Documenta chief resigns over anti-Semitism scandal

After a month of crisis that has rocked the art world, Sabine Schormann, managing director of acclaimed contemporary art exhibition Documenta, resigned from her post on Saturday just 28 days after the exhibition began its 100-day run.

The crisis began after an artwork containing anti-Semitic imagery was installed, covered up and then removed from the exhibition, which is held every five years in Kassel, Germany. The hanging of the artwork, a huge piece containing a Jewish caricature, led to a loss of confidence in the event, Documenta’s board said in a statement announcing Schormann’s departure.

The board “considers it essential that every effort be made to regain this trust,” the statement added. The council will convene a panel of experts on art, anti-Semitism and post-colonialism to determine what went wrong and decide if there are other anti-Semitic imagery in the show, the statement said. .

Documenta is widely regarded as one of the most important events in the art world, rivaled only by the Venice Biennale.

This year’s edition of Documenta, the 15th, is organized by ruangrupa, an Indonesian art collective, and involves more than 1,000 artists, mainly from the south, organizing exhibitions and events. A group has created a visitor-friendly nightclub; another built a sauna. Many exhibition venues are meant to be places where visitors can participate in events and discuss social and political issues, as well as view art.

Siddhartha Mitter, Documenta reviewer for The New York Times, said that “everywhere in this show, possibilities open up: ways to examine the past or trade in the present, which offer grounds for hope; strategies outside state and capitalist structures; and fodder for the civic imagination.

Despite such success, Documenta has been embroiled in controversy even before it opened. In January, a protest group called the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel accused ruangrupa and other artists of supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. In 2019, the German parliament declared this movement anti-Semitic, saying it challenged Israel’s right to exist.

The accusations first appeared on a blog, but were picked up by German newspapers and politicians. In June, the furor accelerated when Taring Padi, another Indonesian art collective, installed an artwork titled “People’s Justice” in one of Kassel’s main squares.

Approximately 18 meters in length, “People’s Justice”, originally created in 2002, is a political banner that features cartoon-like depictions of activists struggling under Indonesia’s military rule. Among the multitude of figures is one who appears to be a Jewish cartoon with sideburns and fangs, wearing a hat emblazoned with the Nazi “SS” emblem.

The banner also features a military figure, with a pig’s head, who wears a Star of David scarf and has the word “Mossad”, the name of Israel’s security service, written on his helmet. (This figure appears alongside soldiers identified as members of other intelligence forces, including the KGB)

Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, said in A declaration at the time that “in my opinion these are anti-Semitic images”, and the banner was criticized by prominent Jewish groups and the Israeli Embassy in Germany. The work was first covered up and then removed, and Taring Padi and ruangrupa apologized, but that did not end the controversy.

Days later, Ms Roth said the festival needed to explain how the ‘clearly anti-Semitic image’ had been hung in the first place, adding that Documenta needed ‘fundamental structural reform’ if it was to receive future funding of the German government.

The same day, Ms. Schormann tried to distance herself from the controversy by saying in a press release that she was “not responsible” for the artistic content of Documenta. The exhibit will be “inspected for further critical work,” the statement added. This task, he said, would be led by ruangrupa with the support of Meron Mendel, the director of the Anne Frank Education Center in Frankfurt.

These movements did not end the crisis either, especially after the resignation of Mr. Mendel. Mr. Mendel said in a phone interview last week, before Ms. Schormann’s resignation, that Documenta’s management team blocked him from starting his job.

“I didn’t even get half a piece of art to see,” he said. He had to contact the artists himself to talk about their work, as Documenta initially refused to put him in touch with them, he added.

At least one Documenta artist has publicly admitted to a loss of faith in the event. On July 8, Hito Steyerl, one of the most prominent artists in the exhibition, withdrew her work, saying in an email to Documenta that she had “zero confidence” in the ability of the organization to deal with the dispute. Ms Steyerl said in a telephone interview before Ms Schormann’s resignation that the furor had stopped people paying attention to the art.

“The art isn’t even secondary – no one is talking about it right now,” Ms. Steyerl said.

“So many people have worked for so long on this subject,” she added, “and by failing to address accusations of anti-Semitism – both justified and unjustified – decisively and transparently, Documenta has left this debate eclipse everything else”.

Documenta said in its statement on Saturday that it would appoint an interim chief executive to replace Ms Schormann, but it gave no timeline for that to happen.

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