NEW YORK, NY.-
Even before Documenta opened Saturday in Kassel, Germany, the renowned contemporary art exhibition had roiled with controversy over the inclusion of artists who have criticized Israel. Now, just four days into the 100-day show, which runs through Sept. 16, its organizers said Tuesday that they would remove a work that triggers antisemitic readings after an outcry from lawmakers and diplomats.
That piece, a nearly 60-foot-long painted banner called Peoples Justice, was created by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi in 2002, when its members included activists who had struggled under Indonesias military dictatorship. The banners busy, cartoonlike depiction of political resistance involves hundreds of individual figures.
Two of those figures stirred outrage Monday after photographs of them circulated on social media. One was a man with side-locks and fangs, wearing a hat emblazoned with a Nazi emblem. The other was a soldier with a pigs head, wearing a Star of David neckerchief and a helmet with Mossad, the name of Israels security service, written on it. (Other figures in the work were identified as members of intelligence forces, including the British agency MI5 and the KGB.)
Israels embassy in Germany said in a series of tweets that Documenta was promoting Goebbels-style propaganda a reference to the Nazis chief propagandist. Claudia Roth, Germanys culture minister, said in a statement posted to social media, In my view, this is antisemitic imagery.
This is where artistic freedom finds its limits, she added. Within hours of those comments, Documenta had covered the work with sheets of black fabric.
Taring Padi said in a news release issued by Documentas organizers Monday that the work was not meant to be related in any way to antisemitism and it was saddened that details in this banner are understood differently from its original purpose. The work was a comment on the militarism and violence Indonesians experienced during the 32-year dictatorship of Suharto, which ended in 1998, the collective said. We apologize for the hurt caused, Taring Padi added. There is no record in our work that aims to portray any ethnic groups in a negative way.
But Documentas decision to conceal Peoples Justice failed to draw a line under the controversy, which swirled throughout Tuesday on social media, radio and television. The exhibitions supervisory board, which includes Kassels mayor, Christian Geselle, met and decided to remove the artwork, according to a late-afternoon news release from city authorities.
Held every five years, Documenta is widely considered one the art worlds most important events, rivaled only by the Venice Biennale. This years edition, the 15th, is curated by ruangrupa, another Indonesian art collective. Ruangrupa invited 14 other artist collectives to take part; those groups then invited further collectives to join in. Most of the participating artists are from the Global South, with few participants from Europe and the United States.
The issue of antisemitism had been dominating discussions around this years event months before it opened, particularly the question of whether ruangrupa or the artists it had invited supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. In 2019, Germanys parliament declared that movement antisemitic, saying it questions Israels right to exist.
In January, a protest group called the Alliance Against Antisemitism Kassel accused ruangrupa of supporting the Israel boycott and also queried the inclusion in the exhibition of a Palestinian art collective called The Question of Funding, who the alliance said were also boycott sympathizers. Soon, German newspaper columnists and politicians picked up those concerns.
In May, Felix Klein, the official in Germanys government in charge of combating antisemitism, criticized a lack of Israeli artists in the Documenta lineup. The same month, intruders sprayed graffiti in the exhibition space that was scheduled to host The Question of Fundings work.
By the exhibitions preview days last week, when journalists and art world insiders take a look at the show, the debate about antisemitism seemed to have receded. But the issue raised its head again at the events opening ceremony Saturday, when President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany mentioned it repeatedly in a speech. I want to be frank: I wasnt sure in the past few weeks whether I would be here with you today, he said. Artistic freedom was at the heart of Germanys constitution, he added, and criticism of Israels government was allowed. But, he added, it was striking that no Jewish artists from Israel are represented at this important exhibition of contemporary art.
Steinmeier did not mention Peoples Justice, which had only been installed Friday, the final day of the Documenta preview. Yet just two days later, it was at the center of the debate.
The pressure on Documentas organizers is unlikely to end with the works removal. Charlotte Knobloch, a former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that antisemitism was not taken seriously as a problem in the run-up to the event, and more action was also needed at the exhibition. Sabine Schormann, Documentas director general, should resign, Knobloch said, and the wider organization should undertake some soul searching.
Documentas organizers, ruangrupa and Taring Padi said through a spokesperson that they were not immediately available for comment.
On Tuesday, Roth, Germanys culture minister, said in a statement that the paintings removal was just the first step, adding that there must be further consequences: It must be clarified how it was possible for this mural with antisemitic images to be installed there.
Documentas organizers and curators should immediately check that there were no other antisemitic images in any other works on display, Roth added. The protection of human dignity, the protection against antisemitism, against racism and any form of inhumanity is the basis of our coexistence, she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times