Writing this from Berlin, I have yet to travel to Kassel to see Documenta, the quinquennial blockbuster of international contemporary art. I haven’t seen the work I’m about to write about, and I won’t get to see it even when I do travel, as it has been removed from the show for being deemed antisemitic. For a work no longer on view, the huge banner People’s Justice by Indonesian art collective Taring Padi has garnered an astonishing amount of German and international press coverage in the last few weeks.
There’s a back story. Opposition to the curatorial decisions of the fifteenth Documenta began back in January, when a far-left blog post drew attention to the fact that no Jewish or Israeli artists were included this year in either Documenta or the Berlin Biennale. It was alleged that Ruangrupa, the Indonesian collective curating this Documenta, supports BDS, a movement calling for international sanctions against Israel. BDS has been labelled antisemitic by the Jewish Council in Germany and is therefore barred from receiving federal funds under German law. This, in turn, fed into a broader dispute led by the AFD, Germany’s right-wing populist political party, which claims that the programming of Germany’s cultural sector is too sympathetic to left-wing ideology. They have been demanding a stop to multicultural programming, in favour of promoting historical German cultural positions.
So the current debacle has played out against a backdrop of already hot controversy. But when People’s Justice was unveiled after Documenta’s official press conference, things really exploded. Whether or not its belated reveal was calculated is unclear. What is clear is that the banner—showing a vast array of political figures depicted as pigs, rats, and dogs—caused immediate outrage. It included a soldier with the face of a pig wearing a Star of David and a helmet inscribed ‘Mossad’, together with an Orthodox Jew wearing a black hat with the SS insignia. It was immediately declared antisemitic. In response, the offending figures were covered over, before the work was removed entirely.
Ruangrupa apologised. They went on to explain that the work was, in fact, directed against the military dictatorship of Suharto, which was in place for thirty- two years in Indonesia and has left a profound legacy in the country. They said it was produced in 1998 and has since been exhibited in various countries, including Australia during the South Australia Festival in 2002, without any suggestion that it was antisemitic.
Arguments and counter-arguments have proliferated in the press and across social media. It has been said that the work attacks the role of various secret-service organisations used to enforce political hegemonies and uses caricatures of KGB and MI5 agents alongside that of the Mossad figure. This view claims the work, when considered as a whole, can’t be considered antisemitic, even if it uses satirical antisemitic details—‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’.
All the back-and-forth has been complicated by the fact that both the curators of the exhibition and the artists behind the work are collectives. This has led to questions about individual responsibility within groups, and whether being part of a group enables responsibility to be dispensed with, rather than shared. As the crisis raged on, Ruangrupa scheduled a panel discussion to address the problems, then abruptly cancelled it. This, in turn, caused the German art star Hito Steyerl to withdraw her work from the exhibition, stating that she had ‘no faith’ in the Documenta organisers’ ability to address and mediate the complexities of the situation before them.
As individuals, the Documenta Director Sabine Schormann and the German Minister of Culture Claudia Roth have suffered most of the heat, with both being under pressure to resign. And Schormann did resign, only twenty-eight days into the exhibition’s 100-day run.
What has become clear is that the line where artistic freedom ends is difficult to draw. We now live in more openly diverse and complex societies, meaning new sensitivities to what is said and seen need to apply. As the contemporary art world opens to a broader range of cultural voices and understandings, we can’t assume that what reads one way in a certain context will be understood the same way in another. Added to this, society is increasingly splintered. The old political division between extreme right and extreme left makes no sense when both join hands in protest, as they did in this controversy. Artistic freedom is not a given. Context is everything.