Roughly four months after its most recent edition ended, Documenta has released a final report on the repeated allegations of anti-Semitism that plagued the storied German art show’s 2022 exhibition. Reiterating claims made while the show was still on view, the scientific committee accused the curators and certain artists of exhibiting a clear anti-Semitic bias through works that promoted stereotypes and a negative view of Israel.
The 133-page report, released to the public on Monday only in a German-language version, was penned by what Documenta termed a “scientific advisory panel,” or a group of experts on art, anti-Semitism, colonialism, and law.
The report attempted to provide objective evidence of anti-Semitism in some works by making a formal analysis of certain pieces, exploring the history of the Jews and Israel, and considering the response to pushback by those involved with Documenta 15. Its ultimate conclusion was a damning one: Documenta 15 became “an echo chamber for Israel-related anti-Semitism, and sometimes for pure anti-Semitism.”
“Documenta’s hesitant response to cases of anti-Semitism was disturbing to many Jewish citizens and organizations,” the report says. “For Jews, anti-Semitic incidents are not a purely discursive phenomenon, but they threaten their participation in society, their security and their future in Germany as the country of the Shoah.”
Past declarations by the panel have been contested by the curators of Documenta 15, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, and the artists they selected, many of whom were from the Global South. In a prior statement in which they claimed the experts had a sense of “eurocentric superiority,” the curators and around 65 participating artists said, “because we stand by our rejection of censorship, we vigorously opposed the creation of this scientific advisory panel.”
A significant number of people in the international art world have fallen on ruangrupa’s side, claiming that Documenta 15’s detractors were placing undue pressure on a show that, because of its focus on the Global South, was quite unlike any other major European biennial ever mounted. Accusations of racism and censorship were hurled at the panel by artists involved and international critics. Some have even cast doubt on how the German show, which takes place once every five years in Kassel, can persist in its current form.
The scientific advisory panel largely sidestepped the allegations of racism, however, writing, “the racist undertones of some of the criticism of ruangrupa, which we can also perceive, deserve their own academic workup, which has to be done elsewhere. The relationship between anti-Semitism and postcolonial criticism, which has once again become the focus of public debate in the debate about the documenta, requires a more open and objective discussion than the local public is currently able to deliver. Panel members will participate in these debates, but not in this report.”
Artworks That ‘Delegitimize Israel’
The anti-Semitism controversy began before Documenta 15 even opened due to the inclusion of a Palestinian collective, which some Jewish groups alleged was emblematic of an anti-Israel stance. Then, on opening week, a work by Indonesian art collective Taring Padi containing an image of a man with sidelocks was bitterly decried and then ultimately removed. Some criticized that artist group and Documenta for its sluggishness to respond, an allegation that the scientific advisory panel repeated in its final report.
The panel focused its attention on the Taring Padi piece, a 26-foot-tall mural called People’s Justice, as well as three other bodies of work: a group of pro-Palestine films known as the Tokyo Reels that were exhibited by Subversive Film, Mohammed Al-Hawajri’s “Guernica Gaza” series, and materials presented by the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie.
“It is striking that all works dealing with the Middle East unilaterally represent an anti-Israel position and Jews are never portrayed as people who were and are exposed to threats and persecution,” the report says.
Each body of work was placed under the microscope, with the report’s authors attempting to inscribe what they described as stereotyped imagery within the larger history of anti-Semitism across the centuries. At one point, there is a lengthy discussion of the anti-Semitic caricatures that Taring Padi drew on in its work.
But the primary focus of the section on the art itself, which constitutes about a third of the report, is the view that these artists placed too great an emphasis on Israel’s role in various colonial conflicts, a perspective that the report said could contribute to further anti-Semitism.
The Taring Padi work, for example, makes an allusion to Mossad, a reference to Israel’s connections to Indonesia’s brutal Suharto regime, which have been documented previously by historians. Yet the report’s authors claimed that other countries had far greater engagement with that violent dictatorship and that seeking to highlight Israel’s involvement “falls into a well-known anti-Semitic pattern: namely, the grossly exaggerating the Jewish share in furthering the world’s political and economic ills.”
Similar accusations were made against the Tokyo Reels, which “delegitimize Israel’s existence on the one hand and advocate violence against Israel on the other,” per the report. (The scientific advisory panel had formerly called on Documenta to pull the Tokyo Reels from the show, but the exhibition’s organizers advisers kept them on view.) The “Guernica Gaza” pieces, which drew on anti-war artworks such as Picasso’s Guernica and instances of violence in the Gaza Strip, are accused of attempting to “propagate the Manichaean notion that Jews are deeply evil and their victims thoroughly innocent.” And the Archives works are said to enlist potentially harmful images associated with Israel without proper “contextualization of the pictorial elements reconstructed as anti-Semitic.”
An ‘Innovative’ but Problematic Framework
Reports such as the one put out by the scientific panel today are virtually unprecedented, both within the history of Documenta and the history of biennials across the globe. For that reason, it is likely to be pored over by many art professionals across the globe.
The report seemed to decry a current way of working at major biennials that was utilized by ruangrupa for Documenta 15 and is growing increasingly popular. Soon after ruangrupa was picked to curate Documenta 15, they announced a group of collectives that would pick other artists’ groups. Those groups were then allowed to bring on artists of their own, making for a show that grew so sprawling, it is believed to have included well over 1,000 participants, almost all of whom did not make the initial artist list.
The concept, the report says, was “innovative,” and it led to a globalist vibe that could also be glimpsed this year at the Venice Biennale, the Biennale de Lyon, the Istanbul Biennial, and Manifesta in Prishtina, Kosovo, according to the panel. Yet, the panel said, this expanded, decentralized view still did not seem to reflect everyone’s perspective at Documenta 15.
“Ultimately, Ruangrupa did not live up to their own ‘de-colonial’ claim: to sharpen the view of the untold micro-histories of the world and to approach their complexity through multiplied, open collective structures like in a snowball principle,” the panel wrote, acknowledging that Documenta and its supervisory board should have done more to support a group whose members “do not appear to have been adequately prepared” for the firestorm that the exhibition weathered.
The panel advocated for a firmer, more centralized authority at Documenta and greater limits being placed on curators going forward. (A curator has not yet been named for Documenta 16 in 2027.) It also demanded more transparency in future editions.
In a statement, Christian Geselle and Angela Dorn, the chairman and deputy member of Documenta’s supervisory board, respectively, called the panel’s report “a well-founded and in-depth analysis of the events that have shaken documenta fifteen.”