Discussions on anti-Semitism at Documenta Kassel intensify

Hito Steyerl removes work from the exhibition and Casa do Povo spoke thanking the curators for their attitude

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Animal Spirits, de Hito Steyerl, , 2022
Animal Spirits, by Hito Steyerl, , 2022

One of the most interesting works of Documenta 15,  Animal Spirits, by German artist Hito Steyerl borrows its title from a term coined by British economist John Maynard Keynes that describes how people arrive at financial decisions in times of economic stress or uncertainty. 

The artist questions where humans fit into an increasingly threatening world, where digital technology and ever-evolving capitalism have expanded into a universe as absurd as that of cryptocurrency.

Steyerl's film features local shepherds fighting the producers when they decide to create an animal battleground in the metaverse. The installation also comprises 11 lamps with plants inside, forming small ecosystems monitored by sensors. In some of them we can find some cheeses! It is a play on the idea of the “cheesecoin” cryptocurrency. 

Steyerl is quite cynical when it comes to the world's excitement over NFT art, which is actually no different from the conventional art market in terms of its market mechanism.

The work was highly talked about this week, but don't think that's because it fetched exorbitant prices in the digital world – it would be hilarious. And yes, because the artist announced the withdrawal of the work from Documenta 15 citing the failure of the organizers to respond to complaints of anti-Semitism. The prominent artist's decision comes after a series of controversies surrounding the latest edition of the event and the Indonesian artist collective Ruangrupa, who curated it. "I don't want to support the continued lack of organizational accountability over the failure of oversight regarding the anti-Semitic content shown in documenta 15," wrote the artist. in the email published by ArtNews.

Steyerl also removed her work from the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin after the collector for which the institution is named denied allegations that her family's fortune came from making gasoline canisters and weaponry for the Nazis during World War II.

The controversy at Documenta

Wall detail People's Justice created by the Taring Padi collective.

The allegations of anti-Semitism surfaced earlier this year due to the participation of The Question of Funding collective, led by Yazan Khalili, as the artists of the Palestinian group would be allied with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement – a group that defends the boycott of the State of Israel and its war policy. Defined on the Documenta website as “a growing collective of Palestinian cultural producers and community organizers”, the  The Question of Funding presented works on ideas for financing culture and the function of the art market.

Initially the accusation, made by an alliance against anti-Semitism, was rejected by the Ruangrupa, curators of the show, in an open letter appealing for artistic freedom. At the time, both the German Minister for Culture and Media, Claudia Roth, and Documenta's supervisory board supported the team of curators.

The result? The space that would house the group's exhibition was broken into and vandalized with graffiti in May, even before the exhibition opened. The messages were interpreted as Islamophobic and containing “enigmatic death threats”. 

Discussions ensued and on the official opening day of the exhibition, Kassel was gripped by protests from both sides. A week after the opening of the exhibition, more controversy! The group of curators needed to cover a work by the Taring Padi art collective that featured stereotypical Jewish caricatures. 

the installation People's Justice, raised in front of the main square of Kassel, showed a kind of illustration of the last judgment. Among the soldiers, one with the face of a pig and a Star of David around his neck is possible. On his helmet it is possible to read the word “Mossad”, a reference to the secret service of the State of Israel, based in Tel Aviv. 

In an official statement, the group apologized to the Jewish community and to the participants of the exhibition, stating that they never intended to promote anti-Semitism, but wanted to talk about the struggles that lived under the military dictatorship of Suharto, where violence, exploitation and censorship were an everyday reality. “Like all of our artwork, the panel attempts to expose the complex power relations that are at play behind these injustices and the erasure of public memory surrounding the Indonesian genocide in 1965, where over 500,000 people were murdered,” they explained. the artists. “We never intended to be hateful towards a particular ethnic or religious group, but rather to criticize militarism and state violence.” In fact, there are other characters on screen who represent different “soldiers” of history such as the KGB and even 007. Therefore, it even makes sense to associate different official powers with pigs – as is often the case in art, including in Brazil. 

Detalhe do Mural People’s Justice criado pelo coletivo Taring Padi
Detail of the People's Justice Mural created by the Taring Padi collective

The most critical image, however, is on the right side of the panel: it is possible to see another figure with sharp teeth, devilish ears, curls on the side typical of Orthodox Jews and bloodshot eyes. In his hat it is possible to see the initials of the SS – a reference to the Schutzstaffel, a German term that means “protection squadron” used by a group founded in 1925, with the objective of protecting Adolf Hitler. SS members were made up of so-called “elite men”, individuals who fit the standards of racial “purity” advocated by Nazi ideology. That is, the collective would be making a direct association between Orthodox Jews and the Nazis, most likely because of the massacres in Palestine. 

They acknowledged that the images "took on a specific meaning in the historical context of Germany". The statement, however, was also the subject of criticism. After all, portraying Jews as bloodsuckers must not only be a problem in the German context, but everywhere in the world.

In Brazil

Part of Documenta's concept involves the idea of creating a discussion and support group among art institutions around the world called the “lumbung network”. The whole exhibition, incidentally, was guided by the word “lumbung” which means “common rice granary”, a typical place in Indonesia where the surplus of the harvest is stored for the benefit of all.

Today, July 20th, Casa do Povo released a official note to respond to rumors that have been published on Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung saying that a “Jewish collective from São Paulo” had been invited, and then not invited, to participate in Documenta 15's lumbung network because of “protests from participants close to Palestine”.

The institution believes that the article was referring to Casa do Povo and emphasizes that it was never officially invited to participate in the Lumbung network, as informal conversations ended due to the Covid 19 situation. “The fact that we are a Jewish institution was never discussed , and there was no anti-Semitism,” they point out. 

“Of course, we are deeply hurt by the anti-Semitic imagery on Taring Padi's mural that was thoroughly discussed and rightfully condemned in public debate over the last month, but we also feel that Documenta and Ruangrupa did the right thing by dismantling the work in a matter of days, a decision that we know is always difficult to make.”, they complete. 

Casa do Povo says they would like to better understand the genealogy of these images, but are already grateful that Documenta, the artistic team and the artists have officially apologized. And they finish: “So we ask: What else should they do?”

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