Head of Documenta resigns amid anti-Semitism scandal

After a month of crisis that has ravaged the art world, Sabine Schormann, the director general of the renowned contemporary art exhibition Documenta, resigned from her position on Saturday, just 28 days after the exhibition’s 100-day run.

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

The board “deems it essential that every effort is made to regain that trust,” the statement said. The board will convene a group of experts on art, anti-Semitism and postcolonialism to determine what went wrong and decide if there are any more 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.

The 15th edition of Documenta this year is curated by ruangrupa, an Indonesian art collective, and involves more than 1,000 artists, mostly from the south of the world, who organize exhibitions and events. One group created a kink-friendly nightclub for visitors; another built a sauna. Many of the exhibit locations are intended as places where visitors can participate in events and discuss social and political issues, as well as view art.

Siddhartha Mitter, who reviewed Documenta for The New York Times, said that “opportunities are thrown open all over this show: ways of exploring the past or exchanging in the present that provide ground for hope; strategies beyond the constraints of state and capitalist systems; and fodder for civic sense.”

Despite this acclaim, Documenta was already mired in controversy even before its opening. In January, a protest group, the Alliance Against Antisemitism Kassel, accused ruangrupa and other artists of supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. In 2019, the German parliament declared that movement anti-Semitic, saying it questioned Israel’s right to exist.

The allegations first appeared on a blog, but were picked up by German newspapers and politicians. In June, fury increased when Taring Padi, another Indonesian art collective, installed a work of art called “People’s Justice” in one of Kassel’s main squares.

Originally created in 2002, “People’s Justice” measures approximately 20 meters in length and is a political banner with cartoonish depictions of activists struggling under Indonesian military rule. Among the multitude of figures is one that appears to be a Jewish caricature with side locks and fangs, wearing a hat with the Nazi ‘SS’ emblem.

The banner also features a military figure, with a pig’s head, wearing a Star of David tie cloth and with the word “Mossad”, the name of the Israeli security service, written on his helmet. (That figure appears alongside soldiers identified as members of other intelligence agencies, including the KGB)

Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, said in: a statement 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 artwork was first covered up and then removed, and both Taring Padi and ruangrupa apologised, but that didn’t end the controversy.

Days later, Ms Roth said the festival had to explain how the “clearly anti-Semitic image” was put up in the first place, adding that Documenta needed “fundamental structural reforms” if it were to receive future funding from the German government.

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

Those steps also did not end the crisis, especially after Mr Mendel resigned from his position. Mr. Mendel said in a telephone interview last week, before Ms. Schormann stepped down, that Documenta’s management team prevented him from starting his job.

“I didn’t even get half a piece of art to see,” he said. He had to contact 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 losing faith in the event. On July 8, Hito Steyerl, one of the most prominent artists in the exhibit, donned her work, saying in an email to Documenta that she had “no confidence” in the organization’s ability to handle the spat. Ms Steyerl said in a telephone interview before Ms Schormann’s resignation that the anger had prevented people from paying attention to the art.

“The art isn’t even secondary – nobody talks about it now,” Ms Steyerl said.

“So many people have spent so much time working on this,” she added, “and by failing to address the allegations of anti-Semitism — both justified and unwarranted — in a decisive and transparent manner, Documenta has allowed this debate to overshadow everything else. “

Documenta said in its statement on Saturday that it would appoint an interim director general to replace Ms. Schormann, but it did not give a timeline for that to happen.

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