The attack on Documenta 15: Whys and wherefores
Dau Chau Hai’s ‘Ballad of the East Sea’

KASSEL, Germany — Documenta 15, the “lumbung Documenta,” curated by an Indonesian collective and the first major art festival in the West to be given over entirely to a developing world group, has been unceasingly attacked by Western critics as being anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli.

The rationale of this festival, a concerted attack from various developing world collectives on Western capitalist individual and productivist modes in art and in the world in general, is a challenge to those modes. The festival’s early statement about critics characterizing it as “non-art” is that “We refuse to be exploited by European institutional agendas that are not ours to begin with.” To a lesser degree, another art institution operating a concurrent festival, the Berlin Biennale, though at points stridently critical itself of these practices, also worked as a counter to the more unbridled spirit of the lumbung Documenta.

A major part of the festival is education. The opening room of the Fridericianum, the main display area, is given over to an “educational playground for kids” where “children and artists can connect.”

This alternative attempt at education was answered by the West by appointing a panel to conduct a “scientific” investigation of the site. The panel then declared the festival was rife with anti-Semitism, a charge, especially in Germany with its horrible history, that is designed to be the main way most people hearing of the festival will remember it.

Group sharing at the Main Hall

There are several points to make about this charge.

The first is that no shred of anti-Semitism should ever be tolerated, especially in Germany which not only has its genocidal past to deal with but also a powerful far-right party, the Alternative für Deutschland (the AfD), where these sentiments may surface.

In the most radical of the groups at the festival, Taring Padi, the inquiry found a distorted representation of a hook-nosed figure in a mural which the group quickly removed. When asked, by the way, where the figure came from, their answer was that they did not know who had drawn it since they were a collective and could not recall but that there was a strong possibility that the iconography had originated with the Dutch colonizers, that is, in the West.

Other instances are more problematic. The festival has been attacked for a cinematic exhibit by a Japanese group called Tokyo Reel whose found footage of several 1960s and ’70s Palestinian films, transmitted originally to the long-since disbanded Red Army, runs in a clever cinematic display where the footage is the center of a painted film strip. The films themselves are seen as one of the opening salvos of what was to become a Third World Film Movement, a key part of the filmmaking of that period. They highlight, for example, the treatment of Palestinians in the camps in various parts of the Middle East and call Zionist practice and methods into question. The curators refused to remove the films.

Female centrality in the Algerian Revolution

An exhibit about the role of Algerian women in that country’s struggle for independence, an unearthing of a too-long-forgotten history undertaken by the Hirak people’s movement which has attempted reform in that country, consisted prominently of two blown-up silkscreens of women in the streets together rallying to overturn the 130-year history of French rule. There was, apparently in a table off to the side, one book with anti-Semitic photos, which should simply have been removed.

But to find that book, a spectator would have to search mightily and would have to ignore the thrust of the exhibition. In many ways the criticism in general is designed to have spectators do just that, to ignore 99 percent of the content and focus on the 1 percent that should have been removed.

But the critics claim the entire festival is replete with this imagery.

This claim is the standard one of attempting to collapse three concepts, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and any critique of the policies of the current Israeli state. The first is loathsome, should be erased and has no place in any festival or in the world. The second, anti-Zionism, in some way depends on one’s perspective and is echoed by the statement by a Jewish commentator that the founding of the Jewish state is the greatest triumph and the worst tragedy of the 20th century, a triumph for the Jewish people but a tragedy in light of the endless war and destruction it has brought to the region. On the question of the nation-state, it was Palestinian director Elia Suleiman who once said that he was for a Palestinian state until the moment it was founded and then he would become its harshest critic.

On the question, though, of the current policies of the state of Israel, which continues to move further and further to the right, there is no doubt that, as Marx said, what is needed is “ruthless criticism of the existing order.” This is a colonial apartheid state that, with its left mostly erased, brooks no criticism. It is also now, perhaps besides the U.S., the most ruthlessly neoliberal capitalist state which in its digital defense industry supports spyware from companies like Pegasus which was developed on the backs of the surveillance of Palestinians. Israel recently finally admitted to killing Shireen Abu Akleh, a female Al Jazeera journalist and U.S. citizen, after first blaming the Palestinians, said it was sorry, and then closed the case with no investigation over whether or not this was a targeted assassination.

The attempt at Documenta, and elsewhere, is to silence any criticism of the Israeli state by conflating the three concepts.

There were some errors made at Documenta, foremost among them being that there should have been more participation among Jewish progressive collectives and groups critical of the policies of Israel, for example, Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the BDS boycott. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) essentially attempts to organize a ban on all products coming from the settler-colonial factories of the occupied West Bank.Though it is now outlawed in Germany and in many states in the U.S., the movement continues to gather momentum and constitutes a major global challenge to these practices.

The larger thrust of the critique though is that this is the West’s answer to developing people’s challenging its institutions. While the lumbung Documenta was in many ways about education, the “scientific” panel convened to “investigate” Documenta was in effect doing a little schooling of its own, that is, teaching this group of collectives that they had better think twice before again launching such a critique.

And in Berlin—

A softer, more restrained, but in ways no less adamant critique of Western practices, though solidly contained by the parameters of the contemporary art world, was the recently concluded Berlin Biennale.

Here, as in Documenta, abstraction was minimized as artists confronted the issues of the day with, in some cases, an obsessive, documentary intensity. Moses Marz’s mapmaking highlights the spirit of Bandung, the Asian and African newly independent states’ conference in 1955 that announced their non-aligned position of independence from the major powers in the Cold War. The work—a maze of arrows, text and circles—is in its intensity a kind of political Art Brut or Outsider Art, an unearthing and charting of colonial cruelty and its resistance with all the painstaking detail of Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls but here in a geopolitical rather than a psychosexual context.

Prabhakar Kamble’s sacred cow

India’s Prabhakar Kamble’s ragged feet of agricultural workers with a metal filament then leading to, in one case, a miniature of a blue cow, points to the fact that that beast is sacred in the country, while poor rural workers form the basis, the foundation, the “footing” of the economy but are ground under by this oppressive inequality. Likewise, Birender Yadav’s actual worn sandals spread out below photographs of the almost numb feet of workers in a brick factory, their feet as hard as bricks, recall Van Gogh’s peasant’s feet in a global linking of oppressed workers.

Jean-Jacques Lebel’s life-size photos of the torture at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib with U.S. soldiers looking on amused, interspersed with photos of the Shock and Awe annihilation of the Baghdad was even more effectively rendered because it was laid out in a maze where it was difficult to keep from getting lost in the “fog of war.”

Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Abu Gharib “fog of war”

Dau Chau Hai’s “Ballad of the East Sea” was a sculpture of undulating waves with sharp blades, waves that could kill, as the sea—think of the current U.S. battleships in the South China Sea—becomes increasingly militarized.

Finally, Alex Prager’s “Crowd #4 New Haven” was a crowd scene shot from above where all the individuals in this collective space are exerting every inch of their will to accentuate their own personality—through hair style, dress, and makeup—and deny the existence of the collective. Ultimately, in a way that throws that consumer-defined concept into question, they are imprisoned in the very “individuality” that is supposed to mark their freedom.

The Berlin Biennale, a safer art space operating within the more abstract and conceptual framework of the commercial art world, nevertheless also, as did Documenta, pointed to the fact that Western modes of production and conceptualizing are not only homogenizing but also destroying the planet. Documenta’s bolder presentation of this case drew fire from outside the art world, though it was strongly supported from within, but both events call attention to a moment of crisis that cannot be resolved by simply shooting the messenger.

The New York Times ran a rather cheesy obituary for Documenta 15, in which it questioned the very project of a political art festival. The writer concluded that this iteration of Documenta betrayed the promise of the now-deceased Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, whose 2002 festival was a global political broadside. Rather than betray that version, the lumbung Documenta instead updates, fulfills and extends Enwezor’s vision in a way that he might likely have approved.


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.