Documenta 15, this year’s edition of the famed art show that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, was initially greeted with a mix of faint praise and confusion when it opened last month. Then things took a turn for the worse when, just as the 100-day show began welcoming the public, a controversy began over a large-scale, outdoor mural that featured anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews.
Though the mural was swiftly removed by Documenta, the scandal surrounding it has lingered on at the exhibition. German politicians have dug into Documenta, questioning how the work made it on view, and the show could potentially receive less state funding for future iterations as a result. Meanwhile, others have bemoaned a lack of dialogue amid the controversy, and one exhibiting artist even pulled her work.
The bitter discussion surrounding allegations of anti-Semitism at Documenta 15, which has its roots in a separate but related debacle involving misinformation published in leading German publications surrounding a Palestinian collective, shows no sign of slowing down. But how did it all begin, and where does Documenta go from here?
Below is a guide to the allegations of anti-Semitism at Documenta 15. To learn more about the history of Documenta, read the ARTnews Documenta explainer.
What has been the main controversy so far?
In the days after Documenta’s opening, one work immediately generated a windfall of controversy. Taring Padi’s People’s Justice (2002) is a towering piece that appeared in the Friedrichsplatz, one of Documenta’s most prominent venues and a central town square of Kassel. The 26-foot-tall mural is an epic depiction of various historical events in Indonesia, where the collective hails from. Created 20 years ago for the 2002 South Australian Art Festival in Adelaide, the work charts a period of Indonesian history spanning from the 1960s to the turn of the century. It was unlike others presented in this edition of Documenta as it was not a newly commissioned project.
One particular focus of the mural is the genocide of 1965, in which hundreds of thousands of Communists, leftists, Gerwani women, Chinese people, Javanese Abangan people, and more were murdered by state-operated forces. The mural alludes to some historians’ claims that Israeli intelligence helped the regime of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, conduct the genocide. The genocide ultimately gave way to a coup that led to the rise of Suharto, who held a dictatorship in the country for over 30 years, until his resignation in 1998, the year that Taring Padi formed.
In one area, there is an image of a Mossad soldier who is depicted with a pig’s head and wearing a Star of David on his scarf. There is also a Jew who is shown with sidelocks, a hat with SS symbols, and a cigar, evoking a fusion of Nazism and anti-Semitic stereotypes.
How did this work go on view?
Ruangrupa, the Indonesian collective that curated Documenta 15, has faced scrutiny because some have claimed they have not been transparent enough about their curatorial process. Instead of one curator and a related team choosing all the art that goes on view, as is often the case at European biennials like Documenta, ruangrupa instead ceded power to a group of collectives that were chosen to help come up with an artist list. In turn, those selected collectives then invited additional artists, resulting in an artist that runs over 1,000 participants. Ahead of the exhibition’s opening, Documenta said it would not enact a review process for selected artists or the works they would be presenting because it wanted to offer the greatest possible artistic freedom.
Taring Padi appears to have been chosen by ruangrupa, however, as the former collective made the initial artist list of people who then were entrusted with picking more participants. Taring Padi’s work also appears in several other Documenta venues, including the Hallenblad Ost, a former indoor swimming pool.
Several of Taring Padi’s other works were well-received during the professional preview days, but much of the international press did not see People’s Justice, which was not fully installed in Friedrichsplatz until the first public day of the exhibition.
What was the response to the Taring Padi piece?
Almost as soon as the piece went up, pictures of the anti-Semitic imagery made their way around social media, and a wide-scale outcry ensued. Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, began to call for the removal of the imagery, writing, “I’ll say it again: human dignity, protection against anti-Semitism, racism and misanthropy are the foundations of our coexistence and this is where artistic freedom finds its limits.” The Israeli embassy in Germany called the piece “Goebbels-style propaganda,” a reference to the Nazi Party’s chief propagandist.
How did Documenta respond to the controversy?
Several days after its installation, the Taring Padi mural was covered over with a black fabric. The following day, Documenta said it had made the decision to take away the mural altogether. Taring Padi said the work was not supposed to be anti-Semitic, adding, “This work then becomes a monument of mourning for the impossibility of dialogue at this moment. This monument, we hope, will be the starting point for a new dialogue.” Taring Padi apologized for the work and, in a follow-up statement, later admitted that depicting the anti-Semitic imagery was a “mistake.”
What has ruangrupa said about the Taring Padi mural?
Several days after the work was removed, Documenta posted a statement that was attributed to ruangrupa and the artistic team. “The truth of the matter is that we collectively failed to spot the figure in the work, which is a character that evokes classical stereotypes of antisemitism,” the statement read. “We acknowledge that this was our error.”
Some claimed that ruangrupa had waited too long to respond, given that Sabine Schormann, Documenta’s head at the time who resigned this month in the wake of the controversies, had posted her own statement almost immediately after the work was taken down. Certain German publications also questioned whether ruangrupa had been transparent enough. Part of ruangrupa’s vision for Documenta 15 involved enlisting other collectives to help tap participants, and there have been few publicly released specifics regarding whether there was a formal review process conducted at any point.
What did German politicians make of Documenta’s response to the Taring Padi controversy?
A number of German politicians called for greater action on Documenta’s part, even after the Taring Padi mural was removed. Roth, the culture minister, offered a five-point plan for how Documenta should change behind the scenes and said that following these suggested reforms was a “prerequisite for future federal funding.” Others called for greater governmental control of Documenta, with Boris Rhein, the Prime Minister of Germany’s Hesse state, where Kassel is located, demanding an investigation into the show.
Have there been other controversies surrounding Documenta 15?
Starting in January, six months ahead of the show’s opening, activist groups in Germany scrutinized the inclusion of the Palestinian collective the Question of Funding. The Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel issued a press release in which it decried the “involvement of anti-Israeli activists” in this year’s Documenta. (Some have disputed that the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel can be classified as a group. HNA, a Kassel-based publication, has reported that it only numbers six people that identify as anti-Germans, or splinter leftists who militantly support Israel and are opposed to German nationalism. One member told HNA that he is an “opponent of the Islamic religion, but not in a racist sense.”)
The Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel focused on both the collective and the Ramallah-based Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, which had been involved in ruangrupa’s initial curating stages. The Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel accused members of the Question of Funding and the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center of supporting the pro-Palestine movement Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, which calls for action against Israel and has been particularly controversial in Germany. Later on, other groups would claim it was also anti-Semitic that there were Palestinian artists in Documenta 15 but no Israeli ones. The final artist list ran to 1,500 participants, and ruangrupa said that among them were Israeli artists, though it did not identify them.
No one involved with the Question of Funding or the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center had made public statements saying they agreed with BDS, but German publications ran with the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel’s words as if they were factual. “Does Documenta have an anti-Semitism problem?” asked Die Zeit in an opinion piece months before the Taring Padi controversy happened.
How did Documenta respond to the controversy over the Question of Funding?
Almost as soon as Die Zeit published its op-ed, Documenta denied that it was anti-Semitic. “documenta fifteen will deal intensively with the criticism,” the show said. Roth, Germany’s culture minister, stood up for Documenta at the time, defending “artistic freedom” for people from all countries while also decrying anti-Semitism.
In the ensuing months, as the clamor grew louder, Documenta said it would host an event called “We need to talk!,” which would convene artists and scholars for a series of discussions on anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism, and more. In May, just before the series was to start, Documenta canceled the talks, saying that it planned to let the exhibition “speak for itself.”
In July, after the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that an unnamed São Paulo–based Jewish collective had been disinvited from the curatorial team amid “protests from participants close to Palestine,” the Casa do Povo center released its own statement addressing “rumors” that it was the organization in question. The group defended ruangrupa and Documenta 15 and said they had only had early-stage conversations that were derailed by the pandemic. “Why would a supposedly antisemitic curatorial team work with us?” Casa do Povo asked.
What did ruangrupa say about the Question of Funding controversy?
The collective did not make a statement about the Question of Funding controversy until after “We need to talk!” was canceled in May. It called the anti-Semitism allegations “bad-faith attempts to delegitimize artists and preventively censor them on the basis of their ethnic heritage and presumed political positions.” Ruangrupa also said that this culture of delegitimization “primarily affects people from the Global South and especially from the Middle East and has led to censorship.”
Have there been any incidents involving the Question of Funding’s participation?
Several weeks after ruangrupa issued its statement on the platform e-flux, the Question of Funding’s exhibition space was vandalized with spray-painted messages reading “187” and “Peralta.” The former is believed to be a reference to the portion of the California penal code defining murder that has gained traction beyond the U.S., while the latter is an allusion to Isabel Medina Peralta, a figure associated with the alt-right in Spain who has made anti-Semitic speeches. Documenta condemned the attack.
Many artists who were participating in Documenta signed a statement in which they went one step further, saying that they believed the vandalism was meant as a death threat. They called the vandalism “racist” and denounced “media participation in these smear campaigns.”
Have there been any changes at Documenta?
As of mid-July, just one artist has pulled out of the show: Hito Steyerl, who was presenting a video as part of the collective INLAND. Decrying “unsafe and underpaid working conditions for some of the staff” and a lack of control over the situation involving the Taring Padi mural, Steyerl said in a statement to Die Zeit, “I have no faith in the organization’s ability to mediate and translate complexity.”
On the same day in June that Steyerl took her work out of the show, Meron Mendel, head of the Anne Frank Educational Institute in Frankfurt and an adviser to Documenta 15, cut ties with the exhibition. He said an “honest dialogue” about the anti-Semitism controversy had become difficult. Documenta called his departure “surprising.”
In July, about a month after the Taring Padi work was removed, Schormann, the head of Documenta, “mutually agreed” with the board to leave her post. “A lot of trust has unfortunately been lost,” the board said in a statement announcing her departure. Alexander Farenholtz, who headed up Documenta in 1989, was installed in her place as an interim replacement.
Will there be an investigation into whether artworks contain anti-Semitic imagery?
Farenholtz said he did not plan to conduct a full-scale inquiry of this kind. But certain politicians and German Jewish groups began resurfacing demands for one in late July after a new controversy bubbled up at Documenta.
The new allegations concerned the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie, an Algerian women’s collective, which was exhibiting a 1988 brochure focused on political strife in Palestine. That brochure contains images of Israeli soldiers with Stars of David; one of which is rendered like a monkey and is shown being kneed by a woman. German Jewish groups called for the works to be removed, as did officials from the city of Kassel and the state of Hesse. Documenta said it had previously reviewed the work. A Documenta spokesperson told Die Welt that the image in question was “a clear reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but no illustrations of Jews as such.”
What has the response been to the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie controversy?
Neither Documenta nor the collective itself has responded to the allegations of anti-Semitism. The collective was, however, a signatory of a letter that had been sent to Documenta’s leadership in mid-July and was published on e-flux later on. In that letter, the artists decried Documenta’s alleged censorship of works like the brochure being exhibited by the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie, and also called for an official statement about alleged instances of racism and violence perpetrated against Documenta participants since the show opened. The signatories of the letter, which also included ruangrupa itself, accused Documenta of “structural racism and neglect.”
Update, 7/28/22, 2:00 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify details surrounding the nature of the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel and to add context around the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie controversy.