This Saturday, June 18, the 15th edition of the international art exhibition Documenta opened in Kassel, Germany, following months of controversy sparked by a fringe Zionist blog’s allegations that its curators and participating artists were antisemitic. And today, only four days since the opening, organizers have covered up a work that they said “triggers antisemitic readings.”
The artwork in question is a 60-foot banner painted by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi in 2002. Titled “People’s Justice” and depicting hundreds of military figures, the work seeks to denounce “the violence we witnessed during the 32-year Suharto military dictatorship in Indonesia and its legacy, which continues to have an impact today,” according to the artists.
But two of those figures — one portrayed as a pig wearing a helmet with the word “Mossad,” the national intelligence agency of Israel, and a Star of David; another donning fangs, a black hat with a Nazi emblem, and the sidelocks often worn by Orthodox Jewish individuals — were interpreted by some German and Israeli government officials as antisemitic.
The Israeli embassy in Germany said in a tweet that it was “outraged” by the work, calling it “reminiscent of the propaganda of Goebbels and his henchmen in dark times of German history.” Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, said it was “antisemitic imagery.”
In a lengthy statement, members of Taring Padi issued an apology, adding that it was the first time the banner was presented “in a European and German context.”
“All of the figures depicted on the banner refer to symbolism that is widespread in Indonesia’s political context, e.g. for the corrupt administration, the military generals and their soldiers, who are symbolized as pigs, dogs and rats to criticize an exploitative capitalist system and military violence,” the artists said.
“It is in no way related to anti-Semitism. We are sorry that details of this banner are misunderstood other than their original purpose,” Taring Padi continued.
Documenta also addressed criticism of the artwork with a separate statement, published Tuesday, June 21.
“Together with ruangrupa, the Artistic Team and the participating artists, we have assured that there will be no anti-Semitic content at documenta fifteen,” wrote Dr. Sabine Schormann, the director of Documenta. “Unfortunately, we did not keep this promise.”
“I would like to emphasize once again that all those involved were and are deeply sorry for having crossed boundaries and hurt feelings. We also explicitly apologize for the fact that the anti-Semitic depictions were not recognized before the work was installed,” she continued.
In January, the Kassel Alliance Against Anti-Semitism — a blog operated by one individual aligned with the pro-Israel Antideutsche cause — criticized Documenta participants such as The Question of Funding, consisting of two Palestinian artists, and ruangrupa, the exhibition’s curating group, for their sympathies with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Such accusations were soon amplified by mainstream German media outlets such as Die Zeit. A lecture series on antisemitism, Islamophobia, and post-colonialism was scheduled and later canceled under pressure from the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
In his remarks during the opening ceremony this weekend, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed ambivalence about officiating the event and urged Documenta’s organizers to do more to address accusations of antisemitism.
“As justified as some criticism of Israeli policies, such as the building of settlements, is, recognizing Israeli statehood means recognizing the dignity and security of the modern Jewish community,” Steinmeier said.
Last month, Documenta exhibition spaces, including those of Palestinian artists, were found vandalized with graffitied messages. Over 140 artists and organizers associated with Documenta denounced the incident and the baseless allegations that led to it, calling them “racist attacks” and “bad-faith attempts to delegitimize artists.” Earlier this year, anti-Muslim stickers were pasted on the curating group ruangrupa’s headquarters in Kassel, featuring messages such as “Freedom not Islam!” and “Solidarity with Israel.”
In its statement, Taring Padi said, “As a mark of respect and with great regret we cover the relevant work which is found offensive in this particular context in Germany. The work now becomes a monument to grief at the impossibility of dialogue at that moment. We hope that this monument can now be the starting point for a new dialogue.”