of Documenta founder Arnold Bode’s key collaborators, was not only an art aficionado, but an early member of the Nazi Party, and documents show that the decision not to include artists who had been killed in concentration camps was, in fact, programmatic. The idea was to look forward, not back.

Looking back is uncomfortable in Germany. Parallel to the recent developments in Kassel, a federal court issued a ruling in the case of an anti-Semitic relief on the city church of Wittenberg. The relief dates from the late 13th century and shows a rabbi staring at a pig’s anus while its teats are sucked by two figures recognisable as Jews by the pointy hats which Pope Innocence III made mandatory in 1213 to distinguish Jews from Christians. While most of the church’s interior fell victim to iconoclasts in 1522, the relief survived and was moved to a prominent display on an exterior wall. Martin Luther, himself a raging anti-Semite, preached here and repeatedly praised the relief in his texts as educational.

The plaintiff had argued that the relief should be removed as it still incited hatred, but the court ruled that it was to stay (on the grounds that two signs provided sufficient historical context) thereby turning it into a memorial to the history of Christian anti-Semitism in Germany. If only things were that easy. Around thirty similar historic motifs, so-called Schmähskulpturen, or defamatory sculptures, still exist in churches and public spaces – some are also housed in museums – in central Europe. The large majority, however, is found in Germany, which shows the extent of the country’s anti-Semitic history.

With this perspective, it comes as no surprise that one writer would eventually insinuate that the whole Documenta could be regarded as an updated version of the medieval relief, and ask, in another column, why enemies of Israel could be allowed to curate the Documenta. Remarkably, these statements were published days prior to the hanging of the Taring Padi painting, while Documenta venues had been broken into and vandalised, in an obvious attempt to intimidate Palestinian participants.

Why these furious pre-emptive accusations? Looking back at the development of the Documenta scandal, it started with a blog post by a self-proclaimed Bündnis gegen Antisemitismus Kassel (Kassel Alliance Against Anti-Semitism), which ‘uncovered’ that participants supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel which Germany’s parliament declared anti-Semitic, a much discussed decision that watered down criteria for distinguishing between legitimate critique of Israel’s policies and inciting hatred against Jews. Fixing anti-Semitism to a definition subverts its cause. Calcifying the discourse makes it accessible for political instrumentalisation, blatantly disregarding Arab (and certain Jewish) perspectives in Israeli and Palestinian civil society.

If there ever was an argument, it was based on claims that crumbled upon closer inspection. One was against the Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili, who is also a representative of The Question of Funding, the Palestinian collective whose inclusion sparked the accusations of anti-Semitism. The title of one of his works, Apartheid Monochromes (2017), a series of six monochrome canvases which refer to the different colours of identity cards issued to Palestinians by Israeli authorities, thereby producing divisions in Palestinian society itself. Green is the key here: the Palestinian Authority issues identity cards that are the same shade as the cards that the Israeli government issues to prisoners.

Nhà Sàn Collective, Nguyen Phuong Linh &Truon Que Chi, A Mangrove Apple Tree, 2022, Installation view, Documenta 15, Stadtmuseum, Kassel, 2022. Photo: Nils Klinger.

A second issue addressed the invitation of a group from a Ramallah cultural centre named after Arab nationalist Khalil al-Sakakini, who at some point expressed support for his contemporary, Adolf Hitler. That he was a more complex figure who had many Jewish students during the mandate period (1923–1948) was hardly an issue in the German press, neither was the fact that the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which has close ties to Germany’s conservative party, Christian Democratic Union, had used the venue in the past.

That these blog posts were picked up without further scrutiny (which quickly reveals the authors to be biased if not blatantly Anti-Deutsch, a formerly radical left-wing group which has now subscribed to a hodgepodge of anti-nationalist, anti-Islamic, anti-capitalist/imperialist, and pro-Israel worldviews closer to the extreme right) by reputable newspapers in Germany boggles the mind at least as much as the idiotic appearance of the anti-Semitic caricatures at the public opening. That the public scandalisation of the exhibition continues on this level is even harder to understand, but shows continuity. The previous iteration of Documenta was plagued by its own scandals, from the extreme right wing protesting the city of Kassel’s acquisition of Olu Oguibe’s Monument to Strangers and Refugees (2017), a concrete obelisk featuring a quotation from the Bible in four different languages, to the chauvinist undertones in heated public discussions on controlling the show’s finances.

Looking back, as hardly a day goes by without an article about the increasingly scandalised Documenta, it reads like a page from the right-wing playbook: first, gain control over who gets to declare what constitutes anti-Semitism by means of the German Parliament’s BDS resolution; second, use the claim against anyone who challenges the dominant hierarchies.

And it is in challenging dominant narratives – at least those of the art world – that ruangrupa succeeded. The art world pilgrimage this year had two routes that were refreshingly distinct from one another: one went to Basel and one to Kassel, with little connection in between, albeit some text messages. The ones from Basel were cynical: “Finally, business as usual.” The ones from Kassel were unique: “This is not business art”; “This is not the usual,”; “This is not an anti-Semitic Documenta.” The curators realised a game-changer of an exhibition, but may have spoiled it at the last minute with sloppiness, disregard, or an unbelievably stupid mistake. Now it’s up to us, the viewers, to decide. To make this decision, however, you have to go and see it for yourself. Never mind the Germans.

Installation view, Centre d’Art Waza, Documenta 15, Kassel, 2022. Photo: Andreas Schlaegel.