1,500 artists and a million visitors are expected, while the contemporary art exhibition in the peaceful town of Cassel has just opened against a backdrop of controversy which is rekindling tensions across the Rhine.
Vandalism, accusations of anti-Semitism and a giant pile of compost: the fifteenth edition of Documenta, the prestigious German contemporary art meeting, opens with its share of controversy. The event, which every five years transforms the peaceful city of Cassel (center) into an anthill of the art world, starts on Saturday but has already been talked about for months. “La Documenta promises to be radical, from the guests to the works, including the exhibition venues”, warned its director Sabine Schormann during the presentation to the press. For the first time, a collective of artists took the reins of the event.
The “Ruangrupa” group is made up of designers from Jakarta, Indonesia. They want to show a vision of art less centered on Europe or the United States and to draw attention to the evils of capitalism, colonization and patriarchal structures. This young artistic direction went through weeks of turbulence when the participation of the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding, very critical of the Israeli occupation, was unveiled.
An anonymous blog post, signed by a certain “Alliance against anti-Semitism Kassel” in January accused these artists of being linked to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates a boycott of Israel because of its occupation of the Palestinian territories.
BDS was labeled as “anti-Semitic” by the German parliament in 2019 and banned from receiving public money. However, around half of Documenta’s budget – 42 million euros – comes from the federal state. Several German media have in turn criticized the participation of the collective, prompting Ruangrupa to condemn in an open letter “bad faith attempts to delegitimize artists and preemptively censor them on the basis of their ethnic heritage”.
Last month, vandals broke into the space where works by Palestinian artists are displayed, covering the walls with threatening graffiti. At least one of the tags was still visible this week between paintings and photographs documenting the harshness of life in the Gaza Strip, AFP found during a visit.
In a series of collages, Palestinian artist Mohammed al-Hawajri juxtaposes images of Gaza with the works of great masters of Western art: Delacroix, Chagall, Van Gogh and above all Picasso and his pacifist masterpiece Guernica. German Culture Minister Claudia Roth sided with Ruangrupa and his guests. “Anti-Semitism has no place at Documenta”she elaborated. “At the same time, artistic freedom is a key point”.
On the lack of diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Israel, the minister commented: “I can condemn him. But that does not mean that an Indonesian artist or collective is per se suspicious. The weekly Der Spiegel called the case an embarrassing spectacle and ruled that “the German cultural sector has a big problem” to compose between artistic freedom, respect for minorities and the weight of history.
A symbol of creative renewal
During World War II, the city of Kassel hosted a large forced labor camp, before being largely destroyed by Allied bombing. The creation of Documenta in 1955 was intended to restore Germany’s place on the cultural scene after the Nazi persecutions of the artistic avant-garde. Documenta is now a major meeting place for contemporary art, along with the Venice Biennale. For 100 days, the works of more than 1,500 artists are expected to attract at least one million visitors.
At one of the main exhibition sites, Kenyan artists from the Wajukuu Art Project have installed a corrugated iron entrance that evokes the slums of Nairobi. Inside, a dark tunnel disorients visitors – a feeling they’ll find in many facilities, including a revamped sex club in a basement.
In a park, in front of the city’s Baroque Orangery, stands a work that will make skeptics of contemporary art hold their noses: a compost heap with toilets, which invite visitors to fertilize the soil. As a symbol of creative renewal!