Documenta demolished art after accusations of anti-Semitism

Even before Documenta opened on Saturday in Kassel, Germany, the famous contemporary art exhibition has sparked controversy over the inclusion of artists who have criticized Israel. Now, just four days after the 100-day show, which runs through September. 16, organizers said Tuesday they would remove a work that “triggers anti-Semitic readings” following protests from lawmakers and diplomats.

This piece, a nearly 60-foot-long painted flag called “People’s Justice,” was created by the Indonesian band Taring Paddy in 2002, when its members included activists fighting under Indonesia’s military dictatorship. The loaded, cartoon-like image of the banner’s political resistance includes hundreds of individual figures.

Two of the figures sparked outrage on Monday after photos of them were circulated on social media. One was a man with side locks and teeth, wearing a hat decorated with a Nazi emblem. The other was a soldier with a pig’s head, wearing a handkerchief with a Star of David and a helmet with the words “Mossad” written on it, the name of the Israeli security service. (Other figures in the work have been identified as members of the intelligence forces, including the British agency MI5 and the KGB)

This was announced by the Israeli Embassy in Germany in a series of tweets that Documenta promotes “Goebbels-style propaganda” – a reference to the main Nazi propagandist. This was stated by the German Minister of Culture Claudia Roth statement posted on social media“I think it’s an anti-Semitic image.”

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

Said Taring Paddy in a news release published by the organizers of Documenta on Monday that the work “is not intended to be in any way related to anti-Semitism” and is “sad that the details in this banner are understood differently from its original purpose”. The work was a commentary on the “militarism and violence” that Indonesians experienced during Suharto’s 32-year dictatorship, which ended in 1998, said the team. “We apologize for the pain,” Taring Paddy added. “There is no record in our work that aims to portray any ethnic groups in a negative way.”

But Documenta’s decision to cover up “People’s Justice” failed to put an end to the controversy that erupted throughout Tuesday on social media, radio and television. The supervisory board of the exhibition, which includes Kassel Mayor Christian Gesell, met and decided to remove the work of art, according to a report in the late afternoon by city officials.

Held every five years, Documenta is considered one of the most important events in the art world, rivaling only the Venice Biennale. This year is the 15th edition curated by ruangrupa, another Indonesian art group. Ruangrupa invited 14 other artistic groups to take part; these groups then invited other groups to join. Most of the participating artists are from the global south, with few participants from Europe and the United States.

In January, a protest group called the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism, Kassel, accused the Rwangroup of supporting a boycott of Israel, and also questioned the inclusion in an exhibition of a Palestinian art group called The Question of Funding, which the alliance says supports the boycott. Colonists and politicians in German newspapers soon raised these concerns.

In May, Felix Klein, a German government official responsible for fighting anti-Semitism, criticized the lack of Israeli artists on Documenta. the same month intruders sprayed graffiti in the exhibition space who was to host the work of The Question of Funding.

Until the preview days of the exhibition last week, when journalists and artists from the art world watched the show, the debate on anti-Semitism seemed to have receded. But the issue raised the head of the opening ceremony again on Saturday, when German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier he mentions it many times in his speech. “I want to be honest: for the last few weeks, I wasn’t sure if I would be here with you today,” he said. Artistic freedom is at the heart of Germany’s constitution, he added, and criticism of the Israeli government is allowed. But, he added, “it is striking that this important exhibition of contemporary art does not feature Jewish artists from Israel.”

Steinmeier did not mention “People’s Justice”, which was installed only on Friday, the last day of the Documenta review. But just two days later, he was at the center of the debate.

The pressure on the organizers of Documenta is unlikely to end with the removal of the work. Charlotte Knobloch, a former president of Germany’s Central Jewish Council, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that “anti-Semitism was not taken seriously as a problem on the eve of the event” and more action is needed at the exhibition. Sabine Schormann, CEO of Documenta, must resign, Knobloch said, and the wider organization must undertake some “soul-searching.”

Organizers of Documenta, Rwangrupa and Taring Paddy, told a spokeswoman they were not immediately available for comment.

On Tuesday, Roth, Germany’s culture minister, said in a statement that removing the painting was “only the first step”, adding that there should be “further consequences: it should be clear how this mural with anti-Semitic images could be installed there. ”

Documenta organizers and curators must “immediately check” for other anti-Semitic images in other exhibited works, Roth added. “The protection of human dignity, the protection against anti-Semitism, against racism and all forms of inhumanity is the basis of our coexistence,” she said.

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