After the anti-Semitism scandal: the Documenta curatorial team apologizes

One of the most prominent works of the last Documenta was the reconstruction of the Kassel NSU murder by the British artist group Forensic Architecture. She recalled what happened in an internet café in 2006 and was never fully explained.

This time, the only thing that stands out is that the pedestrian crossing over the Fulda, which used to be called the “Gitterbrücke”, is named after Walter Lübcke, the district president who was murdered by a right-wing extremist in 2019. It is often crossed by Documenta visitors, because this time there are exhibition sites on both sides of the river.

However, the best-known work of Documenta fifteen can no longer be seen: first covered, then dismantled because it repeats anti-Semitic depictions. For Kassel – the hub of the art world every five years and then only Hessen’s third largest city – this is a bitter punch line.

The curating collective has now apologized in a written statement for the anti-Semitic depictions. “We all failed to detect the anti-Semitic figures in the work,” Ruangrupa wrote on the documenta website on Thursday. “It is our fault. We apologize for the disappointment, shame, frustration, betrayal and shock we have caused to viewers.”

“As we now fully understand, this imagery seamlessly ties into the most horrifying episode in German history, in which Jewish people were attacked and murdered on an unprecedented scale,” Ruangrupa wrote further about the work. “We take this opportunity to educate ourselves on the gruesome past and present of anti-Semitism and are shocked that this character has made it into the work in question.” The banner, made collectively, refers to the “unsolved dark history of Indonesia.”

Anti-Semitic depiction in artwork by Indonesian collective Taring Padi.Photo: AFP/Uwe Zucchi

The collective also thanked them for the “constructive criticism and solidarity”, but also emphasized that they did not feel that they were being treated fairly by others: “We have the feeling that many of the allegations were made against us without an open exchange and mutual learning was sought.” They want to continue the “dialogue with those who have honestly supported us, believed in us”. “We want to continue to engage with the public, visitors and local grassroots initiatives who engage with our work.”

The embarrassment remains: there could have been a critical debate on right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism earlier, and here in particular the opportunity to be the republic’s art showcase for a few weeks was lost.

The federal government also bears responsibility for the disaster

That explains the increasingly shrill tones in the debate, the call for the dismissal of Documenta Director General Sabine Schormann, yes, even of Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth. The federal government finances the documenta to a large extent and bears responsibility as a sponsor.

No wonder that Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz had a spokeswoman for the “Jüdische Allgemeine” report that he would not be coming to the Documenta for the first time in thirty years and that “the said image in Kassel was disgusting”. The Documenta thus depicts Germany, even if it is primarily artists from the Global South that are exhibited.

The withdrawal of the federal government from the supervisory board in 2018 is considered a mistake

Claudia Roth had to react all the faster – finally, after she saw no need for action in the months leading up to the Documenta when the dispute began. The Minister of State for Culture has now conjured up a five-point reform plan ad hoc, according to which the federal government should regain more influence. The withdrawal of the federal government from the supervisory board in 2018 while at the same time retaining federal funding is now considered a “serious mistake”.

From now on, there will only be money if representatives of the federal government are on board. The paper available to the German Press Agency states: “In the future, financial support from the federal government should therefore be linked to direct integration into the structures of the documenta.”

The previous shareholders of the state of Hesse and the city of Kassel are to agree on a different structure. “It has been shown that the responsibility of the documenta, which has primarily been local, is disproportionate to its importance as one of the world’s most important art exhibitions,” the grandees in Hesse and Kassel said.

Meanwhile, Sabine Schormann tries to save what can be saved. She has announced a systematic examination of the works spread across 32 locations as an ongoing accompanying measure, because the processual presentations of the various collectives are constantly changing.

The collective Subversive Film is under suspicion

Among others, Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank educational center in Frankfurt, was invited as an external expert. There will also be a closer look at the contribution of the Ramallah-based collective Subversive Film, which has built an archive of revolutionary films.

The culture commissioner of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Johann Hinrich Claussen, has already noticed Masao Adachi’s propaganda films “from an anti-Israel terrorist context”, which he calls a targeted provocation. You can see them on the Hübner site and in the Gloria cinema, which was closed this week “due to the current developments in connection with the Covid 19 pandemic”, as it was said.

Taring Padi is planning a Javanese purification ritual

According to the program of events, Taring Padi is planning a Javanese cleansing ritual to drive out evil spirits on Saturday at Friedrichsplatz, where her banner used to be. So far, there has been no explanation from the collective about their suspended work.

The curatorial collective Ruangrupa published the apology on the Documenta website in the hope that all would not be in vain. Documenta fifteen is so much more. The next three months have to prove that.

By Editor