Manifesta 12: the nomadic arts biennial cultivates a garden of delights in Palermo

Manifesta 12: the nomadic arts biennial cultivates a garden of delights in Palermo

The 12th iteration of Manifesta — the nomadic European biennal of contemporary art — has opened in Palermo, capital of the island of Sicily in southern Italy. Subtitled ‘The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Existence’, it casts the garden as a place of diversity and adaptation, and a metaphor for both Palermo and the planet as a whole.

For the first time, this Manifesta was mediated by an interdisciplinary team: architects Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli and Andrés Jacque, filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak and art curator Mirjam Varadinis. The result is an event that, though still recognisably an art exhibition, is oriented towards research-led projects and documentation.

Map of communities, Palermo Atlas. © OMA

The leaping-off point is the Palermo Atlas, an urban study by OMA, where Laperelli is a partner. Gathering photographs, illustrations and demographic studies, the Atlas elucidates some of the Sicilian capital’s complexity as a historic site of cultural exchange and a contemporary loci for issues including migration and climate change. It posits Palermo as a node crossed by ‘flows’ of people, goods and capital, and hopes to catalyse projects with genuine long-term impact.

Whether Manifesta 12, which runs until 4 November, succeeds in this remains to be seen. Events such as Marinella Senatore’s Palermo Procession at least inculcate short-term engagement with the locals. But Palermo has certainly made its mark on Manifesta. The labyrinthine alleys of its historic centre abound with architectural and artistic wonders. Venues include crumbling palazzos and deconsecrated churches, a palm-filled botanical garden and an archive whose centuries-old records are too laden with dust to prise open.

Teatro Garibaldi serves as the Manifesta 12 HQ and central meeting point. © Manifesta 12. Photography: CAVE Studio

Much of the art has a socio-political bent, and would have fit snugly in last year’s Documenta 14. The Cuba-born Tania Brugera’s Article 11 uses newspaper clippings, illustrations and film to track the protest movement around a US navy remote warfare centre in Niscemi, southeastern Sicily. Irish artist John Gerrard’s Untitled (near Parndorf, Austria) utilises computer graphics to replicate the location where, in 2014, a lorry was discovered containing the corpses of 71 migrants. And the Spanish artist Christina Lucas’ horrifying, strangely compelling video installation Unending Lightning, housed in the fascist-era Casa del Mutilato, chronicles every single civilian bombing from its invention in 1911 to the present day.

Manifesta’s projects stretch far outside central Palermo. On the Pizzo Sella promontory in the city’s northern extremes the Belgian design group Rotor transformed an unfinished house into a viewing platform, while the locally-based architect and photographer Roberto Collovà has created a bridge-shaped installation, made from the illuminations used during religious holidays, across the Oreto river on Palermo’s disorderly, debris-strewn Costa Sud. Here, Manifesta 12 makes a virtue of visitors’ willingness to explore unfamiliar surroundings, highlighting not only the finished projects but the journey required to discover them. §

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