Arnon Grunberg



On Documenta once again – Eyal Weizman in LRB:

“Documenta, held every five years in Kassel, is the world’s most influential show of contemporary art. On 19 June, a day after the opening, an eight-metre-high banner titled People’s Justice, painted by the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi, was hung from a scaffold in Friedrichsplatz, Kassel’s central square. It was a massive piece of agitprop, a cartoon-like version of a Diego Rivera mural, depicting perpetrators and victims of the Suharto regime, beginning with the genocidal campaign of 1965-66 against real and imagined members of the Indonesian Communist Party, leftists and ethnic Chinese.
The banner was intended as a people’s tribunal, a calling to account. Taring Padi were student protesters in 1998, when a popular uprising – and bloody street fighting – finally brought Suharto down. They lost many friends to the violence. People’s Justice, created in 2002, was their collective response. It has been exhibited internationally several times, but until its unveiling in Kassel, no one seemed to have noticed that of the hundreds of figures in the painting, two were clearly antisemitic. There was outrage, and the banner was removed two days later. Many in the media celebrated the defeat of postcolonialism and declared the entire exhibition a national embarrassment. Some demanded the end of Documenta altogether. The German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, responded by warning ‘there are limits’ to artistic freedom when it comes to political issues. Chancellor Scholz announced that for the first time in thirty years he wouldn’t be going to the show. The culture minister, Claudia Roth, promised more state control. Finally, on 16 July, Documenta’s director, Sabine Schormann, resigned by ‘mutual agreement’ with the supervisory board.”


“On their first attempt at an apology, on 24 June, the artists suggested that the pig-faced Mossad agent had a different meaning in the context in which it was painted. The pig is a traditional Javanese symbol of corruption and Mossad figured because Israeli intelligence played a role – a minor role – in supporting Suharto. They insisted that their target wasn’t any single ethnic or religious group but the array of Western countries that had lined up behind the regime. They pointed out that there were other pigs in the picture. But in Germany, where engravings of ‘the Jewish Sow’ still decorate cathedrals, despite campaigns and legal actions to get them removed, it was hard to argue that the image was not intended to single out Jews. There was, at least, no attempt to explain away the image of the Orthodox Jew with the SS hat. He is positioned behind an equally racist depiction of a Black GI, penis in hand, ejaculating. Not a subtle piece of art.
On 6 July, a representative from Ruangrupa, the curatorial collective, appeared at the Bundestag to issue a further apology. Ade Darmawan argued that antisemitism had been brought to Indonesia, which today has a population of 275 million with a tiny Jewish minority, by Dutch colonisers and German migrants. Colonial violence, he said, has often entailed pitting non-white people against one another. In the case of Indonesia, Dutch colonial officers encouraged the demonisation of Chinese minorities by applying ‘originally European antisemitic ideas and images to portray Chinese in the way Europeans have portrayed Jews’. Art historians have gone on to explain that once they arrived in Indonesia, these stereotypes worked their way into the wider cultural imaginary, mixing with local artforms – in particular, with Javanese shadow puppet theatre, or wayang, which already had its own cast of beak-nosed villains and dancing grotesques. An antisemitic trope was quickly assimilated into their company. Javanese shadow puppets, in turn, influenced the political art of the post-Suharto era, when cartoon monsters from children’s theatre were the perfect vehicle for commentary on three decades of oppression.”


“Among the collectives invited to take part was a group called the Question of Funding, which draws its members from the Palestinian arts community and cultural NGOs. On 28 May, in the single most serious episode of this affair, the rooms where the group was due to exhibit were raided and defaced with cryptic death threats, including the number 187, which is sometimes used in the US to refer to murder. A month after the opening, the group cancelled its public programme and left Kassel.
Anti-Palestinian racism wasn’t confined to Documenta. Two weeks earlier, the Berlin police had prohibited events commemorating the 74th anniversary of the Nakba – including a vigil organised by a Jewish group – arguing that there was a high risk of antisemitic behaviour. On 17 June, the Goethe-Institut cancelled an invitation, already accepted, to Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian writer and activist, whose home was occupied by an Israeli settler, citing recent comments he had made about Israel.
The artists and curators at Documenta have apologised and promised to learn from their mistakes. But their detractors in the German media and politics haven’t begun to acknowledge, let alone unlearn, their own racist prejudices. Instead they have used the controversy as an opportunity to tell Palestinians and critical Jewish Israelis, as well as artists from the global south, that they have no right to speak out. Like the antisemitism that exists in anti-imperialist circles, the state-sponsored and openly Islamophobic persecution of artists and intellectuals in Germany falsely separates the entangled histories of racism and antisemitism, placing them in opposition to each other.”

Read the article here.

Two issues are entangled here.

First there is BDS. I’m not in favor of BDS, I believe it’s not effective, even counterproductive. In the same way that’s counterproductive to disinvite a Russian scholar on Dostoevsky because of the war in Ukraine, just because the scholar is Russian, Dostoevksy was Russian. But the Bundestag-resolution, that basically outlawed support for BDS, is counterproductive as well, and doesn’t belong in an open, liberal society.
What’s more, the support for Israel, which is from a German point of view understandable, and the fight against anti-Semitism are two separate things and they must remain two separate things. Even though sometimes anti-Zionism can subtly become anti-Semitism, and the Israeli government, and not only the government, is betraying Jewish people outside Israel – probably not only outside Israel – by too often frivolously accusing criticasters of anti-Semitism.

That the Dutch colonists brought Anti-Semitism to Indonesia might be true, but it’s in 2022 a rather lame excuse.
That the art itself is probably not that interesting remains a non-issue. Esthetics is a privilege of the perpetrator. If you want to give anti-colonialism a bad name not much more is needed.

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