With two people having exited the committee charged with finding an artistic director for the forthcoming edition of Documenta, a closely watched exhibition in Germany, the remaining four members have now followed suit, putting the future of the 2027 edition in doubt as pressure continues to mount.
On Thursday, Documenta said that those four members—Simon Njami, Gong Yan, Kathrin Rhomberg, and María Inés Rodríguez—had tendered their resignation after what the exhibition called “an extremely difficult decision-making process.”
“In the current circumstances we do not believe that there is a space in Germany for an open exchange of ideas and the development of complex and nuanced artistic approaches that documenta artists and curators deserve,” the curators wrote in their letter, which was published on Thursday night by e-flux. “We do not believe that any acceptable conditions can be created in short term and consider it to be disrespectful of documenta’s legacy to simply remain content with the current situation.”
Their departures follow those of Israeli artist and philosopher Bracha L. Ettinger and Indian poet and critic Ranjit Hoskote, who resigned on Friday and Sunday, respectively.
Ettinger attributed her decision to an inability to attend in-person meetings following the October 7 attack by Hamas and said she had been moved to leave the committee by the “dark times” facing her home country.
Hoskote had been denounced by Documenta for signing a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions letter that compared Zionism to Hindu nationalism in India. Documenta called that letter “anti-Semitic.” Hoskote said in his resignation letter, “It is clear to me that there is no room, in this toxic atmosphere, for a nuanced discussion of the issues at stake.”
Many had speculated about the years to come for Documenta last year, when the exhibition witnessed scrutiny because it contained works that many said depicted antisemitic stereotypes. Additionally, some Jewish groups said that the show had featured Palestinian artists at the exclusion of Israeli ones. With the controversy far exceeding the borders of Kassel, the German city where Documenta takes place once every five years, a number of German politicians, including culture minister Claudia Roth, threatened to cut off support from Documenta.
Some prophesied an end to Documenta’s reign. “I doubt Documenta will command the respect and the pre-eminence it did before this year, though, and it’ll never recover its aim of imagining the whole world in one show,” New York Times critic Jason Farago wrote in his review.
Hoskote, in his resignation letter, even seemed to suggest that Documenta had run aground of its mission, writing, “It pains me to say that such circumstances negate Documenta’s historic openness to a diversity of positions and its capacity for sustaining the life of the imagination in a supportive environment.”
The remaining members’ resignation letter hinted at these tensions, saying, “It is this emotional and intellectual climate of over-simplification of complex realities and its resulting restrictive limitations, which has been prevalent since documenta15 and especially against the background of the current crises our world is facing, that makes it impossible for us to conceive of a strong and signal exhibition project, and consequently to allow for a responsible continuation of the selection process to determine a curatorial concept for documenta16.”
Now, with no selection committee members left at all, Documenta’s forthcoming edition, its 16th, finds itself in a position that virtually no other biennial-style show of its caliber has ever faced.
In its statement on Thursday, Documenta said it had considered putting the process of selecting an artistic director on hold altogether “due to the special world situation following the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel.” The exhibition also said it had contemplated bringing on two new members to replace Hoskote and Ettinger, and continuing on from there. But neither plan ended up being enacted because the four other members resigned on Thursday night, Documenta wrote.
Speaking of the resignations, Documenta said in a statement that it “respects this decision and thanks everyone involved for their commitment.” The exhibition promised a total redesign of the selection committee, but did not provide an update on whether Documenta 16 would still take place in 2027 as planned.
Update, 11/16/23, 9:40 p.m.: This article has been updated to include quotes from the curators’ resignation letter.