Palermo’s Orto Botanico, founded in 1789, acts as an inspiration of the twelfth edition of Manifesta, the European nomadic biennial that opened its doors on Saturday the 16th of June at the Sicilian capital. Titled The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence, it presents fifty artist and thirty new commissioned artworks until the 4th of November at five main locations, ten venues with solo artist shows throughout the historic city, and five sites on the periphery.
For those not familiar with it, Manifesta is an interdisciplinary exhibition that features talks, concerts, performances, films, and workshops where visitors face uncomfortable topics such as global war and surveillance, climate change, toxicity, and migration. This year’s edition, the Biennale is signed by four cultural mediators: Spanish architect Andrés Jaque, journalist and filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, Sicilian-born architect and OMA partner Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, and curator Mirjam Varadinis.

Even though it has its headquarters in the Teatro Comunale Garibaldi, located in the historic Piazza Magione, the city itself is the main stage of the biennial: decaying palaces, oratories, enchanted ruins, spectacular churches, extravagant courtyards, and rarely accessible places of wonder lend a superb atmospheric backdrop to the festival. The show shapes up three main sections: Garden of Flows, at Orto Botanico and palazzo Butera; City on Stage, at Palazzo Constantino, Teatro Garibaldi, Instituto Padre Messina and the suburban sites Costa Sud, Pizzo Sella, and ghetto area Zona Espansione Nord (ZEN); and Out of Control Room, at Palazzi Ajutamcristo, Forcella de Seta, Trinacria, and Casa del Mutilato. Also, Manifesta 12 will be further expanded by more than seventy collateral events.

Garden of Flows

The marvellous Orto Botanico is one of the most important sites of the event. Within the building, Palermo Herbal, by Malin Franzén, juxtaposes the Sicilian botanist method of nature prints with contemporary scientific visualisation techniques to represent plants that coexist with toxicity. Toyin Ojih Odutola’s collection of drawings, named Scenes of Exchange, is a series of charcoal and pastel drawings depicting the presence of West Africa within Italy through quotidian episodes.

Inside the majestic garden, Leone Contini has located his piece Foreign Farmers, an experimental garden where migrating varieties cohabit; the Sicilian cucuzza grows alongside its Bengali, Sri Lankan, Philippine, Turkish, and Chinese counterparts. Michael Wang’s works are embedded in the environment; The Drowned World is focused on the role of plants in the Anthropocene. It includes a fountain colonized by green-blue living cyanobacteria, a forest composed of plants similar to the existing in the Carboniferous Period, and a gallery of close-up detailed images of coal. Pteridophilia, by Zheng Bo, is a video piece installed on a flat screen in the middle of the garden that explores the eco-queer potential. In it, seven young men walk into a forest in Taiwan and engage in intimate contact with plants.

At Palazzo Butera, the Los Angeles collective Fallen Fruit has printed dazzling wallpaper patterned with the public fruiting trees of the city. Renato Leotta’s minimalist and one of the most poetic installations of the show, Notte di San Lorenzo, is a floor made of terracotta tiles with the marks of the falling lemons that cover the entire main room floor of the palazzo. Uriel Orlow’s video installation Wishing Trees brings together three Sicilian trees that hold memories of significant events and people, connecting human histories and nature. The installation connects the lives of veteran anti-mafia activist Simona Mafai and African migrant cooks in Palermo to the hopes and desires the trees still stand for. Next video installation is Melanie Bonajo’s Night Soil Trilogy. The artist explores the alienated urbanites who try to reconnect through nature-derived practices and belief systems: ayahuasca trips, sexual therapy, and back-to-the-land food cultures as a form of social healing.

Spread around the city gardens and the open-air Chiesa Santa Maria dello Spasimo, the duo Cooking Sessions built simple structures around different trees to study how to grow plants without water, and what would it mean to water without water.
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Toyin Ojih Odutola
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Leone Contini
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Renato Leotta
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Uriel Orlow
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Cooking Sections

City on Stage

In this section, there are artworks about Palermo as well as performances about the city (and taking place in it). The procession of Santa Rosalia inspired three artists. Jelili Atiku’s Festino della Terra is a processional performance that talks about festival walking rituals through the ancient story of Green Man – from the Yoruba and West African traditional stories –, myths, beliefs about the Earth, trees, and the divine Orisha of plants.

Marinella Senatore’s Palermo Procession involves all Palermitan communities. The procession reflects Palermo, a dancing city, in continuous movement, while an exhibition at the Chiesa SS. Euno e Giuliano describes the preparatory process to participate in it. Tutto, by Matilde Cassani, draws on Sicilian baroque traditions up-to-date. At Quattro Canti, an explosion of colourful pieces of paper with messages and images were shot into the air to slowly descend, dropping on the heads of the spectators.

There is the film New Palermo Felicissima, a video installation by Catalan artist Jordi Colomer, located at the Instituto Padre Messina. Colomer features a small group of people moving by boat along the seaside Costa Sud while a young guide gives information about the city: a jovial piece about fiction, oral history, and communities.

One of the preview visitors’ favourites is the installation Protocol no. 90/6, by Italian duo Masbedo, at the State Archive. The piece combines the video of a puppet shown on a giant LED screen surrounded by masses of stacked old documentary material. Masbedo also shows Videomobile at Palazzo Constatino, an old van turned into a ‘video-cart’, which presents the locations of film-sets in Palermo on its screens.
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Jelili Atiku
Marinella Senatore
Matilde Cassani
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Jordi Colomer

Out of Control Room

This section tries to materialize the invisible networks in the system of digital flows with particular reference to the evolution of administration of power. In Casa del Mutilato, Christina Lucas’s fantastic video installation Unending Lightning documents the history of aerial bombardments over civilian targets, from the first one in 1911 to the present day. Over the last five years, a number of research groups have created a database with information on the dynamics of such civilian massacres, which has been the main reference for the Spanish artist’s installation. Also, on the facade of the building, hangs a piece of cloth with the lift formula with which the old dream of flying became a reality.

At Palazzo Ajutamicristo, super young Algerian-born Lydia Ourahmane presents The Third Choir, a sound installation composed of twenty oil barrels, each holding a cell phone with fragments of sound pieces recorded in Algeria, evoking the transfer of goods and people. Across the Border, by Filippo Minelli, is a series of flags made by performers from all the geographical areas with which Palermo is connected due to migration or the exchange of communications through Internet infrastructures.

Tania Bruguera’s installation Article 11 documents the Sicilian political movements that confronted and opposed the new United States Navy communication satellite system located on the island. The Cuban artist worked with local protest groups and has covered one wall with a mural portraying the force of local opposition to the satellite. Connected by Air, by Richard Vijgen, is a piece about data visualization that proposes an image of Palermo’s sky seen through a window that contains a panoramic view of all the data and objects crossing it, including wireless signals, satellites, airplanes, and ACs. Inspired by techniques of the Renaissance perspective, the artist has created a visualization of data in a sotto in su’ projection of the Palermo sky.

At Palazzo Forcella de Seta, there is a clear supremacy of video versus other mediums. One of the few non-video works is The Soul of Salt, by Patricia Kaersenhout, literally a mountain of blessed salt framed by the palace’s marvellous Arab-Norman inspired mosaics. The Caribbean enslaved people dreamed of flying back to Africa, and a legend said that the consumption of salt would weigh them down.

Works on video are Forensic Oceanography’s Liquid Violence, an examination of Italy and the European Union’s decision to cut back on search and rescue operations at sea. It also investigates how the Mediterranean’s increasing militarization impacts the rising numbers of deaths among migrants. Laura Poitras work – as Tania Bruguera’s – relates to the United States military presence in Sicily, which connects via satellite to drone controllers in the American country. In an outer room, a small monitor screen shows a huge military drone preparing for deployment and Poitras’s own drone-shot video is projected in a dark chamber.

John Gerrard’s works are simulations and virtual worlds looking like real film or video. Untitled (near Parndorf) Austria 2018 is a video installation that creates a detailed virtual portrait of the highway scene exactly as experienced by the Irish artist on Saturday, August 29 of 2015, a few days after the human tragedy that happened in that place. Berlin-based Peng! Collective’s Become an Escape Agent is a video piece that provides information on how to participate in helping refugees to cross the interior borders of the European Union while minimizing the risk of criminal consequences. They also began a crowdfunding campaign to help the contemporary Fluchthelfer sustain the legal costs resulting from their acts of civil disobedience.

It is clear that Palermo is reflecting back the driving forces behind big international events: economic stimulus, urban regeneration, civic engagement, new spaces on the city, and certainly a position in the art world map. Manifesta 12 uses perfectly the garden as a metaphor of diversity that embodies the city, at the intersection of Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures and a crossroad between Africa and Europe.
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Christina Lucas
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Lydia Ourahmane
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Tania Bruguera
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Forensic Oceanography
Manifesta 12 will take place until November 4 in different venues and locations of Palermo (Italy).