Documenta was an entire vibe. Then a scandal killed the buzz.

As soon as a clearly anti-Semitic image with additional Holocaust connotations – a figure with a large nose, sharp teeth and side locks, adorned with an “SS” cap – was spotted in a huge agitprop tableau which had been erected in a central square in Kassel, the integrity of Documenta itself, which operates on public funds, was called into question.

The incident was hopelessly preventable. The wall banner of the Indonesian collective Taring Padi dates from 2002; he depicts Indonesian political life as a great battle of oppressors, capitalists and polluters against the people, under the gaze of the ancestors. He did not go up to Friedrichsplatz, the heart of the show, until the end of the preview, during which Taring Padi had charmed visitors with hundreds of cardboard puppets in the same square and in the town.

Months before Documenta, critics had leveled accusations in advance, including that participants supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which the German parliament has declared anti-Semitic. Prior to the installation of the exhibition, The Question of Funding, a group of Palestinian artists, was targeted by vandals who broke in and tagged its exhibition space.

In this flammable climate, one might have expected a certain vigilance. But from whom? The banner, apparently raised late because it was being restored, escaped the attention of Ruangrupa, whose members, in an apologysaid they failed to spot the attacking elements. Sabine Schormann, Managing Director of Documenta, told Der Spiegel magazine that the administrators had screened no art in advance, out of respect for artistic freedom.

The book has been deleted. But for the German establishment, this Documenta is clearly over. A barrage of criticism from politicians and the media proclaimed the whole exhibition a national embarrassment, called for greater state control over future editions and demanded Schormann’s resignation. Management has just announced that, artistic freedom notwithstanding, Ruangrupa must watch the whole show for offensive content with the support of the Anne Frank Center Frankfurt — setting up a battle with the artists.

James C. Tibbs