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The week in art news – entire Documenta selection committee resigns

19 November 2023

The committee to select the next director of Documenta has resigned en masse, throwing the event into crisis. On Thursday (16 Nov), the remaining four members, Simon Njami, Gong Yan, Kathrin Rhomberg and María Inés Rodríguez, issued a joint statement: ‘In the current circumstances we do not believe there is space in Germany for an open exchange of ideas and the development of complex and nuanced artistic approaches that Documenta artists and curators deserve.’ Their resignation came after that of another member, Ranjit Hoskote, on 12 November. The event’s administrators had urged the Indian art critic to distance himself from a petition he had signed in 2019 supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. On 10 Nov, Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger, an Israeli artist on the selection committee, also resigned after she was unable to travel from her home in Tel Aviv to a meeting in Germany. It now seems unlikely that a director of Documenta 16 will be appointed in early 2024 to plan the next edition, scheduled to take place in 2027.

Also, this week, Lisson Gallery has postponed a show by Ai Wei Wei in London after the artist posted on social media about US military aid for Israel. Ai told the Art Newspaper that the decision was made ‘to avoid further disputes and for my own well-being’. The dissident Chinese artist sounded less happy about the postponement in a statement shared with hyperallergic: ‘If culture is a form of soft power, this represents a method of soft violence aimed at stifling voices.’ And, in more reactions in art institutions to the Israel-Hamas war, the executive director of the Frick Pittsburgh has apologised for postponing an upcoming show of Islamic art. Elizabeth Barker said: ‘My words gave the offensive and utterly wrong impression that I equated Islam with terrorism.’ Meanwhile in Germany, the Museum Folkwang in Essen has ended its collaboration with the curator Anaïs Duplan for a group show opening later this month. The museum cited social media posts by the US-based, Haitian Duplan, which supported the BDS movement.

The Russian artist Aleksandra Skochilenko has been sentenced to seven years in a penal colony for replacing five price tags in a St Petersburg supermarket with messages criticising the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The 33-year-old artist, whose trial has lasted a year and a half, pleaded guilty to the charge of ‘discrediting the Russian army’. Skochilenko is one of the first to be prosecuted under this newly created offence. In her closing statement to the court, Skochilenko said: ‘How little faith does our prosecutor have in our state and society if he thinks that our statehood and public security can be ruined by five small pieces of paper?’ In the July 2022 issue of Apollo, Valeria Costa-Kostritsky spoke to a number of Russian artists who were protesting against the war in Ukraine.

The artist Joe Tilson has died at the age of 95. Born in Lewisham in south London in 1928, Tilson trained in joinery and carpentry before enrolling at St Martin’s in 1949, where his contemporaries including Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. At the Royal College of Art, where he went on to study from 1952–55, he met Peter Blake, who became a lifelong friend. Like Blake, Tilson’s work of this period – compositions in wood such as A-Z Box of Friends and Family or Key Box (both 1963) – has become synonymous with the Pop art movement in Britain. He soon, however, veered away from this style, first with politically-motivated prints in the late 1960s and later in work reflecting his love of Italy and the culture of the Mediterranean, to which he travelled often. Tilson was elected a Royal Academician in 1991 and the RA held a major retrospective of his work in 2002. In the September 2018 issue of Apollo, Joe Tilson spoke to Martin Gayford about his long and enormously varied career.

The art historian B.N. Goswamy has died at the age of 90. Renowned as an expert on Indian miniature painting and Pahari painting from north India, Goswamy published more than 20 books including, in 2015, The Spirit of Indian Painting, hailed as a masterful account of its subject through close readings of 101 objects. His most recent book, The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs, was published only last month. He was professor of art history for many years at Punjab University in Chandigarh, where he also served as director of the Museum of Fine Arts. He received some of India’s highest civil honours, including the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri.

The week in climate protests: on 11 November, Extinction Rebellion activists disrupted a sale of Impressionist and modern works at Christie’s New York. Two protesters burst on to the rostrum with shouts of ‘No art on a dead planet’, ‘End fossil fuels now’ and ‘We are in a crisis’ and caused a temporary halt to the bidding. On 15 November, an activist from the Declare Emergency group painted the words ‘Honor Them’ on a wall of the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the NGA Washington. The activist said that Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War should be honoured through climate action, ‘because the great majority of the people […] who will be harmed in the future are people who look like the soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th.’ Kristen Treen wrote about the Union monuments of Saint-Gaudens in the November 2020 issue of Apollo.

On 17 November, the French high court upheld the indictment of the Louvre’s former president Jean-Luc Martinez for alleged money-laundering and organised fraud in connection with the sale of Egyptian antiquities to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The court has also dropped related criminal charges against the curator Jean-François Charnier. In 2022, both Charnier and Martinez were indicted in the ongoing investigation into the trafficking of Egyptian antiquities, in which a number of dealers and institutions around the world are implicated. The decision to drop charges against Charnier rested on procedural errors in his arrest in July 2022.