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Documenta panel discusses antisemitism

July 1, 2022

Following the controversy surrounding an Indonesian artwork featuring antisemitic imagery that was removed from the international art show, experts came together to discuss antisemitism and art.

A woman holds the flag of Israel in front of a huge artwork on scaffolding.
A woman holds the flag of Israel in front of Taring Padi's controversial work 'People's Justice' before its removalImage: Swen Pförtner/dpa/picture alliance

Documenta panel discusses antisemitism

The documenta, the international art show held every five years in the German city of Kassel, started facing accusations of antisemitism months before the actual event. 

Then antisemitic motifs were discovered in an artwork by Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi at the beginning of the exhibition in mid-June, creating a scandal that led to the removal of the installation.

In order to deal with the issue publicly, the event's nonprofit organization, documenta gGmbH, organized in collaboration with Frankfurt's Anne Frank Educational Center a panel discussion entitled "Antisemitism in Art," which was held on Wednesday in Kassel.

Documenta 15 curators not part of the panel

The panel included Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank Educational Center; Hortensia Völckers, artistic director and member of the board of the Federal Cultural Foundation; Doron Kiesel, scientific director of the education department of the Central Council of Jews in Germany; Nikita Dhawan, professor of political theory and history of ideas at the TU Dresden; and Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel (2017).

Photo of documenta panel on antisemitism
The panelists (l. to r.): Nikita Dhawan, Adam Szymczyk, Doron Kiesel, Hortensia Völckers, Meron Mendel and host Stefan KoldehoffImage: Sabine Kieselbach/documenta

Absent from the debate were the current curators, the Indonesian art collective ruangrupa and documenta director Sabine Schormann.

There was no real discussion between the panelists, nor were there contributions or follow-up questions from the audience.

Ruangrupa member Ade Darmawan did make one short statement during the introduction to the talk: "We are here to learn and to listen."

Hessian Minister of Culture Angela Dorn added that the evening was held as a "sign of dialogue."

People in an exhibition hall with large pieces of art
The rest of the Taring Padi at the documentaImage: Sabine Kieselbach/documenta

Shattered trust

Meron Mendel cited as a major failure problems in communication in the organization, as well as a lack of debate during the preparations for documenta, and sees this as the actual cause for the antisemitism charges against ruangrupa.

Doron Kiesel of the Central Council of Jews in Germany also criticized a lack of communication in the run-up to the event. He and the council saw themselves in a kind of "guardian function," he said. He criticized how Israeli artists were not invited to the Kassel art event. 

Kiesel added that he and the council had been anxious about various issues, including who is on the board of trustees, who makes up the team, and who decides about the art and exhibits. He said they wondered whether anyone had looked behind the scenes.

Kiesel referred to shattered confidence in the ability of society and "certain circles, including those in positions of responsibility" to deal with their own history. Everyone who lives or performs in Germany has to deal with it, he said, including artists from the Global South.

"What happened is what happens in the worst dreams," Kiesel said.

An evil-looking figure on a painting smoking a cigar
This is one detail in the Taring Padi work that sparked the antisemitism controversyImage: Uwe Zucchi/dpa/picture alliance

Overshadowed by post-colonialism

Kiesel argued that an overly uncritical engagement with post-colonialism, as seen in the Taring Padi artwork at documenta 15, promotes antisemitism.

Nikita Dhawan, a political scientist from India who teaches post-colonial studies in the German city of Dresden, stated that she could not talk about racism or colonialism in her seminars "without talking about antisemitism at the same time."

Post-colonialism is the umbrella term for the critical reappraisal of the history of European colonialism in the countries of the Global South. She emphasized that the Global South, too, is sensitive to the issue of antisemitism.

Artistic freedom was another issue addressed by the panel. Adam Sczymczyk, who was responsible for documenta 14 five years ago with locations in Athens and Kassel, opposed stricter supervision. "Regulation is lazy politics," said Dhawan.

Promised reforms never happened

The German government supported this year's show with €3.5 million ($3.7 million).

After the near-bankruptcy of the previous documenta, the government withdrew from the supervisory board, but promised continued financial support.

Hortensia Völckers, a member of the board of the Federal Cultural Foundation, criticized the fact that the supervisory board was not adjusted to regulate responsibilities more clearly, as promised in 2018. The debate about responsibilities is a sham, she said. "It's always easy to say that if we had been on the supervisory board, this wouldn't have happened. I wouldn't have noticed it, either."

Snippet of the Taring Padi artwork reading "Statement: Anti-racis, anti-faci"
The Taring Padi work sought to make various statementsImage: SSabine Kinkarts/DW

Many unanswered questions

Documenta 15 had intended to focus on views from the Global South, to be less Western and rather a world art show. The antisemitism debate, however, shows this is not so easy.

"People have lost their compass," Meron Mendel concluded, adding that it's time for verbal deescalation "so we can finally work on the issue itself."

Nikita Dhawan recalled the words of German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, saying that the best remedy for hate speech, according to Kant, is "counter-speech. Only in the public sphere can enlightenment flourish."

This article was originally written in German.