What a missed opportunity: Anyone who thought that Meron Mendel’s advisory function for Documenta 15 could bring some analytical calm back after months of criticism from various sides from outside and blatant communication and organizational errors from within, had to think of it as a further step in a steady downward spiral appear. Mendel, director of the Anne Frank educational institution, who was appointed as an external consultant almost two and a half weeks ago, declared his position over yesterday.
In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung, Mendel justified his decision with an “absurd situation”. He started the advisory role with a “quiet hope” that something could still be saved. Also from a felt obligation to exhibitors who, as he emphasized, “deserve better”. However, inquiries from him were ignored by the Documenta management or remained unanswered for a long time. He had waited more than two weeks until finally only half an A4 page of a very rudimentary plan was presented to him. There was “a lot of fog,” said Mendel, “nothing concrete.”
This made it easy for biased critics of Documenta 15 to characterize the exhibition as an anti-Semitic event from the start. “This doing nothing and dragging it out is the best thing that could have happened to those who wanted to discredit this documenta from the start,” says Mendel, “here one own goal was scored after the next.”
Ruangrupa was not invited to a panel discussion
Just over a week ago, a panel discussion took place in Kassel, which Mendel himself had suggested. The politics professor Nikita Dhawan, the former Documenta curator Adam Szymczyk, the director of the education department of the Central Council of Jews Doron Kiesel, the artistic director on the board of the German Federal Cultural Foundation Hortensia Völckers and Mendel himself discussed anti-Semitism in art and about borders and possibilities of dialogue. The conversation followed lengthy arguments about actual and supposed anti-Semitism and the question of whether there had been something like a “silent boycott” of Jewish or Israeli artists at this documenta.
Strikingly, no member of the Ruangrupa curatorial team was represented on the podium. A representative of the collective from the audience reported in advance to state that Ruangrupa was there to learn. According to Mendel, management wanted to prevent Ruangrupa from participating. He couldn’t explain why. He had tried to convey to the management several times in advance that the condition of such an event was the possibility that Ruangrupa was involved. Nevertheless, the collective would not have found out about the event from the management, but from the press. “They have a neo-colonial attitude towards Ruangrupa,” Mendel said.
Now Hito Steyerl has also withdrawn her work of art
After Mendel’s withdrawal, the video artist Hito Steyerl recently announced that she would have her artwork removed. In an email to the Documenta team and Sabine Schormann, she asked the production team to reduce her work, according to Spiegel. Steyerl accused the Documenta management of not having taken any responsibility for showing anti-Semitic content and named a “factual refusal” by those responsible to accept offers of mediation. When asked, Steyerl let the Berliner Zeitung know that she had already said everything necessary.
Will this mean the nail in the coffin of Documenta 15, as some fear? Mendel says he hopes that’s not the case. He advised Hito Steyerl against deducting her work. “I don’t want to be the destroyer of the Documenta,” emphasizes Mendel, “but rather generate motivation to finally tackle the topic properly.”
Documenta disaster is exploited
The Bundestag Committee for Culture and Media also dealt with the allegations of anti-Semitism on Wednesday afternoon. In addition to representatives of political parties, Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth, Managing Director of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Daniel Botmann and Ruangrupa spokesman Ade Darmawan also attended. Sabine Schormann canceled for health reasons.
Daniel Botmann explained at the meeting that a “self-cleansing process” is now pending in the German cultural landscape. The BDS resolution of the Bundestag must finally be followed. Especially at HKW there is reason to “take a closer look”. Botmann particularly criticized the HKW conference “Hijacking Memory”, where anti-Semitic content had been formulated. According to Botmann, the Center for Research on Antisemitism is also known in Jewish circles as a center where the word “research” is sometimes omitted.
Such statements, Mendel commented, give him the impression that things are being thrown together that don’t belong together. He was shocked that Botmann used the event as a stage to flatly defame employees of scientific institutions as anti-Semites. “I was particularly shocked that nobody contradicted Botmann. We talk about artistic freedom all the time. But there is also something like freedom of science. If representatives of such institutions are falsely portrayed as anti-Semites, the suspicion arises that scientific studies are also being carried out in such a way that they correspond to the ideas of the Central Council.” Of course you can criticize a conference, but then it has to be a criticism of the content. Not a blanket defamation of the – also Jewish – participants.
AfD motion against postcolonialism
In a motion that has since been rejected, the AfD demanded that the German Bundestag “stop promoting postcolonialism immediately”. In blatant misjudgment of research, the motion stated that postcolonialism was “inherently anti-Semitic.” In a similar motion, the CDU/CSU demanded that the federal government now “actively implement” the BDS decision of 2019. In reference to that decision, funds and premises have been withdrawn from Palestinian and Jewish Israelis in some cases in recent years.
In a situation where the Documenta debacle was used by right-wing extremists to pursue xenophobic politics, one would wish that the exhibition management would take the situation and offers of help like Meron Mendel’s seriously. The fact that this has apparently not happened so far seems grossly negligent in the current situation.