Documenta takes down art after accusations of anti-Semitism

Even before Documenta opened on Saturday in Kassel, Germany, there was much controversy over the contemporary art exhibit’s inclusion of artists criticizing Israel. Now, just four days after the 100-day show, which runs until Sept. 16, organizers said on Tuesday they would remove a work that “provokes anti-Semitic readings” following an outcry from lawmakers and diplomats.

That piece, a nearly 60-meter-long painted banner called “People’s Justice,” was created in 2002 by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, when its members included activists who had fought under Indonesia’s military dictatorship. Hundreds of individual figures are involved in the bustling, cartoonish depiction of political resistance on the banner.

Two of those 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 with a Nazi emblem on it. The other was a pig-headed soldier wearing a Star of David tie cloth and a helmet with ‘Mossad’, the name of the Israeli security service, written on it. (Other figures in the work were identified as members of intelligence services, including British agency MI5 and the KGB)

Israeli Embassy in Germany said: in a series of tweets that Documenta promoted “Goebbels-style propaganda”—a reference to the Nazi’s foremost propagandist. Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, said in: posted a statement on social media“In my opinion, this is anti-Semitic metaphor.”

“This is where artistic freedom finds its limits,” she added. Within hours of those comments, Documenta had covered the work with sheets of black cloth.

Taring Padi said: in a press release Documenta organizers said Monday that the work was “not intended to be associated in any way with anti-Semitism” and that it was “saddened that details in this banner are misunderstood from its original purpose.” The work was a commentary on the “militarism and violence” Indonesians have experienced during Suharto’s 32-year dictatorship, which ended in 1998the collective said. “We apologize for the pain caused,” Taring Padi added. “There is no record in our work that aims to portray ethnic groups in a negative way.”

But Documenta’s decision to hide “Public Justice” failed to draw a line under the controversy, which swirled on social media, radio and television on Tuesday. The exhibition’s supervisory board, including the mayor of Kassel, Christian Geselle, met and decided to remove the artwork, according to a late afternoon press release of the city government.

Documenta is held every five years and 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 composed by ruangrupa, another Indonesian art collective. Ruangrupa invited 14 other artist collectives to participate; those groups then invited other collectives to join. Most of the participating artists come from the South, with few participants from Europe and the United States.

In January, a protest group, the Alliance Against Antisemitism Kassel, accused ruangrupa of supporting the boycott of Israel, and also questioned the inclusion in the exhibition of a Palestinian art collective called The Question of Funding, which the alliance said also includes supporters of were the boycott. German newspaper columnists and politicians soon picked up on those concerns.

In May, Felix Klein, the official in the German government responsible for combating anti-Semitism, criticized the lack of Israeli performers in the Documenta series. same month, intruders sprayed graffiti in the exhibition space that was slated to host The Question of Funding’s work.

During the preview days of the exhibition last week, as journalists and art insiders watch the show, the debate over anti-Semitism seemed to have dwindled. But the issue came up again on Saturday at the opening ceremony of the event, when Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier mentioned it repeatedly in a speech† “I want to be honest, I wasn’t sure for the past few weeks if I would be with you today,” he said. Artistic freedom was central to the German constitution, he added, and criticism of the Israeli government was allowed. But, he added, it was “remarkable that no Jewish artists from Israel are represented in this important exhibition of contemporary art.”

Steinmeier made no mention of “People’s Justice,” which was only installed on Friday, the last day of the Documenta preview. But just two days later, it was at the center of the debate.

The pressure on Documenta’s organizers is unlikely to end with the work’s removal. Charlotte Knobloch, former chairman 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 leading up to the event,” and that more action was also needed at the exhibition. Documenta director general Sabine Schormann should step down, Knobloch said, and the wider organization should undertake some “soul research.”

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 the removal of the painting was “just the first step”, adding that there must be “further consequences: it must be clarified how it was possible that this mural with antisemitic images installed there.”

Documenta’s organizers and curators should “check immediately” that there were no other anti-Semitic images in other works on display, Roth added. “The protection of human dignity, the protection against anti-Semitism, racism and all forms of inhumanity is the basis of our coexistence,” she said.

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