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Documenta 15 trivialized antisemitism, report finds

Cristina Burack
February 10, 2023

Organizers of the internationally renowned German contemporary art show failed to take responsibility for systematic antisemitism that arose in 2022 in part from a unique but flawed curatorial concept, experts said.

https://p.dw.com/p/4NJnh
People walk along the edge of a giant skateboard-ramp like structure covered in bright graffiti as a giant mural with faces stands in the background
Documenta 15 showed multiple works that contained antisemitic imagery, a commission report has foundImage: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

Blatant antisemitism and a failure by responsible parties to respond adequately to related complaints permeated the scandal-tainted documenta 15, a final report has found. Documenta, a publicly funded event, is one of the world's most prestigious contemporary art shows. It takes place every five years in the central German city of Kassel.  

The 133-page document, which was released Monday, was the work of a commission of external experts from the fields of art, antisemitism research and prevention, law, political science and conflict studies. 

"The documenta 15 functioned as an echo chamber for Israel-related antisemitism, and sometimes for pure antisemitism," the commission wrote in its report, adding, "The trivializing way antisemitism was handled increasingly became a problem in and of itself." 

Documenta's 15th edition, which ran from June 18 to September 25, 2022, intended to highlight perspectives from the Global South through a decentralized artistic curation that would explore the consequences of colonialism, capitalist exploitation and racism.

However, the exhibition was dominated by substantial allegations of antisemitism, with the earliest accusations arising even before the sprawling exhibition had opened.

People sit on a bench in front of a square building-like structure made of padded fabrics bound together
Artwork at document 15 was meant to highlight perspectives from the Global South overlooked in Western art institutionsImage: Uwe Zucchi/dpa/picture alliance

Four works with antisemitic elements

The commission was created around one month after documenta 15 had opened. "We were tasked with answering three questions," Nicole Deitelhoff, chairperson of the commission and executive director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, told DW. "First, was documenta 15 antisemitic or were individual works on show there antisemitic? Second, how did such works end up being displayed? And third, what can be done so this doesn't happen again in the future?"  

Before documenta had even opened, concern had been voiced about the curators, the Indonesian artist collective Ruangrupa. The worries revolved around various members' possible ties to the BDS movement ("Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions"), an anti-Israeli boycott movement that the German parliament has declared antisemitic. The fear voiced by critics was that antisemitic expressions could masquerade as anti-Israeli criticism. This was paired with the reported information that no artists who openly identified as Jewish or Israeli participated in the exhibition — a move that the report said ultimately led to a one-sided perspective on the Middle East conflict. 

Then, on opening weekend, visitors pointed out antisemitic motives in the large-scale mural "People's Justice," by Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi, which was centrally located in the exhibition. The work was initially covered up before eventually being deinstalled.

A group of people stand in front of a giant mural as it is being covered up
'People's Justice,' by Taring Padi, was covered up and then taken down due to antisemitic imagery Image: Uwe Zucchi/picture alliance/dpa

Three other problematic works containing antisemitic elements were identified and analyzed in the commission's report. These were drawings provided by the Archives des luttes des femmes en Algerie (Archives of Women's Struggles in Algeria) that focused on Israel's founding and the related displacement of Palestinians; a film compilation called "Tokyo Reels" presented by the Ramallah/Brussels-based collective Subversive Film that pertained to Palestinian history; and the picture cycle "Guernica Gaza" by Palestinian artist Mohammed Al-Hawajri that juxtaposed photos from Israel and the Palestinian territories with well-known works of Western art. 

"Documenta 15 itself wasn't antisemitic, but there was antisemitism at documenta 15. We found antisemitic visual codes in at least four exhibited works. In other words, they had imagery that clearly drew on antisemitic depictions," Deitelhoff said, adding that the works also contained anti-Zionist imagery: "This means questioning the state of Israel's right of self-determination, and partially in such a way so that it was also antisemitic, such as by equating the state of Israel with the Nazi regime."

A unique but problematic curation approach

The commission's report identified documenta's curation as having contributed to the problem, even as they lauded its intent. "Documenta 15 mostly showed exceptional works," it stated. "Topics were largely presented from perspectives that most museumgoers in Germany likely were not familiar with or aware of. These include perspectives from the Global South."

However, the highly decentralized structure, in which Ruangrupa invited other collectives who invited yet other collectives or artists, meant no one had an overview of the works to be displayed, Deitelhoff explained. "One the one hand, the concept for the whole exhibition was problematic because it was based on wanting to give up responsibility," she said. "The other problem was that there was absolutely no established processes for conflict management."

The commission's report describes documenta's response to the cases of antisemitism as "hesitant," "dragging" and marked by "significant resistance," as well as "ignorance" and "trivialization" — all of which damaged trust between public institutions and Jewish organizations and many Jews, particularly in Germany.

"Many Jewish citizens were left with the feeling that no one was interested in dealing with the problem of antisemitism or in protecting Jewish citizens," Deitelhoff summarized. 

Two protesters hold up a blue banner with the star of David on it and slogans supporting solidarity with Israel in the documenta antisemitism affair
Pro-Israeli supporters argued that public money shouldn't be used to fund a group with tied to BDS, a movement the German state condemns as antisemiticImage: Swen Pförtner/dpa/picture alliance

In undertaking its work, the commission said it faced opposition from members of both documenta's executive management at the time as well as the 2022 curatorial team, which accused the commission of racism, censorship and poor methodology and argued the antisemitism allegations delegitimized their criticism of the state of Israel. 

Protesters hold signs in solidarity with documenta 15 curators Ruangrupa
Protests in support of Ruangrupa often featured signs saying the artist collective faced racismImage: Uwe Zucchi/picture alliance/dpa

The report acknowledged that Ruangrupa faced racism from outside parties during the affair but highlighted that the commission's remit did not encompass a deeper examination of this issue. "The relationship between antisemitism and postcolonial criticism, which once again became a focal point in the public debate around documenta, deserves a more open and objective discussion than the local public is currently capable of," the report noted.

Deitelhoff also pushed back against the idea that the commission and its proposed changes infringed on freedom of artistic expression, a criticism that found supporters in the broader art world. The chairperson said the issue at stake is what happens when an artistic leadership in a public institution is not open to even hearing about accusations of antisemitism or other forms of discrimination. "It has to be possible to step in when there are obvious and lasting violations of human rights and dignity," she said.

Documenta 15: a 'systematic' display of antisemitism

The commission's recommendations for documenta included, among other things, clarifying the division of tasks between the artistic direction and the management and strengthening the latter, as it remains ultimately responsible for reflecting the mandate of publicly funded events; introducing formal complaint management processes; and establishing definitions and standards for dealing with antisemitism and other forms of discrimination. 

"There will always be exhibitions with antisemitic images or works — this can't be prevented," Deitelhoff said. "What must be prevented, however, is that exhibitions systematically display such images. That was documenta 15's problem."

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier