A censorship scandal sweeps through Documenta 15, overshadows the work of art and calls the future of the German exhibition into question.
BY RYAN WADDOUPS
July 20, 2022
Artistic expression has been censored throughout history, and today is no different. Almost 90 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that actively seek to restrict civil liberties, including freedom of expression. The latest censorship issue to stir the art world is underway in Germany. The 15th edition of Documenta, the biannual exhibition rivaling the Venice Biennale in prestige, was meant to be unbound – and friendly.
The curators, the Indonesian collective Ruangrupa, designed this year’s edition after the ‘lumbung’ (a collective rice storage), an environment that promotes ‘nongkrong’ (the fine art of hanging out). These laid-back sensibilities inform the documenta program: visitors can cook with Bangladesh-based Britto Arts Trust, take part in flag-making workshops with Argentine screenprinting collective Serigrafistas Queer, or brush up on Moroccan cinema courtesy of Marrakech-based artist group Le 18 in the screening area . By inviting 67 artists to participate, many from the Global South and infused with other collectives, Ruangrupa’s decentralized curatorial strategy aimed to facilitate dialogue on social and political issues.
This vision should be successful – the New York Times even described Documenta 15 as “a whole mood” – until allegations of anti-Semitism embroiled the show in a scandal. In January, the Bündnis gegen Antisemitismus Kassel protest group accused Ruangrupa of supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, which the German Bundestag declared anti-Semitic, and said it also includes the Palestinian art collective The Question of Funding, which reportedly also has the movement supports boycott.
German newspapers were quick to pick up on the anti-Semitism allegations, in a manner that Ruangrupa described as “uncritical and in disregard of basic journalistic standards.” The collective continues: “The fact that this falsification of history in the name of the suppression and censorship of freedom of expression was so carelessly adopted in the name of Germany’s special ‘historical responsibility’ is not without a certain irony. The consequences are extremely serious and reveal the dangerous proximity between German ignorance of history and racist slander.”
The crisis escalated when, shortly after the opening of Documenta on June 18, an artwork suspected of containing anti-Semitic imagery was erected, covered up and removed. popular justice (2002) by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi features caricature-like depictions of militants of Indonesia’s Suharto dictatorship, including a pig-headed military figure wearing a Star of David neckerchief and a helmet reading “Mossad,” the name of the Israel Security Agency Service.
Although Taring Padi has apologized, they were forceful in their rebuttal, stating that their play depicts the injustices of Western powers after the Korean and Vietnam wars against the soon-to-be dictator Suharto Coup emboldened Indonesia’s “former colonizers” and other western democracies. They note that the artwork was created in 2002, shortly after some of their friends were killed during the 1998 uprising that toppled Suharto’s rule, and that it also depicts intelligence agencies from other countries.
“The banner grew out of our struggles under Suharto’s military dictatorship, where violence, exploitation and censorship were commonplace,” Taring Padi said in a statement. “Like all of our artwork, the banner seeks to uncover the complex power relations behind these injustices and the erasure of public memory of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, which killed more than 500,000 people.”
“The imagery of popular justice depicts these inner and outer forces in a pictorial setting, attempting to capture the complex historical circumstances through an imagery that is as disturbing as the reality of the violence itself,” continued Taring Padi. “popular justice was painted nearly 20 years ago and expresses our disappointment, frustration and anger as politicized art students who also lost many of our friends in the street fighting of the 1998 popular uprising that eventually led to the dictator’s downfall.”
Minister of Education Claudia Roth condemned the work of art as anti-Semitic. In the meantime, she has put on record that the Documenta needs a “fundamental structural reform” in order to secure funding from the federal government in the future. The exhibition was to be screened for other potentially anti-Semitic works with the help of Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank Education Center in Frankfurt, who shortly afterwards resigned from the documenta role because he claimed there was no “honest dialogue” about anti -Semitism. Over the weekend, Documenta Director General Sabine Schormann resigned after just 28 days of the exhibition’s 100-day run.
In the days following the allegations, Remko Leemhuis, director of the American Jewish Committee Berlin Lawrence, pointed to the “massive problem” of anti-Semitism in German culture internationally. Still, Documenta 15 is unlikely to be overshadowed by this dispute, and artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl even withdrew her work from the exhibition.
The controversy reignited censorship debates within the art world. It’s a contentious issue – Hong Kong’s newly opened Museum M+ removed three politically-themed works by artists whose views are opposed to mainland China. The island’s status as a semi-autonomous region has cemented it as an art destination, but a 2020 security law that gave Beijing the power to restrict any speech deemed “anti-government” fueled censorship concerns. Political developments have challenged the M+ Museum’s mission to be a cultural bridge between China and the West. Last year, a traveling retrospective of Philip Guston’s paintings depicting members of the Ku Klux Klan sparked a backlash when four institutions decided to postpone the exhibition so that “the message of social and racial justice” could be conveyed in his work ” can be interpreted more clearly”.
As far as Documenta is concerned, it’s obvious why Germany would be hypersensitive to a state-sponsored exhibition of artworks deemed anti-Semitic. His stilted removal suggests organizers may not have had a plan should these issues arise – and seems to contradict Ruangrupa’s ethos of facilitating cultural and political dialogue. As Noam Chomsky once said, “If we don’t believe in free speech for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”