Hito Steyerl at Future Affairs Berlin 2019 (photo by Dominik Butzmann via Republica GmbH/Flickr)

In the latest blow to an exhibition roiled by controversy, artist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl has withdrawn from Documenta 15, citing the organizers’ handling of antisemitism allegations and the ensuing fallout. Steyerl’s announcement came just days after Meron Mendel, head of the Anne Frank Educational Institute in Frankfurt, stepped down from his position as a consultant for the exhibition.

“I will no longer take part in documenta fifteen. I have no confidence in the organisation’s ability to mediate and translate complexity,” Steyerl wrote in a letter to Documenta 15’s organizers, first reported by the German outlet Die Zeit and reviewed by Hyperallergic. “This refers to the repeated refusal to facilitate a sustained and structurally anchored inclusive debate around the show as well as the de facto refusal to accept mediation.”

“Additionally, I do not wish to support the ongoing lack of organizational accountability concerning failure of oversight in relation to anti-Semitic content shown at documenta fifteen in its central location,” Steyerl continued.

Months before the opening of Documenta 15 this June, a fringe pro-Israel blog accused the exhibition’s organizers of antisemitism over their inclusion of Palestinian artists aligned with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, among others. Documenta initially announced a virtual series of panels to address topics including antisemitism and anti-Palestinian racism, but in April, it canceled the scheduled talks, reportedly in the wake of complaints by the Central Council of Jews in Germany that the forum’s lineup represented a “clear bias against anti-Semitism.”

In an open letter published in May by ruangrupa, the Indonesian artist collective selected to curate this year’s edition, the group rejected the accusations of antisemitism and denounced what they called “bad-faith attempts to delegitimize artists.” Weeks later, several Documenta 15 exhibition spaces — among them that of the Palestinian art collective The Question of Funding — were vandalized with graffiti including the name of a Spanish far-right and neo-Nazi youth leader. The incident followed the discovery of Islamophobic stickers pasted by an unknown perpetrator on ruangrupa’s headquarters in Kassel.

Documenta consistently rebutted the allegations of anti-Jewish sentiment and emphasized its opposition to “antisemitism, racism, right-wing extremism, violent religious fundamentalism and any kind of discrimination.” But some questioned that commitment four days into the exhibition’s opening, when an artwork by the Indonesian artist group Taring Padi was taken down after it was found to contain antisemitic imagery. Sabine Schormann, Documenta’s director, admitted in a statement: “We have assured that there will be no anti-Semitic content at documenta fifteen. Unfortunately, we did not keep this promise.” (Taring Padi also issued an apology and explained the imagery as related to Indonesia’s political context, “in no way related to anti-Semitism.”)

Steyerl’s decision to withdraw her work from the exhibition last week followed her publication of an essay in Die Zeit in which she points to Documenta’s legacy of antisemitism, including “the fact that many of [its] founders were members of relevant Nazi organizations.” The text was meant to be part of the forum canceled by Documenta in the spring.

In her email to Hyperallergic, Steyerl noted that in addition to her disengagement from Documenta last week, she has bought back an artwork sold to the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin after the collector denied her family’s ties to Nazi Germany.

Documenta has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment nor confirmed whether the works on view by Steyerl — including a video piece called “Animal Spirits” (2022), produced by and for the National Museum for Contemporary Art in Seoul and premiered in April, and an accompanying AI installation — have been taken down. With regards to Meron Mendel’s resignation, a spokesperson told the Art Newspaper: “We respect Prof. Mendel’s — albeit surprising — decision not to become further involved.”

“All those involved in Documenta 15 have agreed on a common path of clarification and appraisal,” the spokesperson continued. “This path will be consistently pursued further. In exchange with the collectives and artists, the artistic direction of documenta fifteen has taken over the viewing of works.”

After Taring Padi’s artwork was removed, Mendel said in an interview with Der Spiegel, Documenta pledged to work with him and other experts to ensure other pieces in the show did not contain antisemitic content. But the exhibition’s organizers’ efforts were insufficient, Mendel alleged. He stepped down from his role as advisor after participating in a July 6 event organized by Documenta at the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, with the aim of addressing art and antisemitism.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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