Documentary, week two: The scandal is on fire, but many don’t seem to notice it on the spot.
Between tomatoes and lettuce, the world still seems to be in order. Mahbubur Rahman – the surfing guy with long, slightly gray hair and mirrored sunglasses – stands behind the bamboo bar and smiles. “We share food,” he tells a woman with a backpack. She came sweaty through the vegetable garden and at this moment becomes part of the Pak Ghor; a kind of Bengali outdoor dining kitchen where people are supposed to get together for food. “We share food. And love,” says Rahman, founder of the Bangladeshi Britto Arts Trust, as he spends vegetable soup across the counter. At lunch, about 15 people spontaneously became guests of the collective. They sit on the floor of the bamboo architecture, exchange ideas about the art they saw at the Documenta, about its origins, eat cuisine.An art holiday in Kassel.It could be so beautiful.If it weren’t for this dark shadow hanging over the world art exhibition.
Britto Arts Trust is one of 14 art collectives invited to Documenta. In various installations in and in front of the Documentary Hall, it treats food as a livelihood, as a cultural asset, and as a political instrument. The members of the Britto Arts Trust report that when the documentary request came, they were both surprised and delighted. That they would one day take part in this exhibition, which they themselves had previously seen as a visitor – unimaginable. From the discussion that has been going on in Germany for months, about accusations of anti-Semitism against a Palestinian artist group, about a possible BDS proximity – Britto Arts Trust has not heard much about it. But now it’s a strange feeling, says Rahman. The large “People’s Justice” banner of the Indonesian group Taring Padi was only a few meters away from the Documentary Hall and not far from the vegetable garden with outdoor kitchen. Shortly after the opening of the Documenta, the poster was taken down for its anti-Semitic imagery. The scandal “greatly lowered the positive atmosphere,” Rahman says. “That destroyed the flow.”
On Wednesday evening, after a long round trip, the participants – though not all – had their first conversation about anti-Semitism at the Documenta and possible consequences. As a reminder, the Indonesian team of curators Ruangrupa canceled a series of talks that were scheduled shortly before the opening of the exhibition. She may have explained things. Now a panel discussion initiated by the Anne Frank Education Center with the Documenta right around the corner from the Fridericianum is actually too late. The fronts are hardened, the responsibility is shifted back and forth on the political level. Also on the podium is Meron Mendel, the head of the educational institution. For a long time he wanted to believe that the accusations would disappear in the air, and then he was taught otherwise, if not better, by the depiction of a soldier with a pig face, Star of David and “Mossad” helmet inscription on the well-known big poster of Taring Padi . Today Mendel talks about an anti-Semitic “accident” from which one can learn.
Others would be happy if there was ever a flow. The doubts before the exhibition, a premonition, have now become a real scandal, the explosive force of which is enormous – in relation to the discourse on postcolonialism and anti-Semitism, on artistic freedom and censorship, and for the art exhibition itself.
Doron Kiesel, scientific director of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, sees things differently. He’s also on the podium tonight. He not only criticizes the fact that his demands for dialogue before the Documenta were ironed out, but also that the Central Council had to resume a “guard function” it had long hoped to be defeated. He sees a “deep shaking of confidence”.
Political scientist Nikita Dhawan, who was born in India and teaches at Dresden Technical University, is supposed to represent the perspective of the Global South tonight, and primarily defends himself against the accusation that postcolonial debates often end in anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism. Dhawan speaks – in English – of the “intersection of hatred” and the “laziness of politics” when it comes to censorship of art.
During a tour of the Documenta, in addition to the large void in the place where once stood the poster Taring Padi, the scandal is visible only to the initiates: someone scribbled a statement “All art matters” on a wall with chalk. At the Fridericianum, someone recently tried to destroy a book on black activism and Palestine, so additional staff are now standing near the shelf to guard it. At WH22, where the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding is still exposing the controversial images from the Guernica-Gaza series, and where there was an intrusion in late May, a friendly security man is on guard.
But otherwise? A Documenta guide reports that very few people ask about the anti-Semitic incident during his tours, and if they do, then invariably they are Germans. Cheerful conversations in Spanish and French can be heard on the tram. Next station: Hallenbad Ost.
Colorful cardboard figures are erected in front of the building that use provocative imagery to critique many things, including capitalism: In some works, he is symbolically depicted as a pig wearing a suit with dollars falling out of his pockets. The interior of the old pool smells of incense sticks. There are a surprising number of visitors, probably to see the works of Taring Padi, known as “Hidden Objects”, with their own eyes. To possibly discover further critical motives.
You really have to look long in this abundance of representations. The works could be inspired by the detailed frescoes of the Italian Renaissance, or by Mexican murals, it is difficult to say. In any case, their messages are unencrypted. They are political, perhaps with a hidden message. The collective was founded in 1998 as an activist artist group during the Reform era and later devoted itself to protesting against perceived injustice.
In front of the indoor pool, three members of Taring Padi sit together on a kind of rickshaw and make music. It is a song of hatred, as one member explains. About hating being bad. They tend to make general statements about their art; they relate to many things that are failing in the world. They then refer to the statement they issued last week, apologizing that their work, People’s Justice, has offended so many people. In the historical context of Germany, their visual language has acquired “specific meaning”. “We’re learning,” says Yusuf, a member of Taring Padi as he rolls a cigarette. The collective records the conversation with a GoPro camera – without asking beforehand.
The problem, according to Adam Szymczyk, the art director of the past Documenta, is a translation problem. Not just of language, but of culture itself. On the podium he speaks for the Documenta, whose general manager Sabine Schormann does not climb on the podium.
Doron Kiesel insists that there is no excuse for artists not addressing the context of the country in which they are exhibiting – Meron Mendel also emphasizes the need for contextualization. Other important questions hang in the air: What’s next? How to deal with possible additional antisemitic images? How to discuss this? How should documentation be reorganized so that such a scandal does not happen again? Who has the right to influence the guardianship work, how and how much? Hortensia Völckers, art director of the Federal Cultural Foundation, defends the principle of the autonomy of the institutions supported by the foundation, despite the “great damage to the cultural landscape” caused by the anti-Semitic scandal.
Autonomy and sovereignty at documentary fifteen looks like this: A Bengal vegetable garden grows in the shadow of aggressive, cross-border protest art. And who says that everything can’t be different again tomorrow, that new messages can’t appear on this constantly changing and endless documentary fifteen? Meron Mendel thinks that a “safe space” for everyone is simply not possible. That’s how it is. And sometimes such a shade is helpful, and not just when growing vegetables. It can help to see what would otherwise be obscured by the sun.