Documenta Fifteen: Art, Antisemitism and the Demands of Historical Knowledge

Documenta Fifteen

Emotions ran high when the art mega-exhibition Documenta Fifteen opened in Germany on June 18. The opening followed several months of antisemitism allegations and counter-accusations of Islamophobia and racism, which culminated in the removal of work by the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi just days after its installation in a central square. Documenta has long drawn international commentary, but this year hits closer to home, inciting debates on the demands of historical knowledge and artistic freedom.

Taring Padi’s disputed work, a gigantic banner entitled People’s Justice, depicts a series of figures enmeshed in a battle of oppressors versus the people. Created twenty years ago, it comments on the violence and corruption of Suharto’s protracted military regime and its repercussions into the present day. The figural representations, according to the artists, draw from a repertoire of symbolism specific to the Indonesian political context.

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However, there also is a pig-faced soldier wearing a Star of David neckerchief and a helmet identifying him as a member of Mossad. Another figure has vampire-like facial features, a split tongue, a large nose, sidelocks commonly worn by orthodox Jews, and an SS-runes cap.

The latter instance, clearly, is antisemitism. Explicit distinction through visual tropes and Holocaust connotations leave no scope for alternative interpretations and are recognisable as such not only in Germany. This particular symbolism is lifted from a pictorial language constructed in Nazi Germany based on earlier derogatory medieval imagery.

Following harsh backlash by politicians, cultural institutions, and the public, People’s Justice was covered with a black sheet. A day later, it was removed.

Two weeks into the fiasco, Germany remains stunned by the Indonesians’ assumed ignorance. The notion that foreigners aren’t familiar with the German context – not just in terms of the past, but also present – has been a slightly condescending running theme in media and political coverage.

Granted, subtleties of our country’s antisemitism discourses are difficult to grasp for anyone relying on translations and lacking direct field exposure due to pandemic restrictions. Conflations of the term “antisemitism” and policy critique have increasingly been instrumentalised as vindicatory tools, for example by AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), a right-wing populist party that campaigns on sharp anti-immigration and Islamophobic platforms. In 2019, AfD petitioned to ban the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which seeks to isolate Israel. German parliament did not accept the ban but controversially declared BDS to be antisemitic. Consequently, BDS-supporting institutions no longer receive German public funding. A part of Documenta’s budget comes from public funds.

Taring Padi’s removed work. Source: Von Baummapper 

Responding to earlier accusations of antisemitism based on alleged BDS-links, Documenta management and Indonesian artistic directors ruangrupa repeatedly asserted they would not tolerate antisemitism, violence, or racism. Over many weeks, they maintained a remarkable sense of patience as charges were uncritically amplified by media commentators and politicians (most recently illustrated by President Steinmeier’s infuriatingly unreflected opening speech).

But the figural world of People’s Justice crosses a line. When drawing on inflected imagery or aesthetics, we must familiarise ourselves with its historical context. Artistic freedom contains an aspect of power, and like power, it too, comes with responsibility.

Nevertheless, inviting Indonesian collectives to Germany with the explicit aim of establishing dialogue and switching perspectives goes both ways. As hosts, we too, have to ask ourselves: How familiar are we with the Indonesian angle? My bet: Not very.

While antisemitic symbolism is undoubtedly unacceptable, the argument that People’s Justice must be interpreted within the specificities of its original environment of production holds weight. Such a reading not only accords respect to the artists and their work but might uncover messages of salience to German narratives as well.

Taring Padi was founded in the late 1990s and has since focused on creating projects that seek to galvanise and link the Indonesian historical experience to other societies’ struggles of violence and war. Following a major financial crisis, the young artists witnessed the Indonesian military’s violent repressions of peaceful student protests against harsh austerity policies initiated by Suharto’s government. The demonstratively anti-communist regime, which came to power on the heels of a bloody massacre, was supported openly and covertly by many “Western” governments and their intelligence services – amongst others, Mossad and very probably the German BND. Many questions regarding this period remain unresolved today, rendering attempts of collective healing impossible.

Thus, Taring Padi’s explanation that their work represents a grappling with this horrific historical context, rather than volition of antisemitic intent, is plausible. At the same time, the work’s reductive explanatory devices of global power dynamics function in contradiction to the artists’ claim of encouraging diversity. Moreover, the antisemitic figures’ casual placement in a marginal, supporting role is disconcerting. Perhaps, here we are taught the most alarming lesson: One major reason antisemitic paradigms survive around the world lies in their distressingly subconscious imitation and distribution.

Ruangrupa has since acknowledged their part in this ignominious mess, and issued assurances they would further educate themselves about our country’s dark history. We have yet to hear of German interest and willingness to study Indonesian history. Since the removal of People’s Justice, only a very small number of German-language media outlets have presented their audience with profound analyses of the Indonesian historical context. Facing your country’s role in authoritarian repressions is always uncomfortable. Alas, reproaches of ignorance may drift both ways.

In our increasingly noisy and divisive world, we all could benefit from listening. Ultimately, this might be Documenta Fifteen’s most relevant resonance.

Note: Documenta Fifteen continues until September 25.

Originally from Germany, Franziska Kabelitz is an MA History of Art and Archaeology student at SOAS, currently writing her thesis on Persian manuscript painting. She is finding explorations of the impact of language and terminology on art-historical analysis increasingly valuable. Read more or get in touch at www.franziskakabelitz.com.

Header image source: Taring Padi’s covered work, by Michael Paetzold.

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