QUESTIONS OF curatorial responsibility, and who has the power to represent, and for whom, were pivotal in the volatile response to documenta fifteen. The critical reaction to this edition was the most polarized for a major art event in recent times, ranging from accusations of antisemitism to disdain for an artist collective from the global south being given the reins, through to enthusiastic support. From the moment the Indonesian artist collective, Ruangrupa, were appointed as artistic directors there were, in the words of Jewish academic Meron Mendel, ‘those who wanted to discredit this documenta’ . He was speaking in relation to the response of documenta management to accusations of antisemitism against the organisation that began well before the opening of the exhibition and continued until its closing. Mendel was likely referring to groups such as the anti-Muslim, Kassel-based group, Alliance Against Antisemitism, who accused Ruangrupa of being antisemitic for signing a group letter calling for an end to Israeli-State violence against Palestinians. The accusation seemed facile, ignoring the complexities of the issues at stake. After all, documenta under Ruangrupa was never going to be an echo chamber for fascist, antisemitic ideology. Yet the accusation played into the hands of those who considered Ruangrupa an inappropriate choice to direct documenta.
Antisemitic accusations may not have gained traction if it were not for a 2021 report in Die Ziet that Werner Haftmann, a co-founder of documenta, was a member of the SA, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing . This was coupled with the revelation in June of antisemitic imagery contained in the indelicate, agit-prop work, ‘People’s Justice’, by Indonesian collective, Taring Padi. It didn’t help that a series of panels, ‘We need to Talk’, organized by documenta in response to the growing accusations, were cancelled. Meron Mendel and Hito Steyerl were among the slated speakers. Ultimately, Mendel resigned as an adviser to documenta, citing managerial incompetence. Steyerl withdrew from the exhibition also, citing a lack of ‘faith in the organization’s ability to mediate and translate complexity’ . Their actions seemed targeted at documenta management, a perception reinforced by the subsequent abrupt resignation of Sabine Schormann the director general of documenta, rather than at Ruangrupa, who appeared disempowered in the unfolding of events.
The fact that the Taring Padi banner containing antisemitic content was exhibited unwittingly by Ruangrupa can be partly attributed to the fact that this documenta was, in effect, not so much an exhibition of artists but of artist collectives. These collectives interacted based on the Indonesian concept ‘lumbung’—which translates as ‘rice barn’—a cooperative model of resource use. They shared the exhibition budget and were delegated much responsibility, including inviting artists and selecting works without, it seems, sufficient checks and balances. As it turned out, this lack of curatorial oversight was a significant failure on the part of both Ruangrupa and the documenta management. Amidst the cacophony of voices that were outraged or felt betrayed by the banner’s inclusion, were those that targeted the lack of curatorial responsibility. In Arts of the Working Class, Mohammad Salemy attacked ‘the show’s disastrous model of curating’ [13, while Jörg Heiser in Art Agenda was among those who identified, not the imagery itself, but its lack of contextualization as the main problem . Heiser referenced not just Taring Padi, but also the ‘Tokyo Reels’ film series by the group, Subversive Film, that included footage entrusted to the group by Masao Adachi, a former member of the Japanese Red Army responsible for a 1972 massacre in Israel at Lod Airport.
I was fascinated by the few films I managed to see, particularly with the Japanese connection described as solidarity relations between Tokyo and Palestine. I gleaned a shared antipathy to the State of Israel, but in the absence of a curatorial text I left acutely wanting to better understand the historical and political context. An advisory committee established many weeks before by documenta to review potentially antisemitic works, bizarrely called for a halt to the screenings during the exhibition’s last days, citing the programme’s ‘hatred of Israel and … glorification of terrorism’ . The committee said it would consider a resumption of screenings if they were contextualised ‘in a way that made clear their propaganda character, clearly identified their anti-Semitic elements and corrected historical misrepresentations' . Ruangrupa denied the allegations, rejected what they described as censorship and decried the ‘eurocentric superiority’ of the report . Many rallied to support their position, including the Finding Committee that selected Ruangrupa, who asserted that ‘the pressures that media and politicians have placed on the entire documenta team have become unbearable’ . While the committee’s call for the screenings to be supported by a greater level of context was not unreasonable, the timing of the report fuelled the sense that Ruangrupa were being unfairly, if not racially, targeted. In the end the screenings continued, albeit without further context provided by documenta.