On Friday morning, Documenta 15, the famed recurring art show in Kassel, Germany, continued to face fallout from multiple anti-Semitism controversies as a participant withdrew her work and an adviser severed ties with the exhibition.
After Documenta removed a work by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi that contained anti-Semitic imagery in June, many have called for accountability from the show. The show’s leaders and the collective ruangrupa, which curated Documenta 15, apologized after the mural was removed.
But for some, their apologies were not enough. Some German politicians have demanded that Documenta take more concrete action and lead a total review of the offerings for potential anti-Semitic content, and a few, including culture minister Claudia Roth, have threatened to pull federal funding for future Documenta editions if reforms aren’t instituted.
The debate followed another controversy over the inclusion of the Palestinian collective the Question of Funding, which some Jewish groups in Germany said supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. These activist coalitions alleged that the collective’s inclusion came at the exclusion of Israeli artists.
Artist Hito Steyerl, whose work was in this year’s Documenta, and Meron Mendel, the head of the Anne Frank Educational Institute, who served as an adviser to ruangrupa’s show, are the latest figures to wade into the controversy surrounding the Taring Padi piece. In separate statements on Friday, both decried Documenta’s response to the outcry over the mural and announced their separations from this year’s exhibition.
Steyerl: ‘Refusal to Accept Mediation’
Steyerl, who is based in Berlin, gave an interview to Die Zeit in which she said she was pulling her art from Documenta 15. “I have no faith in the organization’s ability to mediate and translate complexity,” she told the German publication. “This refers to the repeated refusal to facilitate a sustained and structurally anchored inclusive debate around the exhibition, as well as the virtual refusal to accept mediation.”
She also claimed that the show had not taken enough control over “anti-Semitic content displayed at documenta fifteen at its central location,” and said that there were “unsafe and underpaid working conditions for some of the staff.”
A representative for Documenta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Steyerl’s contributions, a video called Animal Spirits that involved creatures in the metaverse and a surrounding installation of AI-generated cave paintings, were one of Documenta 15’s most celebrated offerings. It had appeared in a showcase for the collective INLAND, of which Steyerl, an acclaimed German artist known for her video essays, is a member.
Before Documenta 15 opened, Steyerl wrote an essay about the show that was published in Die Zeit. It had originally been intended as a lecture to be given in a Documenta-run forum on anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian racism that was canceled amid controversy. In it, Steyerl said that Documenta needs to own up to its own anti-Semitic history, which includes advisers to early editions of the exhibition whose Nazi connections have recently been uncovered.
Mendel: A Lack of Action from Documenta
Mendel told the German publication Der Spiegel that he had quit as adviser to Documenta earlier this week. Just the week before, he had participated in a tense, awkward public event held by Documenta that was intended to address anti-Semitism and art, as well as the debate’s relation to Israel.
In his Der Spiegel interview, Mendel mourned that an “honest dialogue” over anti-Semitism had not taken place at Documenta and claimed that neither a full-scale investigation into anti-Semitism in this year’s edition nor a more extended dialogue with ruangrupa had happened. He also alleged that Documenta had rejected his proposal of convening a board of anti-Semitism experts.
“We respect Prof. Mendel’s—albeit surprising—decision not to become further involved,” Documenta said in a statement.
The Frankfurt-based Anne Frank Educational Institute, which Mendel leads, released its own extended statement about Documenta today in which it called for a more nuanced discussion, labeling it “defamatory” to consider the 1,500-artist show anti-Semitic as a whole while also urging the exhibition to take greater action. “It should be clear: anti-Semitism must be named as a problem everywhere and regardless of the context, it will,” the institute said.
Last week, at the anti-Semitism talk staged by Documenta, Mendel dangled the possibility that Documenta may have displayed an anti-Israeli bias in choosing not to display works by Jewish artists from the country. “We are talking about art made by artists who, with their particular political position, are a minority in Israel, and they are not in a dominant position in Israel,” he said.
Ruangrupa, which was not an official participant in that talk, responded to those claims this week during a hearing in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Ade Darmawan, a member of the collective, said there was “no boycott” of Israeli and Jewish artists, and said there were ones among the final artist list, although he did not name them.