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Documenta Was a Whole Vibe. Then a Scandal Killed the Buzz.

By: Joelle Luo

No one knows how big Documenta 15 is in Kassel, Germany. The latest edition of the

prestigious international art exhibition, which takes place every five years, opened last Saturday and runs to mid-September.

It is hard to say how many artists attended this event. However, Ruangrupa, an Indonesian

collective that is this edition’s artistic director, invited 67 core participants from outside the

commercial art world. Many are from the Global South. Each invited group of artists was

allocated a budget, which they used to involve other artists and collectives. Now over 1000

people are showing work or rotating through Kassel to hold talks, stage performances, tend

gardens, share food, or otherwise commune and create.

There is also a wide variety of elusive paintings, sculptures, drawings, and textile works being

shown. There are also many photo and video-based projects. However, this exhibit is not a show for checklists. Rather, it’s a gathering of archives, a sharing of methods, and a festival of


It has vegetable plots, a sauna built of plywood, and mosquito nets on the lawn of a Baroque

castle and a skateboard halfpipe in the main exhibition space, next to a collective printing press.

It has a floating stage on the Fulda River, which was built by Black Quantum Futurism, a

collective from Philadelphia, as well as a D.I.Y woodshop in a central Kassel museum, courtesy

of El Warcha, a design studio in Tunisia.

However, right after the public opening of this year’s Documenta 15 art exhibition on June 18,

a scandal overshadowed it. As soon as a clearly antisemitic image with added Holocaust

connotations, a figure with a large nose, pointy teeth, and side-locks, and an “SS” cap, was

spotted in a massive agitprop tableau that had not been erected in a central Kassel square, the integrity of Documenta itself, which runs on public funds, came into question. The banner by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi dates from 2002; it portrays Indonesian political life as a great battle of oppressors, capitalists, and polluters against people, with ancestors watching. It only went up on the Friedrichsplatz, the show’s hub, at the end of the preview, during which Taring Padi had charmed visitors with hundreds of cardboard puppets in the same square and around town.

Months before Documenta, critics had lobbed advance accusations, notably that participants

supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which Germany’s Parliament has declared antisemitic. Before the show was installed, the Question of Funding, a Palestinian artists’ group, was targeted by vandals who broke into and graffitied its exhibition space.

Cloaked in the national Holocaust shame, this Documenta is further clouded by Germany’s

sharply pro-Israel position, which many say occludes legitimate Palestinian perspectives. In a

simultaneously unfolding dispute, the Goethe-Institute, a state-funding organization that

promotes German culture abroad, last week disinvited a Palestinian writer from a conference,

citing his social media comments on Israel.

Documenta has thus become ammunition in ongoing German battles. But the condemnation

has extended to the show’s premise of hyper decentralized curation, which the Taring Padi

incident, according to critics, has demonstrated to be invalid. “An exhibition can only succeed if the individual works are known to a curator who places them in a meaningful, functioning

relationship with one another,” worte Jörg Häntzschel and Catrin Lorsch in the Süddeutsche

Zeitung newspaper. This Documenta, they concluded, “has made real dialogue between cultures extremely difficult for the foreseeable future.”

Summary judgment definitely has its worth: It says little about the matter being judged, but

plenty about the prosecutorial climate. To this viewer at least, the Taring Padi banner clearly

includes a very antisemitic image; it shouldn’t have been shown. But for the vast constellation of artists here who have nothing to do with this controversy, the swift and comprehensive

dismissal of the whole show may prove to clarify. It underscores why collectives are formed in

the first place: to create artistic and civic space amid fundamentally hostile systems.

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