Documenta cancels 'Auschwitz on the Beach' performance after hefty criticism

Critics claimed the "Auschwitz on the Beach" performance planned at Germany's premiere art show relativized the Holocaust by comparing it with the refugee crisis. The Documenta now wants to open up discussion.

In a one-hour performance called "Auschwitz on the Beach," planned for Thursday at the Documenta in Kassel, Italian author Franco "Bifo" Berardi accuses Europeans of setting up "concentration camps" on its own territory and paying smugglers in Turkey, Libya and Egypt to do their dirty work. "Salt water has replaced Zyklon B," reads one line of the performance.

But after hefty complaints from politicians in Germany and the Jewish community, the Documenta won't be staging the show as planned, a spokesperson confirmed to DW on Tuesday.

"We respect those who feel offended by Franco Berardi's poem. We don't want to add to their pain, curator Paul B. Preciado said in a statement. However, he added that the art event, which takes place every five years in Kassel, "would not simply accept the accusations and give up critical thinking."

Read more: Should Germany keep its Nazi relics to teach young people about the Holocaust?

In place of "Auschwitz on the Beach," a reading and discussion with Franco Berardi, titled "Shame on Us," will take place on Thursday. The author's original poem, which formed the basis for the performance, will be read aloud and visitors will be invited to discuss Europe's immigration policies.

Documenta director Adam Szymczyk emphasized that the performance was never intended to relativize the Holocaust or even address Holocaust remembrance, but to shed light on the controversial situation of refugees in Europe.

City and state politicians in Kassel and the state of Hesse, where the city is located, had sharply criticized the planned performance. Hesse's state minister for science and art, Boris Rhein, recommended its cancellation, while Kassel Mayor Christian Geselle called it a "horrible provocation."

Read more: Auschwitz museum plans traveling exhibition

"The question of how we deal with the Shoah and the terminology associated with it and how we teach future generations about this incomprehensible crime is something that impacts all of us," commented Illan Katz, chairwoman of the local Jewish organization, while urging political leaders to take a stand against "Auschwitz on the Beach."

The Documenta is Germany's most prestigious contemporary art exhibition and runs through September 17 in the small central German city.

Related Subjects

kbm/eg (dpa, epd)


Forbidden books

The Parthenon of Books on Friedrichplatz Square in Kassel, the city that hosts the documenta art exhibition every five years, is a crowd-puller. Created by Argentine artist Marta Minujin, it draws attention to the censorship and persecution of writers. Most artworks at the documenta are critical of society, though not always as clearly as this installation.


Akropolis of books

The Parthenon of Books is an exact replica of the temple on the Acropolis in Athens, a symbolic link between the two documenta venues this year, Athens and Kassel. With as many as 100,000 banned books from all over the globe, the installation is set on a square where the Nazis burned books that didn't fit their ideology.


Mill of blood

The Mill of Blood by Mexican artist Antonio Vega Macotela points a finger at the exploitation of labor. This artwork is a replica of a Bolivian mill used to make silver coins in colonial times. Slaves from the Andes had to turn the wheels, and the mill owners made a fortune.


Hands-on artwork

Visitors can try their hand at moving the giant wheels, which is fun for kids and adults alike. Turning the wheels was so popular from day one of the exhibition that the transmission broke and had to be repaired early on.


Burlap sacks

Ibrahim Mahama's artwork also targets hard labor. With the help of refugees and volunteers in Athens, the Ghanaian sewed together burlap sacks to form a huge blanket for the Torwache building in Kassel. The sacks breathe tales of faraway places and goods like cocoa or coffee beans. Rich countries continue to benefit from poorly-paid raw material suppliers.


White smoke

The white smoke spiraling from Daniel Knorr's Expiration Movement installation on the Zwehrenturm tower tends to confuse visitors. Since the art exhibtion opened in Athens in April, smoke has billowed from the tower, keeping the fire department busy as concerned citizens often call it in.When the wind blows it to Friedrichsplatz, it is supposed to remind people of the Nazi book burnings.


Horizontal living

Iraqi conceptual artist Hiwa K created an artwork that is very popular with visitors: a stack of horizontal earthenware pipes, reminiscent of similar tubes refugees took shelter in when they arrived in the Greek port of Patras. Hiwa K clearly focuses on the current European refugee debate.


Questioning vertical life

Kassel University students furnished the pipes under the artist's scrutiny: a bathroom of sorts, a kitchen, a bar and a library (above). A horizontal perspective was important to Hiwa K. The work is meant to challenge the expectation that up is good and down is dubious.


The myth of the idylic countryside

In 1965, traveling Chilean artists and poets founded the Ciudad Abierta ("Open City") collective which still astonishes visitors with makeshift outdoor construction projects. In Kassel, the collective presents improvised, environmentally-friendly constructions.


Dedicated to refugees

"I was a stranger and you took me in," engravings in four languages read on Olu Oguibe's obelisk. The monument symbolizes people in exile. In recognition of his work, the Nigerian-born US artist won the Arnold Bode Award, endowed with 10,000 euros ($11,700). The documenta contemporary art exhibition runs through September 17.