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January 31, 2023 1:27 pm

Art Festival in Germany Dominated by Antisemitism Was ‘Inspiring,’ Newly-Appointed Director Says

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Demonstrators protesting the inclusion of antisemitic artworks at the Documenta festival in Kassel, Germany. Photo: Reuters/Swen Pförtner/dpa

The newly-appointed director of Germany’s Documenta festival of contemporary art has described its 2022 edition — which was dominated by a series of scandals around antisemitism — as “inspiring,” in comments that are likely to stir concern in the German Jewish community and among those politicians seeking greater oversight regarding the festival’s content.

In an extensive interview with the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung (NOZ) on Tuesday, Andreas Hoffmann — a long-established curator and academic who takes up his new post in May — offered a robust defense of last year’s federally-funded Documenta festival, which featured a number of virulently antisemitic artworks.

“As an art manager, this Documenta amazed me,” Hoffmann said.

He added that he had been “fascinated” by the festival’s “far-reaching perspective on topics such as collectivity, solidarity and participation, as well as sustainability.”

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Hoffmann argued that the festival’s curators — the Indonesian ruangrupa collective — had been “inspiring” in exposing viewers to “discussions about new forms of collective leadership in cultural institutions,” claiming that the 2022 festival had been a  “strong driving force” in that regard.

However, on the question of antisemitic exhibits at the festival, Hoffmann was notably more circumspect, failing to condemn the displays outright while offering assurances that the festival’s next edition, in 2027, would arrive at an agreement “on standards in dealing with artistic freedom and its limits, in dealing with any group-specific form of bigotry such as antisemitism, racism and antiziganism [anti-Roma discrimination].”

Asked about ruangrupa’s hostile reactions to the claims of antisemitism made throughout the festival, Hoffmann replied sympathetically, stressing that “contextualization is a central component of understanding, especially when dealing with problematic works.”

The appeal to “contextualization” may well anger the German Jewish officials, politicians and festival-goers who were confronted with crudely antisemitic images throughout the 2022 festival, which takes place in the city of Kassel every five years and runs from June to September.

Initial concerns were raised in the build-up to the festival in January 2022, regarding the participation of artistic groups who support the campaign to isolate the State of Israel through a comprehensive boycott, among them ruangrupa.

Shortly after the festival opened in June, another scandal unfolded that centered on a mural, titled “People’s Justice,” which included ugly antisemitic stereotypes — among them the depiction of an Israeli soldier as a pig wearing a helmet emblazoned with the word “Mossad,” for the Israeli intelligence agency, and a caricature of an Orthodox Jew with a hooked nose and traditional hat embossed with the letters “SS”, for the Nazi paramilitary organization. Although the mural was removed from display, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz canceled a visit to the festival in protest at the “disgusting” images it contained.

Towards the end of the festival in September, ruangrupa issued a defiant defense of the “Tokyo Reels” — a video installation documenting the solidarity of Japanese leftists with the Palestinian cause that contained antisemitic invective. “In the context of Documenta fifteen and the specificities of the German context, we see that the targeting of Palestinian artists is the point at which our anti-colonial struggles meet, and have become a focal point for attack,” the collective declared in a statement.

The controversies resulted in the resignation of the festival’s Director, Sabine Schormann in July and the ousting of her interim successor, Alexander Farenholz, the following month. Several leading German officials, including Felix Klein, the country’s federal commissioner tasked with combating antisemitism, have subsequently urged tighter artistic control of the festival, which receives federal funds.

Asked about government intervention in the festival, Hoffmann was non-committal. “The main question here is how the federal government will participate in the Documenta in the future or how it will contribute to the structures that already exist,” he said.

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