Even before Documenta opened on Saturday in Kassel, Germany, the famous contemporary art exhibition sparked controversy over the inclusion of artists who criticized Israel. Now, just four days after the start of the 100 Days show, which runs until September 16, its organizers said on Tuesday they would remove work that ‘triggers anti-Semitic readings’ after an outcry from lawmakers and diplomats.
This piece, a nearly 60-foot-long painted banner called “People’s Justice”, was created by Indonesian collective Taring Padi in 2002, when its members included activists who had fought under Indonesia’s military dictatorship. The animated, cartoonish depiction of political resistance on the banner involves hundreds of individual characters.
Two such figures sparked outrage on Monday after photos 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 pig’s head, wearing a scarf with a Star of David and a helmet with “Mossad”, the name of the Israeli security service, written on it. (Other figures in the book have been identified as members of the intelligence forces, including Britain’s MI5 agency and the KGB)
“This is where artistic freedom finds its limits,” she added. A few hours after these comments, Documenta had covered the work with sheets of black cloth.
Taring Padi said in a press release published Monday by Documenta organizers that the work was “not meant to be related in any way to anti-Semitism” and that it was “saddened that the details of this banner are understood differently from its purpose. initial”. The work was a commentary on the ‘militarism and violence’ that Indonesians have suffered during Suharto’s 32-year dictatorship, which ended in 1998, specifies the collective. “We apologize for the harm caused,” added Taring Padi. “There is no material in our work that aims to portray ethnic groups in a negative light.”
But Documenta’s decision to cover up “People’s Justice” did nothing to end the controversy, which swirled throughout Tuesday on social media, radio and television. The exhibition’s supervisory board, which includes the mayor of Kassel, Christian Geselle, met and decided to withdraw the work, according to a press release at the end of the afternoon with the city authorities.
Held every five years, Documenta is widely regarded as one of the most important events in the art world, rivaled only by the Venice Biennale. This year’s edition, the 15th, is organized by ruangrupa, another Indonesian art collective. Ruangrupa invited 14 other artists’ collectives to participate; these groups then invited other collectives to join them. Most of the participating artists are from the Global South, with some participants from Europe and the United States.
In January, a protest group called the Kassel Alliance Against Antisemitism accused ruangrupa of supporting boycotts of Israel and also questioned the inclusion in the exhibit of a Palestinian art collective called La issue of funding, who the alliance said were also boycott sympathizers. Soon, German newspaper columnists and politicians picked up on these concerns.
In May, Felix Klein, the German government official in charge of the fight against anti-Semitism, criticized the lack of Israeli artists in Documenta’s programming. The same month, intruders sprayed graffiti in the exhibition space which was to host the work of The Question of Funding.
During previews of the exhibit last week, when journalists and art-world insiders peeked into the exhibit, the debate over anti-Semitism seemed to have receded. But the question arose again during the event’s opening ceremony on Saturday, when German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier mentioned it several times in a speech. “I want to be honest: I wasn’t sure for the past few weeks if I would be here with you today,” he said. Artistic freedom was at the heart of the German constitution, he added, and criticism of the Israeli government was permitted. But, he added, it is “striking that no Jewish artist from Israel is represented at this important exhibition of contemporary art.”
Steinmeier didn’t mention “People’s Justice,” which hadn’t been installed until Friday, the last day of the Documenta preview. Yet, just two days later, he was at the center of the debate.
The pressure on Documenta’s organizers is unlikely to end with the removal of the work. Charlotte Knobloch, former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that “anti-Semitism was not taken seriously as an issue in the run-up to the event,” and that more action was also needed at the exhibition. Sabine Schormann, Documenta’s chief executive, should step down, Knobloch said, and the wider organization should engage in “introspection.”
Documenta organizers ruangrupa and Taring Padi said through a spokeswoman they were not immediately available for comment.
On Tuesday, Roth, Germany’s culture minister, said in a statement that removing the painting was “only the first step”, adding that there must be “further consequences: it must be clarified how it has It was possible that this mural with anti-Semitic images was installed there. »
Documenta organizers and curators should “immediately verify” that there are no other anti-Semitic images in the other works on display, Roth added. “The protection of human dignity, the protection against anti-Semitism, against racism and any form of inhumanity is the basis of our coexistence,” she said.
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