May 29, 2023

The Indonesian curatorial collective ruangrupa, which is organizing the fifteenth iteration of the Documenta, has published an open letter responding to accusations of anti-Semitism attending the quinquennial. The missive comes on the heels of the curators’ last-minute decision to cancel a series of planned talks meant to address the allegations ahead of the event’s June 18 opening. Titled “We need to talk! Art — Freedom — Solidarity,”  the conversations were scheduled to take place May 8, 15, and 22 and were to have featured speakers including Berlin-based Islam scholar Schirin Amir-Moazami; Israeli author Omri Boehm; anti-Semitism scholar and Germany’s commissioner for Jewish life Marina Chernivsky; curator Anselm Franke; artist Hito Steyerl; and architect Eyal Weizman, the Israel-born founder of the group Forensic Architecture, which has historically supported Palestine’s struggle for freedom.

In the letter, the curatorial team shed light on their previously unexplained decision to cancel the talks, casting “a free and productive discussion” as “impossible” under the current conditions. “Some of the participants withdrew, or considered withdrawing, just a few days before the forum’s intended opening,” wrote the organizers. “The forum intended to confront and problematize the accusations in their full breadth moving beyond entrenched institutional positions. The accusations were to be the subject of discussion, not the basis for it. documenta fifteen has now decided to await the official opening of the exhibition in order to meet the need for discussion as it arises, on the basis of the works shown and statements made at the exhibit.”

While not naming those who had dropped out of the talks, ruangrupa contended that their departure was spurred by comments made by Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who in a letter to German culture minister Claudia Roth criticized the roster of participants as exhibiting “a clear bias against anti-Semitism.” Roth argued that “anti-Semitism has no place at Documenta” and further contended that it was “important to bring different positions into the talks.” Among Schuster’s issues with the planned talks was the centering of one around problems of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian racism.

Allegations against ruangrupa and Documenta originally surfaced in January, when a little-known organization known as the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel posted an anonymous blog entry accusing members of the selection committee and some of the participating artists of “promoting hatred of Israel” and of supporting the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions). According to ruangrupa, the cited support took the form of signing, alongside a number of Jewish signatories, an open letter arguing that the German Parliament’s 2019 BDS Resolution of the “is a threat to artistic freedom and freedom of speech.” The curators also noted that the blog contained factual errors and racist slurs against ruangrupa; despite these elements, Artnews reports, the story was picked up and circulated by the well-known German daily Die Zeit and has since become a flash point in the country.

Documenta 15 is currently scheduled to run June 18 through September 25 in Kassel.


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