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Patricia Kaersenhout. Soul of Salt. Palazzo Forcella de Seta. Photo: Ģirts Muižnieks

Palermo: The unusual city 0

Manifesta 12. The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence

Daiga Rudzāte

Photos: Ģirts Muižnieks

Europe’s only nomadic biennial, Manifesta, opened its twelfth iteration this past weekend in Palermo. Ongoing through November 4, it is titled The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence, and is divided into three subdivisions: Garden of Flows, Out of Control Room, and City on Stage.

On the morning of June 15, the biennial’s opening press conference at Chiese di Santa Caterina had attracted an impressively sized crowd of invited guests and press representatives. The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, emphasised the fact that Palermo has considerably changed over the last few years: from a citadel of the mafia to a city of culture. To add a touch of humour, he joked that he had asked the priest of Chiese di Santa Caterina if he couldn’t ask God for a special favour, i.e. no rain on Friday morning, but the good Father solved the issue by offering to hold the press conference inside the church itself. All jokes aside, this really was one of the most visually impressive press conferences that the art scene has experienced in the last decade – the baroque background of the ornate church transformed the event into a kind of performance. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been at a press conference held in such a strikingly beautiful space,’ exclaimed Hedwig Fijen, the director of Manifesta, in her opening address.

Hedwig Fijen, the Director of Manifesta Biennial

Manifesta 12.  Giardino dei Giusti. 
In collaboration with: Giuseppe Barbera, Antonio Motisi, Manfredi Leone, Valentina Mandalari (Università degli Studi di Palermo), Gaetano Cascino (Libera), Piero D’Angelo (Parco Uditore).

In a sense, the press conference served as a harbinger of the overall mood of Manifesta 12 as the palazzo, churches and other spaces of Palermo serve as the visual carapace for the biennial’s sociopolitical narrative. Subsequently, the message – the global crises and geopolitical transformations that the biennial is focusing upon – gains an unexpectedly colourful form and is also a journey into the city’s history, traditions and architecture. While leading the tour of the biennial (which is spread out among 20 venues), the Sicilian-born architect Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli (a long-serving partner at the architectural firm Office of Metropolitan Architecture – OMA in Rotterdam) explains that, seeing how many areas of Palermo are abandoned and empty, it was only logical to use these empty palazzi and churches instead of the existing art infrastructure. Along with the Dutch journalist and documentary filmmaker Bregtje ven der Haak, the New York-based Spanish architect and scientist Andrés Jaque, and the Swiss contemporary art curator Mirjam Varadinis, Laparelli is also a member of Creative Mediators, the biennial’s novel alternative to having just one head curator. Another fresh approach is the urban research study Palermo Atlas, which the biennial’s director Hedwig Fijen commissioned from the already-mentioned OMA group, and which was created over several years and could help in planning the city’s future development. ‘I really believe that nowadays, biennials should focus on being more than just a sum of series of exhibitions,’ Fijen revealed to a week before the official opening of Manifesta 12. This biennial stands out with its aim of reaching beyond the borders of contemporary art, and has set as one of its objectives the wish to influence the life of the city – to initiate something lasting and to encourage interdisciplinary cooperation. ‘The organisational process of this biennial has been cardinally different than for all previous ones,’ underlined Fijen at the press conference. ‘Palermo is not your usual, conventional city.’ There’s an abundance of projects that are not directed at aficionados of contemporary art, but rather at the local people of Palermo.

The city’s mayor gave several speeches on the biennial’s opening day (one of which was a the legendary Teatro Massimo, before the premier of Bintou were, a Sahel opera, which was the first ever performance of an African opera in Italy), and in every one he emphasised that ‘we have no migrants in this city; everyone who arrives here becomes a citizen of Palermo’. Palermo is a place that has always been a crossroads, a meeting of Europe, Africa and the East, and so it is the ideal location for discussing some of Europe’s most pressing issues – migration and climate change.

Palazzo Forcella de Seta

Erkan Özgen. Purple Muslin. Palazzo Forcella de Seta

John Gerrard. Untitled (near Parndorf, Austria). Palazzo Forcella de Seta

The indescribably beautiful Moorish rooms of the Palazzo Forcella de Seta contain a part of the Out of Control Rooms division of Manifesta: alongside the tragically sorrowful migrant video stories made by, among others, Kader Attia, John Gerrard, and Erkan Özgen, stands Patricia Kaersenhout’s The Soul of Salt – a huge pie of salt in which little scoops have been inserted so that those who wish may take some with them in a provided paper bag – to later dissolve in water as a way of dealing with the pain and suffering of the past. One of the most visually intense objects at Manifesta 12, it is based on a legend telling how African slaves were not allowed to use salt because of the belief that the salt would make them lighter and they would then be able to fly back to Africa.

Micahel Wang. The Drowned World (Cyan Sea). Orto Botanico

Zheng Bo. Pteridophilia. Orto Botanico

One of the initial pillars (and venues) of the concept behind Manifesta 12 are the Botanic Gardens of Palermo (Orto Botanico); opened to the public in 1795, it houses numerous exotic species of plants and trees. Using the metaphor of a garden, Manifesta 12 takes a look at new political forms based upon mutual interaction and coexistence.

Manifesta has always striven to take an active social position. From a pragmatic standpoint, perhaps  the assumption that art has the ability to change or influence the global world order is a bit naive and idealistic. Nevertheless, all rationalisations aside, the urge to state one’s position and the wish to affect the seemingly unchangeable has always been a hallmark of civilisation.

MASBEDO (Nicolò Massazza un Iacopo Bedogni).  Protocol no. 90/6. 
Sala delle Capriate – Archivo di Stato di Palermo

A Manifesta artwork has also been exhibited in the Palermo State Archives – created by the artists group MASEBO (Nicolò Massazza and Iacopo Bedogni), the environmental installation Protocol no. 90/6 is dedicated to the Italian film director Vittorio De Seta. During his life, De Seta was subjected to control by government authorities time and again (the archive is full of documents recording the interrogations of De Seta and many other artists, cultural activists and journalists). Rising above an overflowing mountain of dusty documents – a true testimony to the life of Palermo that spans centuries – is a large video screen on which a gigantic doll moves. The doll’s voice cannot be heard, yet it is present; it is a symbol of the artist who, despite all of the efforts to control and influence ‘him’, speaks about what matters to him.

Renato Leotta. Giardino. Palazzo Butera

Fallen Fruit. Theatre of the Sun. Palazzo Butera

Rayyane Tabet. Steel Rings. Palazzo Ajutamicristo

Lydia Ourahmane. The Third Choir. Palazzo Ajutamicristo

Palermo is a cinematic city, both literally (a slew of film classics have been made here, such as Visconti’s The Leopard) and associatively – as a background to life. On the morning of June 16th, one of Palermo's most historical architectural sites, Quattro Canti, was the venue for the performance Tutto by Matilde Cassani, which symbolizes the coexistence of today's diverse cultures in the capital of Sicily. In a square decorated with vibrantly embroidered velvet flags and beating drums pulsing, a cannon containing confetti was shot into the air – a shower of coloured strips of paper fluttered down over the heads of the crowd, completely covering the street, the people, and every nook and cranny. A celebration as a symbol of collective memory – an expression of social, political and cultural importance.

Matilde Cassani TUTTO. Quattro Canti

Matilde Cassani TUTTO. Performance. Quattro Canti