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Inaugurated on 18 June in the small German town of Kassel, documenta 15 was the scene of a series of strange and disturbing gestures, whose symbolic, political and moral violence will no doubt leave its mark. A year after the revelation of the anti-Semitism and past membership in the Nazi regime of its founders (as part of the “Documenta. Politics and Art” exhibition in 2021, at the German Historical Museum, in Berlin), the fifteenth edition of this international exhibition was first attacked under the pretext that, coming from mostly Muslim countries, its artists were also anti-Semitic. Faced with this transfer of the accusation, the administrative management of the documenta remained speechless and took no steps to protect its artists, who were immediately subjected to racist and, more precisely, Islamophobic attacks.
Who would have thought that a collective of Palestinian artists, Question of Funding, invited by the Indonesian group ruangrupa to coordinate with them the artistic direction of this documenta 15, would receive death threats a few days before the inauguration?
Who could have imagined that, three days after the opening, on June 21, a public act of censorship would be carried out on a work, the People's Justice Banner by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, which had only just been presented?
This act is disturbing in the context of one of the most prestigious international exhibitions, which, over the years, has become known for its audacity, its freedom and its critical power. An act that is all the more disturbing because, this year, by handing over the artistic direction to the Indonesian artists' collective ruangrupa, the project was to welcome, to give to see, to hear, to experience and to share the forms and practices of an art carried by collectives coming from what used to be called the Third World, but which today we prefer to call Global South, favoring, for the sake of justice and equality, the designation of a geographical situation over that of an economic and social hierarchy between the regions of the world.
Who could have foreseen that one of the members of ruangrupa, a collective that has been committed to tolerance, peace and social justice since its foundation (2000) and that has succeeded in creating a living space of, peace and harmony, fighting any kind of discrimination in a country of extreme violence, would be obliged to answer accusations of anti-Semitism before a parliamentary commission and that he would also be reproached for his objectively democratic and non-hierarchical way of looking at the work of the artistic direction?
Who could have imagined that German parliamentarians, from the extreme right to the left, would all agree to plan to reform the documenta and impose a control commission on it, which, one fears, will set a precedent?
Who would have imagined that the entire press, both national and international - with the exception of those of the Berliner Zeitung and of intellectual researchers such as Hanno Loewy, Katja Mauer, Michael Rothberg and Eyal Weizman - would not have been able to protest against what must be called racist attacks, attacks on the freedom of art and on the physical and moral integrity of artists?
It happened in Kassel in 2022, and the German context no doubt played an amplifying role, but in any case, that year, it could probably have happened elsewhere in Europe. Much more than these artists invited to documenta 15, these "old brothers from the South", as Pier Paolo Pasolini still called them, or their supposed anti-Semitism, these acts of refusal, rejection, judgement, threat and censorship speak of us, Europeans, Westerners: of the illusion of our moral superiority which makes us blind and deaf to the languages of others, to their messages, even if they are calls for justice and tolerance. "Century mine, beast mine, who will know/ To plunge his eyes into your eyes/ And glue with his blood/ The vertebrae of two eras?", asked the poet Ossip Mandelstam, in 1922, in the aftermath of the bloody Russian Revolution, when all the possibilities of this Revolution were fading. Today, a century later, it is not only the vertebrae of two eras that we need to glue with our blood, but of two worlds that have been separated once again, the North and the South.
Of the works, the exhibitions presented in Kassel, the project of the artists gathered there, we have hardly ever spoken, except when it comes to censoring them. The initiative taken by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa to build an artistic space as a living space, their commitment to the fight against all forms of racism, against the militarization of their countries, against economic, political and sexual oppression, their struggle for ecology, their efforts to achieve emancipation, have never really been mentioned, even though their works bear striking witness to this. And for good reason. All these struggles and values were immediately denied to them under the pretext that they were anti-Semitic. As for ruangrupa's very concrete project of founding between all these collectives of artists from Indonesia, the Middle East, the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and South Asia what they call a "lumbung", named after the rice barn which, according to an ancestral tradition, receives the surplus harvests in order to redistribute them and thus create a network of solidarity between these artists from the South, a sort of anti-Bandung conference, conducted from below, without States, beyond States, between civil societies, it was mocked in violently xenophobic terms.
What has happened to us Europeans to trample on the works, actions, people and organizations of committed artists who have come from so far away and from such unbearable countries to seek in Europe, not money – gallery owners complain that there is so little to sell – but a listening ear, a critical, enlightened, democratic gaze to which they intended to bear witness, with which they hoped to dialogue?
What has happened so that the so-called fight "against anti-Semitism" has allowed actions of the purest racism, such as we have seen in the darkest hours of European history? What has happened so that the German press and political class followed up on these attacks and legitimized them, literally institutionalizing this Islamophobia or, more simply, xenophobia, such as that shown by the whole of Europe in the face of migrants, as long as they come from the South.
It all began well before the opening of the documenta, on 18 June, with the publication of an anonymous post on the blog of the Bündnis gegen Antisemitismus (Alliance against anti-Semitism) in Kassel in January 2022, which made ill-informed, ad hominem, defamatory and racist accusations against the artistic direction of the documenta and against the Palestinian artists involved in it. They were denounced as anti-Semitic, either because they had not invited Israeli or Jewish artists, or because they were supporters of the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction), a movement that the German parliament judged, in 2019, to be anti-Semitic, recommending that all public funding be denied to its supporters. Or because some of them would have directed the Sakhakini Institut, named after the Palestinian intellectual whose work was, among other things, to build an ecumenical library that was finally confiscated by Israel, but who, in this blog, was accused, against all historical truth, of having sought collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War . The author of this post ignored that, if some artists inside those collectives are Jewish and Israeli, their nationality or their national or religious affiliation was not made public within the framework of this documenta, whose commitment is meant to be free of all nationalism; he ignored also that this anti-nationalism dictated an attitude in no way related to BDS. He also did not know that Jewish collectives, such as the Brazilian Casa do Povo (The House of the People), had been invited and had only declined the invitation for calendar reasons (see “From a “São Paulo Jewish collective”: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's False Rumors about documenta and Antisemitism Casa do Povo”). Finally, he denied the Palestinians the reality of their conflict with Israel, a conflict whose current turn would impose a little more restraint and solidarity on our part.
On this blog, for example, was written: "Lumbung is part of Java's village culture, as is the lynching of the Chinese grocer”. About a Palestinian artist, it was claimed that in a lumbung, "he could feel like a fish in water or a grain of rice in a bag of rice"; about the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Syria, it was written that it was feasting on UN money, obviously ignoring the fact that this camp, existing since 1948, was starved by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in a siege which lasted from 2013 to 2015, then attacked by the IS, destroyed by Putin’s bombs and, finally, dismantled in the reconstruction plans for the city of Damascus...
These purely defamatory, insulting and literally denial of history and reality have never been denounced, either by the college running the documenta, which has been careful not to lodge a complaint for incitement to hatred or to help the artists to do so, nor by the public authorities, who all the way up to the President of the Federal Republic of Germany preferred to remind the artists that contesting Israel's right to exist marked the limit of their freedom, up to the Chancellor, who refused to go to the documenta, or up to the members of parliament, who set up a commission of enquiry. But perhaps the worst thing was the reaction of the German press which relayed the content of this blog: suddenly all the major national newspapers, from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, to the Zeit, to the Tageszeitung, were asking themselves: "Is there a problem of anti-Semitism in documenta 15?" without ever doing the minimum journalistic work that would have consisted of verifying the truth of the accusing blog, investigating the past works and projects of the artists concerned, or even interviewing them, in order to verify those allegations.
The results of this press and opinion campaign were relatively quickly translated into action in Kassel, which had been the scene of racist murders in the relatively recent past (on 6 April 2006, Halit Yozgat, a German citizen from Turkish origin and manager of a cybercafé, was killed by two bullets in the head), the areas of the documenta received racist stickers; projections on the ruruhaus, a space of conviviality established by ruangrupa, using the Gothic writing practiced by the Nazis, denounced the Indonesian collective as Nazis; three days before the inauguration, the Haitian collective Atis Rezistans was repeatedly attacked and finally forced to lock itself up in the church where it was setting up its exhibition, to defend themselves from an attack in the absence of the police, who had been warned. The pretext was that they were profaning this church, while their works are syncretic, or even a Christianity tinged with voodoo.
It was necessary to wait for explicit death threats, written on the walls of the Palestinian collective Question of Funding's premises, after a break-in, that the administrative management of the documenta, which had been totally passive until then, finally lodged a complaint, called for an investigation and expressed concern about police protection not only of the exhibition spaces, but also of the artists. It was already too late. Without even mentioning the difficulties in obtaining visas, or even the refusals of visas that the artists, even though they had been invited, were met with, they still complain of harassment and attacks that go unanswered. And when the police agree to come following calls for help from the artists, they sometimes subject them to an identity check (see the note of July 27 signed by the artists on e-flux). No one speaks publicly about these facts, neither the administrative management of documenta, nor the press, nor even the political class that says it wants to regain control of this artistic event and has forced its director, Sabine Schormann, to resign, not for having failed to protect the artists, her real failure, but for anti-Semitism. The irony is bitter. Yet it was she who called for the dismantling of the People's Justice banner by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, because two figures that could be interpreted as antisemitic caricatures were included among many other figures depicted.
The covered work "People's Justice" by Taring Padi at documenta fifteen in Kassel. Together with the banner, Taring Padi exhibited more than 600 new wayang kardus (cardboard puppets) on Friedrichsplatz, which hundreds of people from different countries had created in workshops.
© Photo: Courtesy Taring Padi
The huge 12 x 8 meters banner that stood on Friedrichsplatz was taken down, without further debate, without even giving Taring Padi a chance to explain it, or even hearing the words, now inaudible after months of defamation, that the collective first tried to raise, by presenting its public apology. A sincere apology that also expressed dismay at the hurt their images could cause the public, and especially Germans. The work was first covered with a black veil and then taken down the next day, while the hundred or so cardboard dolls planted in the square were removed and placed in a heap, until they were seized by passers-by. At no point, however, was the work analysed in terms of art history, as it should have been; at no point was it seen for what it was, namely a work of 2002, charged with history and lived experience, whose language is made of images and forms. A slightly better-informed look at Taring Padi's work and its commitments, and at Indonesian history, would have led to a different judgment.
It is actually the tragic and bloody history of the forty years of "New Order" established by Suharto and suffered by the Indonesian people that this banner embraces in one breath and with one gesture, in 2002, four years after Suharto's resignation and at a time when hopes for a democratisation of the country and the establishment of justice were already beginning to decline. A strictly Indonesian story at the beginning, but one in which Western countries actively participated. Hence its hybrid style, which draws as much from Indonesian folk traditions as from Western art. As in a triptych representing a profane Last Judgement, without redemption, carried out by the "Justice of the People", produced in a baroque composition inspired as much by Jerome Bosch as by George Grosz and the schematism of Diego Rivera and agitprop art, we see, on the left, under a blood-red sky, hell: Suharto's military regime; on the right, paradise: emancipated from the tyranny of military and political power, the civilian population finds a life in harmony with nature; in the centre, limbo: a nebula of torture and abuse inflicted on the Indonesian population. Hell is a veritable cesspool dominated by the figure of Suharto, Indonesia's bloodthirsty dictator, who in 1965 ordered a massacre in which between 500,000 and one million Indonesians, mostly communist opponents or citizens of Chinese origin, were murdered. Remaining unpunished, Suharto ordered the annexation of East Timor and the massacres of its population in 1975-77, which were repeated in 1999, under his successor, Habibie, when East Timor voted for independence. In the context of the Cold War and in the name of the fight against communism, these criminal enterprises were supported more or less unofficially by a number of Western powers, including Great Britain, the United States, Australia and Israel. Thus, under this Suharto sitting on his chair as if on a throne, armed forces march past, preceded and directed by various identified secret services - MI5, KGB, 007, Mossad, ASIO - while, in the background, the military-capitalist order deploys all its violence - the exploitation of man by man, slavery - and corruption operates its deviation where clowns, prostitutes, bankers have fun, walking on their heads. This teeming mass of figures rests in an unstable balance on the victims of Suharto's regime, who are associated, in a gesture of solidarity, with those of other martyred countries, evoked by their skeletons, their skulls, their tombs on which one can read, among other things, "East Timor", "Iraq", "Palestine", "Kongo", "Panama", "Iran", etc. Finally, an oversized skull bears the inscription "The expansion of multicultural State Hegemony": this monster denounces the paradoxical expansion of nationalist State policies on an international scale.
The two figures incriminated in this swarming of characters are located in this hell. One is a soldier, wearing the inscription "Mossad" on his helmet and parading among other soldiers of foreign secret services from Indonesia, England, the USSR, the United States and Australia. Nothing distinguishes the Mossad soldier from the others, except his face, which could be likened to that of a pig. In Taring Padi's work, the recourse to the animalization of military forces, and in particular to the figure of the pig, is a recurrent practice and thought. It is a language in its own right. On this banner, this also concerns, among other things, another soldier, a pig-headed soldier with the American flag on his shirt peeing on the skulls wears the uniform of the Kopasus (Indonesian Army special forces), an elite force within the army with their distinctive red beret, equal to US green beret. Kopasus was instrumental in the orchestration of 1965-66 genocide, East Timor and Papua. The American flag signifies the close relationship between Kopasus and US army. Many of the Kopasus commanders were trained in the US including the incumbent minister of defense, Prabowo Subianto. The soldier urinates or ejaculates on the grave of Iraq: let's recall that the banner was made in 2002, at the very moment when the aggression of Iraq by the United States was being prepared . It is all the less racially discriminating because the other soldiers with death faces are not much better treated.
The only figure that can actually be read as 'anti-Semitic' is the man behind a clown. Dressed in a smart suit with a matching collar, wearing a bowler hat, armed with sharp teeth and smoking a cigar, a sinuous, bifid tongue protrudes from his mouth. The man would have all the makings of an evil dandy or a sharky English banker, if his face were not framed by two strands of hair - two black lines highlighted with white - that might evoke the payess worn today by orthodox Jews. On his bowler hat is the SS badge. The Western powers had not hesitated, after having done so in Latin America, to send former Nazis to accelerate the elimination of the Communists, which is also evoked by this other figure placed just below Suharto's throne: a leader wearing the Nazi insignia and repeating the gesture of command of the Suharto figure placed above him. Therefore, the antisemitic caricature on Taring Padi's banner is the collusion of the signifiers "Orthodox Jew", "SS", "English dandy" and "City banker" in a single figure. Like the general style of the banner, which draws on all styles, Western and Eastern, from the baroque grotesque figure to caricature, via comic strips and animated films, these borrowings are also part of a deliberately heterogeneous language that plays with signifiers, shortcuts and collusions of signs, even contradictory and unnatural ones.
These associations in no way suppress the autonomy of each of these signs and their mutual incompatibility: they construct and translate a conjuncture and a historical conjunction, effectively against nature. Also, this figure does not seem to translate so much an anti-Semitic attack as a concatenation of violence that adds up and sediments, as represented by the whole of this hell. Therefore, the banner is not an anti-Semitic work; on the other hand, it is the expression and the crude and direct figuration of anger and rage against his accumulated and suppressed aggressions; it carries with it all the violence of one of the first revelations and figurations of these at least fifty years of a murderous policy (we find, unspoiled, this same violence in The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer, a film nevertheless made ten years later, in 2012).
This is why the artists of Taring Padi must be taken seriously when, in an interview with the Zeit, they admit that they did not consider the problem of anti-Semitism. We should also listen to Alexander Supartono, art historian and member of Taring Padi, when he admits that he cannot explain the presence of this figure in the banner and insists: "For us, there is no race, there are only classes". Anyone who has taken the trouble to find out about this collective's activities and works will be able to attest to its genuine commitment to social justice, to religious tolerance – Indonesia has been the scene of extremely violent religious conflicts – and to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. And this is perfectly easy indeed, insofar as these artists, who have given themselves among other missions to allow access to culture, to the practice of art to their most deprived fellow citizens, provide free access on the Internet to a commented catalogue of their works.
One engraving, among the many others that could be cited, attests to this literally and specifically. This engraving represents the five religions present on Indonesian soil, protected by a large radiating heart, and shows the Buddhist temple symbol, the Christian cross, the Muslim crescent, the Jewish star and, in the centre, the swastika. Placed vertically, it is the symbol of Hinduism or, in Indonesia, a sign of peace and light. Some people who have taken the trouble to see Taring Padi's work will have confused it with its Nazi counterpart, the swastika, which is tilted a quarter turn to the left and shows how little the "decentring of the gaze", which is strongly advocated everywhere else, seems to be practised here. Let us note the remark made by a German member of parliament during the hearings organised in the framework of the parliamentary commission that took place on 16 July: "If you need to have knowledge of the political and cultural context of the production of your works in order to be able to appreciate them at their true value, it is not possible.” Let's just note that this deputy was not even forced to know all of Indonesian history, it would have been enough for her to remember that we, too, allow ourselves to practice caricature with impunity and claim it, as the Casa do Povo collective reminds us. “We know firsthand how Europe constantly produces caricatures of the 'other' – of the Jewish people, but also of women, blacks, Asians, First Nations people and many 'others', especially those in the South. These images appear in public squares, in paintings, in public events, until today, all over Europe, and they are rarely taken down. Nor are they subject to apologies.” Taring Padi should therefore be believed when they claim to be innocent of anti-Semitism and say that they never wanted to spread any anti-Semitic message, but only to denounce the complicity of the Israeli government and the criminal and tyrannical regime of Suharto and his successors.
While it is understandable that the presence of an anti-Semitic figure on a banner presented in Germany was shocking, the decision to dismantle the work containing it, rather than engaging in a discussion and surveying the gap between the histories and the gazes, gave rise to an act whose symbolic significance should have affected those who were the actors and spectators a little more. The banner was there to demand justice for crimes that have never been condemned or even denounced and whose perpetrators and their heirs are still in power in Indonesia, still dealing with Western countries. It is this demand for justice that they intended to bear witness to on this banner at the centre of the documenta, on Friedrichsplatz in Kassel.
While the Germans present there proclaimed that anti-Semitism had no place in Germany, Indonesians were denied the right to bear witness to the massacre perpetrated on their own people on the very spot where, as Hervé Joubert-Laurencin recalls in his text “Caricature of anti-anti-Semitism at the Documenta in Kassel”, the Nazi auto-da-fes of 1933 took place. The unconscious meet. A little further on, on the Königsstrasse that runs alongside the square, the city's trams were running, advertising an exhibition on "1700 years of Jewish life in Germany" (emphasis added), as if, between 321, the year the first Jews arrived on German soil, and 2021, there had been no year of death for Jews on German soil. A rite, a magical gesture had just taken place: a young artist, who confided to us that she was Jewish (like the author of these lines), undoubtedly stated the formula on the protest card she was holding at arm's length: "All your racism will not absolve you of the crimes of your grandparents". For this magical gesture to succeed, for this transfer of accusation and guilt to actually take place, it took months of defamatory and racist misguidedness, which inexorably impressed the eyes and the gaze of German cultural actors.
It remains to be seen what the consequences of this gesture will be, which is no more and no less than a gesture of censorship and has opened the way to even more censorships: it was, at the beginning of August, that the collective of the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie which learned through the press that some of the documents they presented, drawings by Burhan Karkutli and Naji Al Ali published in the magazine Présence de femmes, had been withdrawn. However, these gestures of censorship of documents are also gestures of denial of history. They concern us all: on this 21st of June 2022, the day of the summer solstice, a whole swathe of darkness has fallen upon us. In addition to suppressing all debate and all reflection on what separates cultures, histories, practices of forms, views and gazes, and which would have made it possible, if not to sketch out a common ground, at least to concretely test this decentring of the gaze so much claimed elsewhere, and of which all the racist attacks in Kassel, including that of the extraordinary exhibition of the Haitians, Atis Resistans, remind us of the urgency and necessity, it is our own world that we are amputating and shrinking. By infringing on the freedom of artists from elsewhere, we are infringing on our own freedom. The creation of a control and expert committee for the documenta, demanded by the political world and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is a clear demonstration of this. Let there be no mistake: the documenta artists, who are currently fighting against the creation of this committee, are our first defenders: it is our freedom, our democracy that they are defending through this refusal, and the possibility of living with them.
Marianne Dautrey is a journalist, philosopher, writer, and translator from German and, since 2017, head of the publishing department of the Institut national d'histoire de l'art in Paris. She participated in documenta fifteen as a member of the Franco-Tunisian platform Siwa.
© Text: Marianne Dautrey
First published in French on 30 August 2022 in: Diacritic – le magazine qui met l’accent sur la culture