August 10, 2022

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The major scandal in one of the most important events in the art world

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Fifteenth Edition of document, one of the world’s most important contemporary art fairs that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, and was the subject of much controversy a few days after it opened to the public, due to a work containing representations considered anti-Semitic. Covering it initially, four days after the opening – which happened last June 18 – organizers removed the disputed work from Friedrichsplatz, one of Kassel’s main public squares, and One month later, General Manager Sabine Schuurmann resigned.

authorized people’s justiceThe work is an eight by twelve meter banner designed in 2002 by a group of Indonesian artists, Taring Padi. It depicts Indonesian political life as a great battle between the oppressed – represented by an army led by Suharto, Indonesian dictator from 1967 to 1998 – and the oppressed people. Also appearing among the ranks of the oppressors are some cartoons, including a Jewish character – with a black hat and housesthe distinctive braids in front of the ears – depicted with bloodshot eyes, sharp teeth and the SS symbol on the hat.

Not far away, along with a series of characters marked as members of the CIA, MI5 and KGB, and all foreign intelligence agencies accused of aiding the Suharto regime, a character in uniform is represented with a pig’s face, a red-necked handkerchief centered with a Star of David and the Mossad inscription (Israeli intelligence) on the helmet.

The details of the sign are disputed. (Thomas Lounis/Getty Images)

When the photos of the two characters were published on social media, a lot of accusations and criticism arrived on Documenta. German Culture Minister Claudia Roth issued a statement claiming that, in her opinion, it was her proposal people’s justice It was an anti-Semitic fiction, arguing that the limits of artistic freedom had been crossed, while many Jewish associations and part of German politics promptly demanded Schuermann’s resignation.

The first reaction of the organizers and authors was to cover the critical work with a black cloth with the addition of explanatory text. In this first press release, Taring Padi underlined his regret at the fact that the details of the work had been misunderstood in relation to the original purpose, and, in apology for the pain it had caused, announced that he had decided to cover it up and thus make it become a “monumental memorial of the impossibility of dialogue at this time”.

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The ad ended with a comment in which Schurmann stated that his role was not, and cannot be, to verify in advance the content of the works on display.

Sabine Schuermann, former director of Documenta. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

A day later, a second press release signed by Scheuermann, in agreement with the Art Department and the artists, announced the withdrawal of the work from the gallery. In a third statement, Scheuermann reported further corrective action in cooperation with the Anne Frank Education Center in Frankfurt, claiming that he was “not in charge of the technical programme, but responsible for giving the technical direction the technical freedom to implement”. .

The artistic direction of Documenta 15 was in fact entrusted to Ruangrupa, a group of Indonesian artists, who justified himself stating that “The truth is that we collectively have not been able to identify the character in the work, a character that evokes classic anti-Semitism stereotypes. We understand that This was our mistake.” On the other hand, the banner artists defended themselves by saying that they “described the involvement of the government of the State of Israel.” [nella dittatura di Suharto] wrong way “.

Documenta’s opening was preceded by 15 other accusations of anti-Semitism regarding the exhibition’s supporting lecture program. Joseph Schuster, President Central Council of Jewsa representative body of German Jews, had criticized the option of including a discussion on racism against Palestinians.

The program itself was designed to respond to further allegations of anti-Semitism involving some Palestinian artists. A blog post called Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel The Palestinian artist group The Funding Question has accused the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, the Boycott of the State of Israel movement, and denounced the absence of Israeli artists from the show. German newspapers immediately picked up the publication and published it. According to the organizers, the accusations are unfounded, but in May the program was suspended, as many speakers abandoned participation for fear of censorship.

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The German press determined what happened “The biggest cultural and political disaster in Documenta’s history” And the “weakening the documenta positionThe controversy prompted the German federal government to demand more control over the contents of the five-year fair, which is funded mostly from public, local and federal funds.

Business kicks off at Documenta 15. (Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images)

Since its founding in 1955, when it attracted 130,000 visitors, Documenta has continued to grow in size, funds, and audience, reaching nearly one million visitors in the last two editions. The budget has also been gradually increased to 42 million euros in this edition. The Documenta is one of the two essential events for contemporary art, equal only to the Venice Biennale. But unlike the Biennale, the Documenta is held every five years. Thanks to this extension over time, the Kassel Gallery has been separated from recognition of recent trends in contemporary art and has established itself as a venue for innovative artistic proposals.

The curators selected to administer Documenta often work on an experimental approach. For the first time this year, direction was entrusted to a group of artists who have worked collectively since 2000 in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, under the name Ruangrupa. The exhibition starts with an idea pain, an Indonesian term referring to a rice field in which surplus production is divided equally among the members of the community. This production model was applied to the gallery organization in Kassel, which was based on the practice of sharing and redistributing economic resources, on collaboration between artists and on the concept of the common good.

Based on this model, Ruangrupa initially called 14 other “collectives”, which are groups of artists who work collaboratively and come together under one name. Each of these groups, in turn, invited their own group of artists to participate. Then these new artists invited more artists. The result of this participatory and open process, according to Ruangrupa member Fred Raccoon, is that the number of participating artists runs into the thousands. “It’s completely uncontrollable,” Raccoon said in an interview. “And that’s fine, we don’t want to check.”

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On July 8, German gallery celebrity artist Hetto Sterle announced that she was withdrawing her work from Documenta 15. “I don’t believe in the organization’s ability to mediate and translate complexities,” he wrote. On the same day, the director of the Anne Frank Education Center, Myron Mendel, who was supposed to implement the reform program, resigned from his role as advisor to Documenta 15. Interview with the weekly SpiegelMendel denounced the lack of “honest dialogue” about anti-Semitism, arguing that neither an in-depth dialogue with Ruangrupa nor a large-scale investigation of anti-Semitism took place in this year’s edition.

In a statement issued a few days before his resignation, Schurmann responded to the criticism by writing: “The art direction and the 1,500 artists now fear censorship already in January after accusations of anti-Semitism, which is why they dismissed a jury of outside experts. They saw themselves as suspects and vilified and threatened in part because of their origin, skin color, religion or sexual orientation.”

Schurmann continued: «In this context, the renewed demand by the media and politics for an examination of the exhibition by an external panel of experts with decision-making powers has not only led to disagreements with the professor. Meron Mendel, but it also put a strain on the trust relationship with Ruangrupas and the participating artists.”

The former director concluded his speech by explaining that the importance of Documenta is based on its ability to look into the future not only in the field of art, but also in social issues, and emphasized how this is possible “because for decades it has been guaranteed artistic freedom for artistic directors and participating artists ».

Sabato Documenta issued a press release announcing the conclusion of Schormann’s contract as general manager. But the controversy did not stop the flow of visitors, on the contrary: according to the data on July 13, the revenue from ticket sales at the end of June 2022 was higher than in the previous two editions.