The Planetary Garden

Manifesta 12, Palermo

Palermo, near Sicily’s northwest corner, is extraordinary. Its mix of Baroque allure and edgy energy defies description, beggars belief. It is a portal to Sicily’s ancient history: Greek temples, distinguished Arab intellectual culture and twelfth century Norman cathedrals; golden hills and grey rock formations, wine, oranges and bitter almonds. All these are glorious, but Palermo is an intoxication. As the bedazzled Goethe wrote in 1787, ‘To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything’.1 

Right now Palermo is the clue to Sicily. Way beyond shabby chic, the city’s tarnished magnificence is a cruel reminder of wealth made and wasted in this beautiful troubled place, with its appalling history of colonisation and neglect, and recent struggles for supremacy between the Mafia and the Italian state.2 It was a provocative frame for Manifesta 12, the latest edition of the European Nomadic Biennial conceived in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the cessation of the Cold War’s familiar uncertainties.3 But where better in contemporary Europe, right now, for this consistently subtle project than at the meeting place of Europe, Africa and the East? As Manifesta’s website says, very simply: ‘Why Palermo? The City of Palermo was important for Manifesta’s selection board for its representation of two important themes that identify contemporary Europe: migration and climate change and how these issues impact our cities’.4 

The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence is a marriage of progressive Dutch efficiency, Sicilian commitment to political change, and the island’s egregious beauty. It worked perfectly. Manifesta’s locations are deliberately edgy, often in both senses: as its website suggests: ‘Manifesta purposely strives to keep its distance from what are often seen as the dominant centres of artistic production, instead seeking fresh and fertile terrain for the mapping of a new cultural topography’.5 Often these locations are poignant, or pungent, or both, implicated in physical redevelopment or political recuperation. How else to read the siting of the 2012 Manifesta in the obscure eastern Belgian town of Genk, in the once great but now abandoned coalfields? Or St. Petersburg in 2014? The commitment to staging Manifesta in successive sites is not without its woes—the 2006 iteration in Nicosia, Cyprus, was abandoned due to local artist protests; the 2016 Zurich edition was plagued by complaints about unpaid labour.6 And above any local issues, however strenuous, are the complex vicissitudes of a utopian project that directly addresses the contemporary flux of European culture, politics and governance. As Manifesta’s inspirational director Hedwig Fijen noted at the media preview, the project commenced in the 1990s at a time when national borders were tumbling; times are very different now.7 

Countering these variables, Manifesta is anchored by its base in Amsterdam, and firmly helmed by Fijen, who has been with the project from the beginning; it has always chosen exceptional curatorial contributors—Rosa Martinez, Andrew Renton and Hans Ulrich Obrist were members of the original 1996 curatorial team; and it learns from its missteps. To wit: for Palermo, Manifesta commissioned an intensive cross-disciplinary scoping survey of the city from OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rotterdam, leading partner Rem Koolhaas), which guided the team of curatorial ‘mediators’ and was manifested in the publication Palermo Atlas. Tellingly, Manifesta will again undertake city scoping for the Manifesta 13 in Marseille (2020), before deciding on thematics. The necessity of such scrupulous preliminary research seems obvious, in hindsight, yet many biennales are presented with far less thought about context.

This commitment to rethinking methodology is a key part of Manifesta’s distinct success; while less celebrated than its older sisters the Venice Biennale, and Documenta in Kassel, it is claimed as ‘the fourth most influential art biennial in the world’, the Manifesta website here quoting Artnet News from 2014.8 At the same time, Manifesta’s generous budget is sustained by a huge array of pan-European cultural foundations (many long-time supporters) and national arts agencies, coupled with fund-raising from each local source. Again, the method is broadly European/firmly local, a commitment elaborated in Manifesta 12. To quote the current cross-disciplinary team of ‘Creative Mediators’, Palermo is seen in its broader geographical and political contexts as ‘a node in an expanded geography of movements—of people, capital, goods, data, seeds, germs’.9 

I am a confirmed biennale tourist. But while contemporary art itineraries take us on unlikely journeys, there is nothing unexpected about Sicily as a site for contemporary art—a major contemporary project set in Palermo’s past glories was overdue, one might even say over-determined. Indeed, Manifesta 12 was biennale-siting on (carefully considered) steroids. The use of Venice’s lavish palazzi for its biennales is a clear model for what was achieved in Palermo, in a standard trope of installation art at least since the 1980s: nicely managed disjunction between a host site and art, as in the 2006 Singapore Biennial’s interrogation of the city through religious buildings, or Sydney Biennale’s use of Cockatoo Island since 2008. All this speaks to a poetics of pointed discrepancy that necessarily acknowledges the particular significance of the chosen sites. And yes, without Palermo’s peculiar charm, none of this would have been possible. 

To its enormous credit, Manifesta 12 has done far more than slot artworks into piquant locales. That would have been far too easy. Look deeper, and you see a city battling for its life. After OAM’s initial scoping, the 1861 Teatro Garibaldi in the old Arab La Kalsa quarter was re-opened in 2017 as Manifesta’s Palermo office, functioning throughout the exhibition as the media hub and a key venue. Historic and contested, Teatro Garibaldi (named for the appearance at its opening of the liberator of Italy) was the first choice of venue that prompted, as the Manifesta 12 team suggested ‘…a journey through the city, like a cross-section through its anatomy…’.10 That journey was arranged in three main sections across Palermo and its environs: ‘Garden of Flows’, ‘Out of Control Room’, and ‘City on Stage’. This conventional hyperbolic curatorial nomenclature functioned crisply here: works were grouped according to thematic affinities, clearly articulated at each site rather than interwoven across venues, and most within walking distance of Orto Botanico and Teatro Garibaldi. 

‘Garden of Flows’, for example, was concentrated in two principal locations. The first was Orto Botanico, the botanical garden that inspired Manifesta 12’s theme. Founded in 1789, it is planted with so many Australian and Southern Hemisphere species that it instantly makes the point, to Australian eyes, of the Garden’s original mission to study Sicily as a new environment for exotic species. Here, most precisely, I saw how Manifesta worked with artists, and against standard expectations. The Colombian Alfredo Baraya, for example, collected artificial flowers from all over Sicily, from plastic domestic decorations to concrete garden ornaments, which were ‘classified’ and installed in a small open greenhouse. This delicate whimsical work spoke of careful gestation, and generous research residencies for participating artists. (Like many major works, this was commissioned for Manifesta 12.) Deep in a grove of tropical trees, Zheng Bo’s delicious eco-queer video Pteridophilia (2016-ongoing), shown on a monitor and featuring nude young men demonstrating their love for Taiwanese ferns, suggested the polymorphous character of plants, and hybridisation of all kinds. Sited at the Garden’s exquisite late eighteenth-nineteenth century museum buildings, the Swedish artist Malin Franzén’s videos, but especially her gigantic monochrome contact prints, referring to plants collected in the Palermo area that can coexist with toxicity, were a gentle meditation on botanical research and its traditional modes of picturing. All three bodies of work played with, and against, scientific ideas of classification, revealing them to be equally artificial, but also as revelatory, as the artists’ freewheeling imaginings. 

Orto Botanico was a strong start. In nearby Palazzo Butera, currently under restoration, the complex multi-media installation Wishing Trees (2018) by the Swiss Uriel Orlow was outstanding. His haunting video projections linked three trees of great historical significance in Sicily: a cypress on the outskirts of Palermo said to be planted by Saint Benedict, the son of African slaves and the first black saint; the remains of an olive tree in southeastern Sicily under which the World War II armistice was signed in 1943; and the third, ironically for Australians, an enormous Moreton Bay fig in central Palermo, beneath whose canopy the courageous anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone and his wife Francesca Morvillo were assassinated in 1992. (The Mafia and the Sicilian Addiopizzo campaign, literally ‘Pizzo-free’, meaning no extortion payments, are never far from one’s thoughts in Palermo.) Orlow’s invocation of Sicily’s past, planted firmly in its soil, was pointed, elegiac, haunting. 

Manifesta’s second major grouping, ‘Out of Control Room’, used three magnificent historic palaces, which once commanded networks of power, to present works that ‘make invisible networks visible, the abstract tangible, hence accessible and debatable’. The specific argument is that Palermo’s native political culture, through ‘decades of criminal exploitation and neglect has nurtured a culture of civic participation and political experimentation…’; here Palermo, as a site, is no less real for being intangible.11 Three works exemplified the persistence of insubstantial networks. In the fifteenth century Palazzo Ajutamicristo, The Third Choir (2014), a sound installation by Algerian-born Lydia Ourahamane, used mobile phones inside twenty empty oil barrels to tune into a single frequency emitted by an FM radio transmitter. This understated work, with its implicit references to the politics of oil extraction and refining in Africa, substitutes empty barrels for people in transit. (Sonorous barrels, human torsos as amplifiers.) Remarkably, The Third Choir became the first work of art to be legally exported from Algeria since 1962, when the imposition of export restrictions on cultural artefacts was enacted.12 The very appearance of the work in European exhibitions traces networks of power, communication and resistance. 

Close to the old port and Sicily’s hazy northern shore, the glorious faux- Moorish Palazzo Forcella de Seta, its decoration a tribute to Arab culture in Palermo, housed Kader Attia’s film The Body’s Legacies: The Post-Colonial Body (2018), shown on large screens. Sober and documentary, the work is a tightly-edited compilation of four interviews with French people of African heritage, the sophistication of their accounts of their situation electrified by their palpable anger—a touchstone was the brutal and now notorious 2017 attack on a young black man by Parisian police. Attia’s work is demanding, relentless, detailed; its first-hand accounts are complex and its counter-hegemonic resistance to nationalist understandings of power is riveting. 

With Forensic Oceanography’s Liquid Violence (2018), on the other hand, an entire gloomy room at the far end of the Palazzo worked not with individual testimonies, but with the fates of hundreds of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe and safety. The installation was packed with graphs, feeds, information, video footage, obscene evidence from surveillance technologies that register, in many cases helplessly, the transit and even drowning of migrants as officials from Libya, or Italy, watch on. A cacophony of sounds and images, Liquid Violence, like Kader Attia’s film, articulated specific patterns of officially sanctioned aggression in Western Europe that shame all humanity. In Palermo, the significance of the work was inflected by the city’s proximity to North Africa: at Manifesta’s media preview, Leoluca Orlando, Palermo’s progressive Mayor, said he wanted the city to be ‘the capital of human rights’, since ‘Palermo is a Middle Eastern city in Europe’. 

The resolute site-specificity of this Manifesta tested participating artists, particularly ‘City on Stage’, evoking Palermo’s performative traditions of storytelling and processionals. Almost nowhere does the interpolation of the present in the past work as well as Italy, crowded with decaying monuments, without adequate conservation budgets. Perhaps the single finest work in Palermo was Protocol no. 90/6 (2018) by Masbedo (the duo Nicolò Massazza and Iacopo Bedogni, based in Milan, active since 1999), located up a nondescript staircase in the Archivio di Stato. A short exquisite video of a traditional Sicilian marionette was projected at the far end of the Sala delle Capriate, a cavernous hall in the State Archive’s labyrinthine buildings. The work was not so much sited in the space, which implies a certain passivity, but actively animated its extraordinary setting: ceiling-high shelves crammed with crumbling registers, piles of bound papers racked higgledy-piggledy, the records of the past scented with the dust of centuries. 

I have rarely seen so simple an intervention achieve so much. The marionette’s clacking wooden limbs made the only sound in the dim warm room; its movements translated into sound the eternal silence of thousands of Sicilian records. For there is no chance these will ever be reopened, or read again. This magical work was a spin-off of the broader multimedia project Videomobile (2018), also located in the Archivio di Stato complex, which was inspired by the life of the distinguished Palermo-born film director Vittorio De Seta (1923-2011); his documentary subjects had been among Sicily’s poorest working people, and the audiences for its fast-disappearing puppet shows. (A second stand-alone performance, Terra di Nessuno (No-one’s land), was presented on 20 July in the historical Arena La Sirenetta, at the nearby beach resort of Mondello, reopened after twelve years, another example of Manifesta reanimating local public spaces.) 

The ascetic simplicity of Masbedo’s work was in marked contrast to the florid excess of Nora Turato’s ‘I’m happy to own my implicit biases (malo mrkva, malo batina)’ (2018). This complex voice piece was staged both as a performance and sound installation in the astonishing Oratory of San Lorenzo, built in 1570 and decorated by master Giacomo Serpotta between 1699 and 1706 with superlative stucco sculptures. A glamazon in leopard-skin stiletto boots, Amsterdam-based Turato is a polished performer, who delivered her half spoken, half chanted script flawlessly, with huge stamina. A feminist rave owing inspiration (in part) to the Sicilian tradition of the donas de fuera, so-called ‘outsider’ women at the time of the Spanish occupation (and Inquisition), Turato’s interior monologue was disturbing, her disassociated delivery in marked contrast with the ferocity of her text. I disliked this disjunction intensely; I know I will want to see her work again. 

Equally extravagant, but far more generous, was the Neapolitan Marinella Senatore’s Palermo Procession, staged during the afternoon of 16 June. (Her lovely banners and preparatory works were shown in the newly restored Church of Saints Euno and Giuliano.) The profligate energy of Palermo Procession marshalled an abundance of consultation, and a huge response from Palermitan community groups of all stripes and ages.13 A fascinating scenario: a street march through the baking hot city, all Sicilian fanfare and brou-ha-ha, accompanied by choreographed cultural groups ranging from marching girls with twirling batons to brass bands, with only gelati and granita for essential audience sustenance. It was fabulous. Progress through the town was halted at posts where additional acts and groups were stationed: a soprano sang the aria ‘L’amour’ from Bizet’s Carmen, high on a balcony, then an Italian folk song, to rapturous applause. The agreeably cheesy glamour of this late afternoon encounter was answered later by a group of elderly Partisans, members of the Italian Communist Party, whose singing of ‘La Bandiera Rossa’ was supplemented by emotional speeches in an extraordinary public affirmation of political commitment through decades of repression. Palermo Procession was three times its scheduled length, but when history is being made, who wants it to run on time? 

The Venice Biennale was originally driven by tourism: its old wealth had long withered away when the city decided, in 1893, to stage a regular art exhibition as a tourist drawcard, presenting the first in 1895. What happens, though, when a city uses art and artists to harness its energies for renewal? Leoluca Orlando, speaking in fluent persuasive English at Manifesta’s media preview, reported that in 2013 he had invited Manifesta to work with Palermo, but that fifteen years previously Palermo would not have been ready for it. As Hedwig Fijen noted, all Manifestas take the city as site, but ‘Palermo is not an ordinary city; the city is the real project of this Manifesta, with thirty new sites investigated and reopened’. 

Manifesta 12 was supremely energetic, the sum greater than its parts. The installations were in dialogue with an entire raft of public programs, film screenings, guided garden tours, activities throughout the project’s life from June to November. And running through the whole elaborate edifice was the fierce desire to make a difference to this beautiful much-colonised (and much-neglected) city. What is left behind? An unprecedented memory of the city for its inhabitants and other Sicilians, as well as visitors. At the Media Preview, Fijen noted that she expected 70% of the audiences to be local; she hoped the project was ‘radically local, radically relevant’. Orlando nailed it, to sustained applause: he argued Manifesta could change perceptions of the city, show how to use it differently: ‘The city is the project’. 

Sicily is confronting. The picturesque south of northern desire is the depopulated home of exploited people who have suffered centuries of poverty; the desperate violence of inherited relationships has, famously, been exported to the United States and elsewhere. I did not encounter any of Palermo’s celebrated pickpockets, but I did see vicious barely-contained aggression from teenage boys on a public bus, taunting the cowering driver and elderly passengers, save for one redoubtable matron whose views on the shame of the boys’ parents were impressive. Our Palermo landlord says youthful aggression is endemic. Put this potential for violence against the city’s new International Center for Photography. Its provocative program includes American Catherine Opie and others whose world-views seem years distant, rather than just several city blocks away: baffled quasi-rural conservatism cheek-by-jowl with urban sophistication. It was precisely the heritage of Sicily’s roiling latent aggression, amongst the fading gilt and crumbling stucco, gorgeous gardens and markets, that gave Manifesta in Palermo its charge. These abrasions go beyond mere frisson, and are potentially far more valuable: something immeasurably important might be gained from the city taking pride in its present, as well as its past—dignity, and respect. 

In 2020 Manifesta will be in Marseille, the oldest city in France. The post- Cold War project to build a cohesive European community is now under threat, whether from the Brexiting United Kingdom or the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers at Europe’s southern shores. The refugee disaster is at Palermo’s door, only several hundred kilometres from the African continent, with the tiny island of Lampedusa off its southwest coast the first landfall for many sub-Saharan refugees. That situation will not change anytime soon. In the week Manifesta opened, a vessel with 629 souls was stranded in international waters off Sicily, Mayor Orlando threatening to welcome them to Palermo in defiance of the Italian government, until at the last minute the Spanish city of Valencia received them.14 Manifesta’s title, The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence, had never seemed more apposite.

Masbedo, Protocollo no. 90/6, 2018, video installation, dimensions variable. Photo: Francesco Bellina. Photo Courtesy: Manifesta 12 Palermo and the artist

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 2, 2016 – ongoing, video, durata 20min 39sec. Photo: Wolfgang Träger. Photo Courtesy: Manifesta 12 Palermo and the artist

Nora Turato, I’m happy to own my implicit biases (malo mrkva, malo batina), 2018, performance, mixed media installation. Installation view photo by: Wolfgang Träger. Perfomance photo by: Francesco Bellina. Photo Courtesy: Manifesta 12 Palermo and the artist

Marinella Senatore, Palermo Procession, 2018, urban performance and mixed media installation. Installation view photo by: Simone Sapienza. Perfomance photo by: Francesco Bellina. Photo Courtesy: Manifesta 12 Palermo and the artist

notes: 

1. See Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey: 1786–1788, Penguin Classics, 1992, p.x. 

2. See John Julius Norwich, Sicily: A Short History from the Ancient Greeks to the Casa Nostra, John Murray, 2018, for a comprehensive introduction to Sicily’s complex history; see Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs, Sicily: Culture and conquest, the British Museum’s 2016 blockbuster exhibition catalogue, for evidence of Sicily’s past cultural glories. 

3. See https://manifesta.org/biennials/about-the-biennials/ 

4. See http://m12.manifesta.org/why-palermo 

5. See wry comments on this history of Manifesta by Jan Verwoert, ‘How Might the Changing Face of Europe Impact Manifesta 12?’, dated 17 April 2018, at https://frieze.com/tags/jan-verwoert, which also appeared in the print edition of Frieze, May 2018, issue 195, under the title ‘Ship of Fools’. 

6. See for example https://news.artnet.com/art-world/manifesta-11-comes-fire-unpaid-labor-620975

7. All notes from Manifesta’s media preview, 15 June 2018, Palermo, are the author’s. 

8. See https://manifesta.org/support-us-2/funding-sponsors/ and https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/worlds-top-20-biennials-triennials-and-miscellennials-18811, originally posted 19 May 2014. The top rankings in this idiosyncratic and imprecise account are, in order, Venice, Documenta, Whitney Biennial, Manifesta. See also https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/palermo-hosts-manifesta-in-2018-after-record-2014-attendance-198369, by Alexander Forbes, originally posted 16 December 2014. 

9. Manifesta 12, Palermo: The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence, Editoreale Domus, 2018, p.16, co-authored by the Manifesta 12 team of Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrès Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli (also a partner in OMA) and Mirjam Varadinis. 

10. The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence, ibid., p.17. 

11. The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence, ibid., p.65. 

12. See http://www.lydiaourahmane.com/The-Third-Choir-Archives, for this fuller account: ‘The Third Choir Archives’ is a performance of a section of the 934 documents involved in the process of exporting 20 oil barrels from Algeria to the United Kingdom. The Third Choir became the first artwork to legally leave the borders of Algeria since their independence from France in 1962 when a law was put in place prohibiting the movement of Art in order to protect Algeria’s cultural assets. This law was amended by section 75 in the Finance Act 2014 through the process of this work.’ 

13. For an extended interview with Senatore about Palermo Procession, see https://www.domusweb.it/en/speciali/manifesta/2018/manifesta-12-marinella-senatore-and-the-choreography-of-a-city.html 

14. See https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/06/refugees-migrants-board-aquarius-set-foot-spain-180617054409193.html, originally published 17 June 2018.

Manifesta 12, Palermo, closed its doors on 4 November 2018 with 483,712 visits and 206,456 visitors in 145 days. 

It was precisely the heritage of Sicily’s roiling latent aggression, amongst the fading gilt and crumbling stucco, gorgeous gardens and markets, that gave Manifesta in Palermo its charge.