Dear members of the Bundestag,
my name is Ade Darmawan, and today I’m addressing you as part of ruangrupa.
Let me start with a brief comment about history. In 1955, Arnold Bode established documenta in Kassel, Germany, to heal the wounds of the Second World War. A few months before, in that same year, a group of leaders collectively laid the ground for what would be known as the Non Aligned Movement, in Bandung, Indonesia, discussing a way forward independent from and built on the wounds of the colonial powers. I feel the need to retell these historical facts because histories can show us how the world imagined how to deal with atrocities and deep wounds at the same time but differently.
These differences now come closer to each other in documenta fifteen. We had a great and joyful opening week. While the journey to the opening was full of unforeseen challenges, the corona pandemic being one, we are proud of what we, our partners and collaborators have achieved.
An extra, unexpected challenge presented itself six months ago. Unfounded accusations of antisemitism against us were made in an individual’s blog and taken unquestioningly over by the mainstream media. The pressure on us to prove a negative – that we are not antisemitic – has been relentless since that moment. Throughout this additional crisis, it was our hope that with the opening of documenta fifteen, it would become possible and sufficient for our collective work to speak for itself about our intentions. This is apparently not the case. Nevertheless, we hope this meeting today can be a chance to speak truth, and move towards mutual understanding and learning.
I would like to continue by speaking about the two subjects here: the work “People’s Justice” by Taring Padi and our lumbung journey. First of all, allow me to reiterate the apology we as ruangrupa have released after the discovery of antisemitic imagery in one of the displayed artworks. We apologize for showing the work and for the pain and fear in those who looked at the figure, be it in person at documenta fifteen or reproduced by various media outlets covering this story.
It is our understanding that one reason why I am here is to answer questions of why and how Taring Padi’s huge banner “People’s Justice” was displayed without anybody noticing the imagery in question before. I want to answer this in several ways.
Coming from Indonesia, it was very vital for us to share our histories and context with our documenta public through Taring Padi’s body of works. Taring Padi’s work, especially the very early banners that were made around the time of the fall of the New Order regime (1998) and early Reformasi era post-98, when ruangrupa was founded, are a very appropriate way to show people this background.
There were several practical challenges that delayed the installation of the “People’s Justice” banner, including the scaffolding for the piece. When the banner could finally be hung, we learned that its condition was too brittle to last for 100 days, and the banner was in dire need of repair. Therefore, it was only at the actual opening and not in the preview that it got unveiled.
The collectively made banner (meaning more than twenty people worked on it at once), including the problematic elements, is deeply embedded in Indonesian history and visual language. That history includes Western secret services propping up a violent and genocidal regime in the name of anti-Communism in 1965 where more than 500,000 to 1,000,000 people were murdered.
This history also includes centuries of colonialist exploitation by European empires, like the Dutch, and by the Japanese during World War II. Part of this colonialist violence entailed pitching different non-white people against each other. You undoubtedly know that in the case of Indonesia this involved playing Indonesians against Chinese minorities, and to do this, as you also may know, Dutch colonial officers introduced originally European antisemitic ideas and images to portray Chinese in the way Europeans have portrayed Jews, and to draw a connection. This in a shocking and shameful way has come full circle in the artwork. The image is of European origin, then transformed and appropriated within our own cultural context in an unacceptable way. This is certainly something we need to process and reflect upon.
Our curatorial approach is not a classical authoritative one claiming control over or holding a narrative authorship of the exhibition in its totality. We rather decided to mutually collaborate and that they continue working on what they have been doing already, and that they translate it to Kassel in a way which is not extractive and could be regenerative for them. We hold endless discussions with artists about their ethics, politics, processes, and the way they do things. Most of the time, our collaborators invite more collaborators. We put absolute trust in this process to our collaborators that can result in works that might surprise us. Coming together in assemblies decisions were discussed and taken together. The curatorial approach and responsibility in the lumbung lies in this collectivity. We see this as a political endeavor, where collective agency, decision making and governance presents an alternative to forms of authoritarianism.
With every collaborator we engage with, we have been trying to decenter the role of Artistic Direction for documenta fifteen. The result, which has been proven to be enjoyable by thousands of visitors present in Kassel right now, cannot happen without this experiment towards more democratic processes in setting up an exhibition. We realize and welcome this particular risk fully, knowing that we can take mistakes as lessons.
Nonetheless, given all these circumstances, to dismantle Taring Padi’s “People’s Justice” was sadly the only right thing to do.
Of the many challenges facing us in the months preceding the opening, we would like to point out that they were filled with a barrage of unfounded accusations and attacks, which undoubtedly created a climate where instead of the values lumbung stands for – mutual learning based on respect – the impulse is to interrogate, to censor, to expel. We take this opportunity as well to inform the larger public, that as a result and reflection of this climate, we, ruangrupa and the artistic team, together with our collaborators—artists and team members working for documenta fifteen—are still experiencing multiple levels of harassment, physical and digital, up until this day.
This current climate is untenable for all those involved and this is a big homework for the management and also for us for the coming 100 days to ensure the safety and security of all who are involved.
So let me say this: those accusations remain false. Had conversations been given room and time to breathe, including with and between us, artists and team members, the spirit of equalities would be sustained. Dialogue and trust (instead of confrontation and mistrust that are still the experience), in the spirit of the series “We Need To Talk” should been allowed to happen for a productive and open discourse about antisemitism and racism in art and society.
I want to make this clear too: There is no “silent boycott” against Israeli and/or Jewish people. In fact, documenta fifteen features both Israeli and Jewish artists, who will not be named here to respect their wishes. We never understood our role here to be that of bringing national representations or making selections based on ethnic and religious identities.
It is a fact that many of us, including ruangrupa and Taring Padi, come from contexts where censorship is omnipresent. It has always been our intention to celebrate freedom of expression through documenta fifteen. It is important not only for the lumbung community and documenta, but for many struggles around the world supporting critical voices against nationalist violence and capitalism birthing climate crises – threats also to and in Germany. We understand that despite this conviction, this freedom should not extend to hurtful or inciteful imagery.
Therefore, it is in our highest hope to not have to suffer anything close to or resembling censorship, silencing of voices, reproducing traumas all of us have to deal with sometimes on a daily basis, where nation states exercise their control by steering what art can do, say, express, and spend their resources on. While we are willing to learn from our mistakes, we are also here to share our perspective, experience and knowledge.
Let me end by saying that this is not about the Global South as something foreign to or different from a Global North. Europeans have been living door to door with the so-called global south for centuries, since colonialist and capitalist expansions. A false juxtaposition that sees documenta fifteen as an exhibition that represents the voices of the global south will only reduce the ideas and discussions that we have been addressing in the lumbung and in the exhibition. With the lumbung method, hopefully it will be much more about how we all can learn, share, and live together with people from different yet interconnected cosmologies.
We hope we can still realize some of this great potential in what remains of the 100 days. And beyond.