Los Angeles-based artist Manuel Ocampo thought it was his biggest break ever when a German art dealer chose five of his paintings for Documenta IX, one of the most prestigious contemporary art shows in the world. Held in Kassel, Germany, roughly every five years, Documenta was started in 1955 to help restore the country's cultural standing after the Nazi regime had gutted the arts. But when the 27-year-old Filipino-born artist arrived in Germany last week, he found four of his five paintings covered up and leaning against the walls.
"I was told that no swastikas would be permitted in the show out of sensitivity to the Germans," Ocampo said by telephone Sunday.
Claudia Herstatt, spokeswoman for the exhibition, said the problem with Ocampo's use of the swastikas was not the content but how they would be understood in Germany. "If you show these symbols here they are immediately viewed as Nazi symbols, and he is using them in the Oriental meaning for the sun," Herstatt said, referring to the Oriental and American Indian use of the swastika bent in a clockwise direction. "It probably would not be seen as a critique, but could be understood as being promotional."
After Germany was defeated in World War II, the German government banned the display of the swastika. However, the ban is difficult to enforce and the symbol has seen a resurgence in recent years among young neo-Nazis.
Ocampo, whose works were included in the recent "Helter Skelter" show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, said he uses symbols precisely to spotlight political and social problems. "It is not to advocate fascism. It focuses on the sign of the times and what these symbols mean to us in this present day," he said.
Ocampo said that not only was his work approved ahead of time, but that one of his paintings including a swastika appears in the exhibition's catalogue. But Herstatt said it is common for Documenta's artistic director, Jan Hoet, to ask for paintings and then show only a selection of what is sent.
One of Hoet's assistants, Bart De Baere, had seen Ocampo's works during a visit to Los Angeles last year and requested that slides be sent to exhibition organizers. Hoet and De Baere, who work for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent, Belgium, were both unavailable for comment.
One of Ocampo's paintings that does not have a swastika is part of Documenta, but is hanging in a partially obstructed basement room. Herstatt said that Ocampo chose the room. The artist said he had no choice.
"The only option they gave me was to hang it in the work room. I had no choice. Either that or pull out," Ocampo said. "I've been ghettoized to the work room."
Fred Hoffman, whose Santa Monica gallery represents Ocampo, said that the problem is political.
"He's been edited out of the exhibition," said Hoffman, who was also in Germany for the exhibition. "They had more responsibility to be sensitive to the political implications of their acts. What's interesting is that Documenta came into being right after the war. The show was to serve as a model of the products of the West to the non-free world. We're not trying to cram swastikas down the throats of the Germans. These paintings were made for the 'Helter Skelter' show," Hoffman said.