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documenta fifteen: The Art of Staying in Dialogue

Following the allegations of anti-Semitism against the Indonesian collectives ruangrupa and Taring Padi in Kassel, Germany, the artists returned home to discuss with the cultural scene in Indonesia.
By Christina Schott

The artist group RAM Museum has taken up the events in Kassel in the current Art Jog: A video installation shows well-known works of art that were censored in Indonesia - mostly because they criticized the state apparatus or violated Islamic principles. The final piece is a distorted recording of the covering of "People's Justice" in Kassel.
© Photo: Christina Schott

It's a muggy Sunday afternoon in mid-August in the Javanese cultural city of Yogyakarta. Despite the dry season, there's rain in the air. The courtyard of the Jogja National Museum is crowded with people drinking iced coffee and smoking clove cigarettes. It is here where from July 8 to September 4, Art Jog takes place, Indonesia's most famous art fair — this time with the meaningful title "Expanding Awareness". Today, however, many visitors did not come to see the current exhibition, but rather because of a discussion about the events at documenta fifteen in Kassel, 11,000 kilometers away.

Approximately 200 people, including many well-known representatives of the local art scene, have gathered in front of the Ajiyasa, an open concrete pavilion. Ade Darmawan and Farid Rakun, from ruangrupa – the collective acting as artistic director of this year's Documenta, have just arrived from Jakarta. Almost all members of the artist collective Taring Padi are also present. They only recently returned from Germany, where they were confronted with harsh, outlandish accusations of anti-Semitism. They appear exhausted, but also relieved to be back in familiar surroundings, where people know them and their artwork. In mid-July, just two days after the opening of the Documenta, their eight-by-twelve-meter banner “People’s Justice” was first covered in black and then completely taken down in Kassel. Two figures on the 20-year-old work, which had previously been exhibited in Australia and China, among other places, caused a public outcry in Germany – owing to in particular to a caricature used anti-Semitic imagery from the Nazi era.

Smaller replica of the black-draped banner “People’s Justice” at the entrance of Art Jog in Yogyakarta.
© Photo: Christina Schott

There is a much smaller replica of the black-draped banner with the inscription "undebatable" at the entrance of Art Jog. The organizers of the art show put them up there – as "moral support for Taring Padi”, as curator Bambang Witjaksono explains. The long-time curator of Art Jog — who also organized the 2018 exhibition marking the twentieth anniversary of Taring Padi at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts — cannot understand the accusation of anti-Semitism: "The banner 'People's Justice' is clearly about the struggle of the Indonesian people to amend the injustices of the Suharto era. I understand the work as a unit with the other works of Taring Padi, which criticize the authoritarian style of the New Order (Suharto). The controversial caricatures must be seen in a row with the many other figures next to them”. Witjaksono considers it problematic that the artists from Taring Padi were not given a space to discuss their work in Kassel: “Regardless of the political climate in Germany and Israel, there must be space to conduct a dialogue as a forum for learning together so that there are no one-sided judgements.” Art Jog now wants to give them this space.

Indonesian artists speak of censorship and betrayal of artistic freedom

Some Indonesian artists express their opinions much more dramatically on social media: they talk about state censorship and ask why Taring Padi and ruangrupa didn't more strongly resist to the dismantling of their work. Goenawan Mohamad, founder and senior editor of the Indonesian investigative magazine “Tempo”, wondered in his popular column "catatan pinggir" (side notes) how a 20-year-old image against the New Order military regime in Indonesia could suddenly be interpreted in its entirety as “anti-Semitic" in Germany: "It is absurd that Indonesians, Chinese or people from Papua should be expected to interpret cruelty and hatred as an experience that must inevitably be linked to European anti-Semitism”. The renowned installation artist Titarubi speaks of a "monument of mourning" for artistic freedom internationally. “Many artists in Indonesia cannot believe that a work is banned so easily at a prestigious art show in a developed country such as Germany. By doing so, the belief in artistic freedom in the West as a form of democracy is called into question.”

At the begining of the panel discussion, ruangrupa member Ade Darmawan once again explains the curatorial lumbung concept of documenta fifteen, in which the artists were not selected according to their works, but rather according to their working methods. That's why the artistic direction didn't view each of the several thousand works on display beforehand; the participants curated themselves in groups using the so-called Majelis system.

Western art market was not enthusiastic of ruangrupa’s lumbung approach

Darmawan seems tired after the exhausting weeks of “scandal”, but it seems important to him to make the people understand, especially here – in the center of the Indonesian art scene. "One of the most important questions for us was how the ecosystems of the collectives work — meaning that the artists not only bring their works to Kassel once, but how it goes on afterwards and to what extent other communities also benefit from it”, says Darmawan. "Art exhibitions are usually quite anti-social – we wanted to change that”. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Western art market was not enthusiastic of this approach. As artistic directors, however, they were not prepared for the allegations of anti-Semitism, ruangrupa admits.

Panel discussion at Art Jog in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 14 August 2022. From left: Dr. Stanislaus Sunardi, Sanata Dharma University, Fitriani Dwi Kurniasih, Muhammad Yusuf, Setu Legi, all Taring Padi, Ade Darmawan and Farid Rakun, ruangrupa, far right: sign language translator, on the monitor: Alexander Supartono, Taring Padi.
© Photo: Vivien Poly

Visibly moved, Taring Padi member Fitriani Dwi Kurniasih says the allegations came as a complete shock to her. “The allegations were made public without anyone speaking to us. We never had the issue of anti-Semitism in mind and have never seen these characters in this way before – the work is about something completely different. But we didn't get a chance to explain the picture”, said the 41-year-old artist and human rights activist.

The controversial banner shows how representatives of common citizens judge those who shared responsibility for Suharto's 32-year-old military regime: soldiers, bureaucrats, industry bosses. Between half a million and three million people were killed, or disappeared into forced labor camps, because they belonged to, were close to or were just denounced to be close to the Communist party. Numerous Western states supported the system against Communism, not least to gain free access to sprawling natural resources in Indonesia. These countries include the United States, Australia and Great Britain – most likely also Germany and Israel. Some of the participating states are shown in the picture as grotesque caricatures, similar to Balinese demon-paintings, many elements reminiscent of Javanese shadow theater. Next to them are Indonesian soldiers with gas masks, which can also be interpreted as pig noses. Several of them show on their helmets the names of foreign secret-services that are said to have supplied Suharto's military with weapons – the CIA, MI5, ASIO and Mossad. The KGB and 007 are also depicted. But the main problem at issue is the caricature of an orthodox Jew with sharp teeth and SS runes on his hat, presumably meant to represent the State of Israel.

Anti-Semitic Imagery: "A Mistake We Should Have Recognized"

This character uses Nazi-era anti-Semitic imagery, admits Taring Padi member Alexander Supartono. “That was a mistake we should have recognized. We have apologized for that.” An art history lecturer at Edinburgh's Napier University, Supartono, as he joined the discussion via video, said, "We can no longer trace exactly who painted this figure and how it got into the picture in this form. In hundreds of other works that were examined in Kassel, no other such figure was found. Nevertheless, as a collective we have to take responsibility for it.”

Resisting the dismantling of the banner would not have been an option, as the group would have endangered the entire documenta fifteen. “We are now learning what anti-Semitism means from a German perspective. But it should be mutual learning,” Supartono said.

Taring Padi, in 1999 working collectively on the banner "Pengungsi" (Refugees), exhibited at documenta fifteen (2022) in Kassel at the Rondell
© Photo: Archive Taring Padi

"We painted 'People's Justice' right here, in this Ajiyasa where we're sitting in now”, recounts Taring Padi member Setu Legi, who helped create the banner 20 years ago. At that time, they still were students and had occupied the vacant buildings of the former art academy, which now houses the Jogja National Museum. The former campus became a meeting place for the underground scene, where you could hang out together undisturbed. Taring Padi was founded here; there were exhibitions, punk concerts and so-called moonlight discussions. And right in the middle they were painting: Some drew the roughly planned sketches, and then anyone who wanted could chip in and paint along.

It is therefore difficult to understand whether the controversial figure was painted by just one person, whether someone else added the pointed teeth that can also be seen on the figures next to it – or what their intentions were, says Setu Legi. In order to be able to better understand the process, the 51-year-old artist dug up planning sketches of the work from the collective’s archives. They are projected onto the wall behind him, while ceiling fans keep the stuffy air in the packed auditorium at least slightly moving. The scribbled notes bear witness to the heated student ardor of the Reformasi era: Left hand, there are writings about the struggle of “folk culture” against the mainstream, shaped by the hegemony of capitalism and militarism in Indonesia, both made possible by the earlier colonialism of Western powers. On the right hand, it goes about dealing ecologically with the environment and reconciling both sides against the background of the bloody past under Suharto: "Learning together" is written at several places. No other countries or religions are mentioned anywhere. "This documentary shows that the issue of anti-Semitism played no role in the planning of 'People's Justice,'" Setu Legi says.

Audience at the panel discussion in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 14 August 2022
© Photo: Vivien Poly

“It should be a show of solidarity for the diversity of global society that is so often oppressed”

During the discussion, there were repeatedly questions of why Taring Padi took the old banner to Kassel at all and didn't concentrate on offering new works. "We wanted to convey to the public and especially to other artists what art can move over a long period of time, be it with large or small works”, explains Taring Padi member Muhammad Yusuf. “Together with the banner, we exhibited more than 600 new wayang kardus (cardboard puppets) on Friedrichsplatz, which hundreds of people from different countries had created in workshops. Four hundred more remain in front of the Hallenbad Ost exhibition space. This may sound easy, but it was hard work for more than a year. The goal was to bring the voices of all these people to Kassel. It should be a show of solidarity for the diversity of global society that is so often oppressed.”

State censorship is not uncommon in Indonesia. Taring Padi has been accustomed to conflict since its inception. Its early members were beaten up by MPs, their first banner was burned by Islamists; their squat was raided by fundamentalist groups. A viewer suspects that they would probably be less afraid of collisions. But what does that mean for other artists from Indonesia? Would everyone now be “burned” under the label of anti-Semitism? Should everyone who wants to exhibit in Germany now have to practice self-censorship, since even the nose shapes of Indonesian shadow-figures can be interpreted as anti-Semitic?

Detail from the Taring Padi's woodcut “All Mining Is Dangerous”: At request of Documenta, the artists pasted over the traditional Muslim prayer cap, worn here by the Javanese Wayang figure Petruk, so that it became an Indonesian Peci hat. The fear was that the character could be misinterpreted as a caricature with a yarmulke - which actually happened later.
© Photo: Taring Padi

The danger of self-censorship is undoubtedly great after this scandal, says Alexander Supartono. “There is a great risk that art will be exploited by politics. Therefore, we are forced to look critically at every detail again, particularly with regard to possible connections between post-colonialism, anti-Semitism and colonial racism”, says the art historian who specializes in photography from the colonial era.

The controversial drawings only represent external forms into which everyone could interpret something else, notes Dr. Stanislaus Sunardi, a lecturer in religious and cultural studies at the protestant Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta. He reminds viewers that the public in Germany was perhaps not used to such drastic representations as extreme as people in Indonesia. “Taring Padi covers so many subjects: from the victims of the Lapindo mud volcano to the iron-sand mining on the Wates coast. If you take such specific topics to another country without precisely explaining the context, there is a risk that it will be read quite 'creatively'," says Sunardi. Better contextualization would have been particularly important in order to prevent less contextualized readings. Nevertheless, it seemed to him astonishing that some German politicians would not even have looked at the art before condemning it.

More context to prevent "creative" readings, or more direct dialogue?

Ruangrupa member Ade Darmawan counters this point by saying that too many explanations would have patronized documenta visitors. “In Germany, it is always assumed that the public doesn't know anything. Everything is explained, down to the last detail. We believe that text doesn't help a lot here – but rather direct conversation." Experiences with the visitors on site evidenced that most of them had no contention with the works shown, there was a lot of interest and that meaningful conversations ensued. "It's like there are two worlds: one in Kassel and a completely different one in Germany's media and politics."

Actually, a discussion about Taring Padi's complete works had been planned at documenta fifteen, followed by a carnival with cardboard puppets. But after the dismantling of "People's Justice", the events were canceled by Documenta management without substitute events. "After this scandal, we tried to complete our planned activities: workshops, murals – and we spontaneously put on our own performance. We fought against the pressure because we felt a responsibility to the many people who worked with us and whose voices we represented here,” says Taring Pada member Muhammad Yusuf. “The positive exchange with the visitors in Kassel helped us a lot. And also the support from the other Documenta artists, for which we were very grateful.”

Members of Taring Padi show a performance in Kassel's Hallenbad Ost that is reminiscent of a Javanese Ruwatan ritual - a kind of purification ceremony to get rid of bad influences.
© Photo: Christina Schott

After three hours, the podium has to finish up; in the Ajiyasa, the evening program of the Art Jog continues with a performance by artist Agnes Christina. But the talks are far from over; they continue just a few meters further under the large banyan tree in the yard. The local art community does what it knows best: "nongkrong" – the art of hanging out together until all ideas are exchanged, most problems are solved and misunderstandings are cleared. The art of staying together, in dialogue despite all differences – without which the multi-ethnic state of Indonesia, with its hundreds of ethnic groups, religions and languages — would probably have broken up long ago.

This is an art that Germans could have learned at documenta fifteen.

First published in German in RiffReporter

Publication in UiU with kind permission of the author.

© Text: Christina Schott
Works since 2002 as South-East Asian free-lance correspondent for German media. Co-founder of the correspondent's network weltreporter.net

documenta fifteen

18 June - 25 September 2022
Kassel, Germany

Artistic Direction: ruangrupa

Concept: lumbung

67 Participants

32 exhibition venues

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