During the renovation of the sanitary system of Palazzo Butera, one of the many crumbling yet spectacular palazzos of Palermo, Sicily, a Jacaranda tree’s centuries-old root was discovered. The seed of this beautiful fragrant tree, native to tropical and subtropical regions, had found a new home in the humidity of the Italian palace. Palermo is a city of human and non-human migratory flows. Over the centuries, plant and tree seeds from all over the world have travelled to Palermo and found new habitats. There, they adapted, grew, reproduced, and combined.
This cosmopolitan (bio)diversity is apparent in Francesco Lojacono’s 1875 painting View of Palermo, which depicts the Orto Botanico – the city’s lush botanical garden. The garden was founded at the height of the European colonial period as a place to collect and crossbreed different plant species, and classify them according to Linnaeus’ classification system. It comes as no surprise that none of the plants, flowers, and trees in Lojacono’s painting are indigenous. One can recognize aspen from the Middle East, agave from central America, eucalyptus from Australia, prickly pear from Mexico and loquat from Japan. The citrus tree – now a symbol of Sicily – was originally from Asia and introduced under Arab rule. Today, Palermo’s botanical garden is one of the main venues of Manifesta 12, the European Nomadic Biennial. It was Lojacono’s painting that inspired this year’s theme: The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence.
Based in Amsterdam, Manifesta travels to a different European city every two years, and transforms it into a large contemporary art exhibition. The organization’s aim is to “prompt reflection through contemporary culture on what it means to be European.” After Zurich (2014) and St. Petersburg (2016), Palermo is a timely and interesting choice. Located in the south of Europe and northwest of the Middle East, Palermo exemplifies Europe’s history of multiple identities while at the same time being a place where key transnational issues – such as climate change and trafficking – converge. Above all, the architecture of Palermo is an incredible backdrop for an art exhibition. The slowly disintegrating palazzos, with trees piercing right through them, ensure that pretty much any art is going to look good. From the incredible State Archives of Palermo with papers piled to the eves, to the magical oratorios, the venues steal the show at Manifesta 12.
Though it might be highly enjoyable for visitors, it is slightly colonial to fly to a new place every two years, take over the city, and hope to transform it with contemporary art. The Manifesta team must be aware of this as this year more in-depth, pre-Biennial research was conducted. The urban research study of the city of Palermo was (ironically?) done by the also Netherlands-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and resulted in the Palermo Atlas – a collection of stories gathered on the ground and supported by data. The book aims to enable a more integrated approach and allow for a deeper understanding of the urban realities and cultural, social, religious, ethnic, and geo-political complexities of the city. To me, this investigation is not a luxury but the basic foundation of any Biennial – especially one that lands in a new country every two years. The art event stands or falls according to how genuine the city’s interest is. This can even influence the quality of the artworks; the more the work interacts with its context, the stronger it seems to be.
The most striking example of this is the work that filmmaker Laura Poitras did with a group of Italian film students. Building on her personal interests and expertise, Poitras pointed the students towards the strong U.S. military presence in Sicily, the island being crucial to the U.S. military communications and drone operations. She worked with them and guided them for several months. Though she has shot incredible footage herself at the Sigonella station – supposedly the hub of U.S. naval air operations in the Mediterranean – the real revelation came from the students. Their confidence boosted by their world-famous mentor’s reputation, they produced four short films that each tell a different story about the U.S. military bases. The films are informative and telling, but also manage to keep their artistic and poetic character. The students got their moment of fame at the opening of Manifesta 12 at Teatro Garibaldi, the main venue. It was clear that the audience was there to see Poitras, but she generously gave the stage to them, showing sneak previews of their work and letting the (very shy) students speak about their films.
The question remains as to what the Manifesta legacy might look like. After all the confetti has blown away, has the art crowd really contributed to Palermo’s transition to a city that is not under unlawful control? Will the palazzos turn back into decaying homes for Jacaranda trees and crumble away over time? Will the students’ films be seen by international audiences? Though it is hard to say, it is clearly the elephant in the room. But it appears that all the praises and appreciation for the handsome venues have sparked a renewed interest by local citizens to look after them. I call it the holiday effect. Sometimes all it takes is a foreign eye to recognize the beauty of what you already have. Now let’s nurture this renewed appreciation for these Sicilian gems – without becoming colonial about it.
Manifesta 12: The Planetary Garden. Cultivating coexistence. is on June 16–November 4, 2018 in Palermo, Sicily.
(Top image: Bo Zheng, Pteridophilia, 2016. Video in the Orto Botanico Palermo as part of Manifesta 12.)
Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.