Felix Kubin, Eye Closed, Foto Marie Losier, courtesy NRW-Forum Düsseldorf.
An exhibition at Düsseldorf’s prestigious NRW Forum has become a lightning rod in the German art world and set off a tense debate over representation due to its sparse inclusion of women artists.
The row began on social media and gained steam after the Berlin-based, South African artist Candice Breitz and the Vienna-based curator Verena Kaspar-Eisert initiated an open letter on September 21. Since then, it has garnered around 1,000 signatures, including those of at least two artists whose work is in the show, Trevor Paglen and Suzanne Treister. Among the other critics, curators, and artists who have signed are Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Sabine Breitwieser, and Judith Hopf.
The letter sharply criticizes the exhibition, organized by curators Florian Waldvogel and Alain Bieber, for including work by 12 male artists, three collectives (one of which is all male), and two women. Originally, there was only one female artist on the list, but British artist Suzanne Treister was added after an initial outcry on social media about the gender disparity.
“How is it possible—in the year 2018—that publicly-financed institutions continue to present exhibitions that are thoroughly unrepresentative of the diverse audiences that they serve?” the letter reads. “How is it possible that an ‘international’ exhibition, one that sets out to address a global phenomenon, is composed almost exclusively of works by white men?”
The show, which opened on September 21 and is titled “When in Doubt, Choose Doubt: The Great World Conspiracy,” deals with conspiracy theories and fake news.
The Beginnings of the Debate
The controversy began two weeks ago as many modern disputes often do: on Facebook. Breitz posted a comment on the museum’s Facebook page about the show’s gender imbalance. “The response was swift and unequivocal,” she later wrote on her own page. “Rather than engaging with me or repudiating what I had to say, the exhibition team immediately deleted my comment.”
The museum responded two days later. It denied any discrimination, but suggested that the show’s subject matter happens to be mostly explored by male artists. “When curating the exhibition, we worked our way through the topic and oriented ourselves to a discourse that appears to be dominated by men,” the response read. “We selected the works that we found most appropriate in their interplay with each other and with the topic. It was certainly not our intention to exclude female positions from the exhibition.”