For the past 100 years, contemporary art has often been almost synonymous with scandal. Thanks to our desensitisation, the days when each deliberate provocation caused an uproar may be over. There has been a recent exception though: the events surrounding a large painting with antisemitic motifs at the world art show, documenta 15, prove that works of art can still cause great outrage today—albeit from a different corner of society than the hecklers of 50 years ago.
The source of offence at the documenta in Kassel was the eight-metre-high and twelve-metre-wide painting, People’s Justice, by the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi. The artwork was created in 2002 and, according to the collective, represents a reflection “of our struggles of living under Suharto’s military dictatorship, where violence, exploitation, and censorship were a daily reality.” The explanatory statement continues:
Like all of our artwork, the banner attempts to expose the complex power relationships that are at play behind these injustices and the erasure of public memory surrounding the Indonesian genocide in 1965, where more than 500,000 people were murdered.
During the time of the cold war, after the anti-communist war in Korea and during the one in Vietnam, Suharto’s coup d’état and the subsequent installation of his regime has known vast support from all over the world. Various western democracies, among them our former coloniser, favoured—openly or secretly—a military regime rather than a young democratic republic, that had developed close ties to other socialist and communist countries in the region. The CIA and other secret services allegedly supplied weapons and intelligence.
The imagery of People’s Justice presents these internal and external powers in a pictorial scene and tries to capture the complex historical circumstances through a visual language that is at once as disturbing as the reality of the violence itself.
Among the many unflatteringly depicted figures of various oppressors, were a pig-faced policeman whose helmet read “Mossad” and who wore a scarf with a Jewish Star, as well as an antisemitic caricature of a Jew whose black hat was inscribed with SS runes, and who had bloodshot eyes, fangs, and a serpent’s tongue. Shortly after the unveiling of the painting, complaints started flooding the inbox of the artistic directors.
The directors happened to be another Indonesian artist collective, the ruangrupa (ruru). Ruangrupa were chosen to direct the vision of documenta two years ago, in 2019, and earned accolades for their “postcolonial gaze” and for creating an exhibition “under the sign of collectivity” defined by “collective practices of sharing.”
But their affiliation with the Israel boycott movement, BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) had become a source of agitation. Already in the run-up to this year’s documenta 15, doubts were voiced about their appointment, and it appears rightfully so: no Jewish artists had been invited to partake in this year’s event. These accusations came under renewed prominence after the scandal surrounding People’s Justice.
Ruangrupa first reacted to the outrage by covering the artwork; they had it entirely dismantled a day later.
In an official statement, the Indonesian artist collective expressed regret “for the disappointment, shame, frustration, betrayal, and shock this stereotype has caused the viewers and the whole team who has worked hard alongside us to make documenta 15 a reality.” Ruangrupa took responsibility when the collective admitted that “the truth of the matter is that we collectively failed to spot the figure in the work, which is a character that evokes classical stereotypes of antisemitism. We acknowledge that this was our error.”
Their explanation and apology did not smooth the waters for the German public. Various Jewish interest groups, like the newspaper Jüdische Allgemeine, were outraged by the painting and even called for the resignation of Culture Minister Claudia Roth of the Green Party. Roth reminded the media that back in January, when the accusations surrounding ruangrupa’s BDS ties were an issue, she recommended an advisory board of experts for documenta to ensure that no antisemitism would find its way into the exhibition. The mayor of Kassel, where documenta is being held, objected to Roth’s recommendation, saying there would be “no encroachment on artistic freedom” on his watch. Such an act would be tantamount to “censorship,” said Mayor Christian Geselle of the social democratic SPD.
So far, the search for a specific someone to take the blame is proving difficult, since neither the artistic directors nor the author of the work is an individual, but rather openly left-wing collectives. While politicians are trying to stay as far away from the scandal as possible—Chancellor Scholz canceled his planned visit to the documenta, and Culture Minister Roth presented a “5-point plan” intended to involve the federal government more in the planning process—the documenta hopes the storm will subside after releasing the two apologies by the respective collectives, and circulating news of the hastily organized panel on Antisemitism in Art, scheduled for June 29th.
In the meantime, the discussion has taken on dimensions far beyond the work of art in question. Once again, the controversy arises over how compatible various anti-discrimination guidelines are with the freedom of expression, and how to deal with the fact that artists from the postcolonial space do not necessarily share the same set of values as large parts of the Western art world.
The renowned art theorist Bazon Brock, who was significantly involved in documenta 4 in 1968 and is known for his role in the Fluxus movement, criticised this year’s documenta for reflecting the currently prevailing “culturalism” that is not “committed to the Western principle of artistic and scientific freedom,” but instead speaks to “the cultural interests of collectives.” He faulted the abandonment of individual authorship and urgently warned against “the culturalists who destroy everything that possesses the authority that belongs to individual authorship.”