At Hallenbad Ost, works by Taring Padi, a collective that had one of its panels, exhibited at Friederichplatz, taken from documenta fifteen after criticism - explained in the text. Photo: Patricia Rousseaux
At Hallenbad Ost, works by Taring Padi, a collective that had one of its panels, exhibited at Friederichplatz, taken from documenta fifteen after criticism - explained in the text. Photo: Patricia Rousseaux

The discussions that polarized the 100 days of documents fifteen, in Kassel, which ended last September, need to be seen in a broader context, within a concept created in 1991 by sociologist James Davison Hunter in the book cultural wars, released in the USA, and unpublished in Brazil.

There, he points out how fundamentalist evangelicals, Jews and conservative Catholics came together in a battle for control of American secular culture, as occurred against the exhibition dedicated to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, in 1989, censored after pedophilia allegations.

In a way, battles began there around narratives that decontextualize works of art to, through an appealing discourse, create the impression that culture would be at the service of deconstructing moral standards, mostly against the traditional notion of family and nation.

Since then, actions within what came to be called the “cultural war” have gained strength, including here in Brazil, on sometimes isolated occasions, such as the cancellation of Nan Goldin’s show, at Oi Futuro, in Rio, in 2011, or the censorship of the work drawing with thirds, by the artist Márcia X, at the exhibition Erotic – the senses of art, at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Rio, in 2006.

In 2017, this war gained more organized contours, especially on account of the MBL group (Movimento Brasil Livre), which created a wave against the exhibition on social media. Queermuseum: cartographies of difference in Brazilian art, at Santander Cultural in Porto Alegre, closed almost a month ahead of schedule, due to allegations of apology for pedophilia and zoophilia. Also in 2017, another exhibition suffered an avalanche of protests: the 35th Panorama of Brazilian Art at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, due to the performance The Beast, by Wagner Schwartz, presented at its opening.

In these two cases, the exhibitions suffered deliberate attacks to demoralize, through exaggeratedly false and decontextualized accusations, culture in general, as it is a field identified as left-wing.

Not by chance, this conservative wave was fundamental for the 2018 and now 2022 elections in Brazil, and continued as a platform for the current federal government, which treated culture with disregard – even ending with the Ministry of Culture – in addition to greatly reduce the scope of the Rouanet Law.

What does this question have to do with the anti-Semitic debate in documenta fifteen? All. Since before the opening of the show, in June, groups of the German right had already demonstrated in Kassel, threatening artists who defended Palestine. However, it was in the opening itself that the theme gained dimension due to the immense mural People's Justice.

Shown without trauma in 2002 in Australia, it has now been installed close to documenta's traditional headquarters, Fridericianum. 12 meters wide, the panel contains, among dozens of images, two Jews, one wearing a Nazi police hat and the other a member of the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Artists from the Taring Padi collective, authors of the work, said it was a work against the violence of the Suharto military dictatorship in Indonesia.

tokyo reels
Film cans from the Tokyo Reels collection, 2018, present at the Subversive Film show, by documenta XV.
Photo: Courtesy Subversive Film

It is important to remember that they have the same origin as ruangrupa, the collective responsible for the artistic direction of documenta XV. However, in the German context, so sensitive to Jewish issues after the Holocaust, these images caused outrage and the work was withdrawn.

“There is no intention to link it in any way to anti-Semitism. We are saddened that details are understood differently from their original purpose,” Taring Padi said in a statement, in which they also apologized.

However, an environment for polarization was already created, which favored those who saw the possibility of a cultural war around the show, whether through the media, which insisted on questioning the exhibition as a whole, and even the institution itself. : first, Sabine Schormann, director-general of documenta XV, left her post in July, and the following month, when the attacks continued, a Scientific Support Committee was created to deal with the issue.

Following the line of unfounded and exaggerated accusations of the culture wars, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung claimed that a Jewish collective from São Paulo had been invited and then disinvited. THE People's house, in São Paulo, which during the organization of the show served as a meeting point for ruangrupa with Brazilian groups, came to express itself on the subject, denying the German newspaper and supporting documenta.

In a note issued by the e-flow, they recall that Graziela Kunsch, the only Brazilian in documenta [read about the participation of the artist VII International Seminar promoted by arte!brasileiros], is based on the concepts of a Jewish-Hungarian pedagogue, Emmi Pikler (1902-1984), in addition to presenting photos by a Jewish-Hungarian artist, Marian Reissmann (1911-1991), who document the practice of her countrywoman. The text also vehemently points out possible motivations for the attacks: “The fair denunciation of anti-Semitic images is being used to delegitimize the entire exhibition, attack a decolonial agenda and oppose critical thinking.”

The Scientific Committee, on the other hand, fell into the trap of seeking to identify other works with the same connotation, thus reinforcing a generalization. In a public statement in September, they asked that films by the Subversive Film collective no longer be shown: “What is highly problematic about this work is not just the film documents, which contain anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist pieces, but also the artists’ comments. inserted between the films, in which they legitimize the hatred of Israel and the glorification of terrorism in the source material through their uncritical discussion.”

Taring Padi
At Hallenbad Ost, works by Taring Padi, a collective that had one of its panels, exhibited at Friederichplatz, taken from documenta fifteen after criticism – explained in the text.
Photo: Patricia Rousseaux

The program that cites this note is the Tokyo Reels Film Festival, so called because it exhibited a series of recently restored films, which were under the custody of the Japanese director Masao Adachi, giving visibility to a practically unknown archive of a solidarity and anti-imperialist action. between Japan and Palestine.

Against this proposal of censorship by the Committee, the artists of the documenta themselves stood up in a note published by e-flux entitled We are angry, we are sad, we are tired, we are united – letter from the lumbung community.

In addition to opposing all types of censorship, the letter spells out the culture war strategy: “It is obvious to us that the same mechanism of passing the buck from cyberbullies and racist bloggers to mainstream media, to racist attackers on the ground, for politicians and even academics, it is being reproduced in every situation”.

For the group of artists, the accusation of anti-Semitism deserves to be seen from another perspective: “It is in the context of documenta fifteen, and in the specificities of the German context, that we see that the positioning of Palestinian artists is the point at which our anti-colonial struggles meet. and became a focus of attack. Anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian, anti-queer, transphobia, anti-gypsy, ableism, castism, anti-black, xenophobia and other forms of racism are racisms that German society must deal with in addition to anti-Semitism.”

The issue that all this controversy around anti-Semitism reinforces is how the lack of dialogue ended up imposing a punitive logic, which began with the cover-up of the panel, followed with the departure of the director-general and then with the proposals of the Scientific Committee, in a way that to end up covering up the entire debate on the content of the show. There are now those in Germany who argue that documenta should no longer be carried out. It is the logic of the culture war, where it is necessary to eliminate the divergent, in this case, artistic practices that condemn the xenophobic policies of the State of Israel.

Omah Kendeng Community
Workshop with Omah Kendeng Community in Java, Indonesia, 2021.
Photo: Reproduction of the Documenta Quinze Catalog, May 2022

The artists’ letter was supported by the documenta Selection Committee, made up of an international team of highly respected curators, including Amar Kanwar, Charles Esche, Elvira Dyangani Ose, Frances Morris, Gabi Ngcobo, Jochen Volz, Philippe Pirotte and Ute Meta. Bauer. The support note, which also opposed works being censored, was published in the show website. The group also pointed to the underlying issue: "We reject both the poison of anti-Semitism and its current instrumentalization, which is being done to deflect criticism of the 21st century State of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory."

As in all war tactics, the one used in this document sought to erase any discussion that pointed to its qualities. A lot of people, who didn't even see the show, started to say that there was no art in the show, as was read in low-level texts that circulated around. This is an obvious mistake for anyone who has been there.
First, because this lack of art debate is totally misguided. From the anthological show Live in your head: when attitudes become form, organized by Harald Szeemann in 1969, materiality is not a matter of fact, but life in the head is. And, in that sense, the show had a vitality like few I've seen.

This edition of documenta deserves to be celebrated as one of its most complex editions, which had the courage to solemnly ignore the art market, which gave visibility to an immense number of little-known artists, especially from the global south, and who created, with the lumbung, a new key to thinking about contemporary art.

Not coincidentally, curator Charles Esche points out that this edition will be remembered as one of the first exhibitions of the 21st century that “accepts that capitalism has simply become destructive and does not try to reform it”. He adds: “It points out how life can survive and thrive in the face of the hostility of a catastrophic world economic and social system.”

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