I blame Camille Henrot for my scepticism about the political possibilities of gardens. The artist prefaced her 2012 exhibition at kamel mennour gallery in Paris, ‘Is It Possible to Be a Revolutionary and Like Flowers?’, with a quotation from Marcel Liebman’s Leninism Under Lenin (1975).i The book relates that, one day, the future leader and ideologue of the Soviet regime and his entourage were discussing a point of doctrine: Can a professional revolutionary legitimately like flowers? To which, one zealot responds: ‘You start by loving flowers and soon you want to live like a landowner, who, stretched out lazily in a hammock, in the midst of his magnificent garden, reads French novels and is waited on by obsequious valets.’ From flowers to footmen: for Lenin’s comrade, the problem with gardens is a problem of property. To whom does a garden belong? Those who own it? Those who work it? The plants that grow in it? The garden is a space that separates and stratifies.
This observation of Lenin’s friend came back to me a number of times at Manifesta 12, this year’s edition of the nomadic European biennial, the title of which is ‘The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence’. Directed by an interdisciplinary team of ‘creative mediators’ – filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, architectural theorist Andrés Jaque and curator Mirjam Varadinis, led by Sicilian-born architect and OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture) partner Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli – the exhibition, which includes more than 50 artists, takes place across 20 venues in and around Palermo. These include the city’s Botanical Gardens, founded in 1789 for the cultivation of medicinal plants and study of exotic specimens and currently home to 12,000 species. Inspired by Francesco Lojacono’s painting View of Palermo (1875) – which shows, lining the dusty road towards the city and the Mediterranean beyond: citrus trees brought to the island by the Arabs; olive trees originally from Asia Minor; Australian eucalyptus and Mexican prickly pear, amongst other naturalized settlers – the curatorial team have taken the garden as a metaphor for the historic syncretism and cultural tolerance of the island. Variously (and, at some points, simultaneously) Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Hapsburg, Bourbon, this place on the southern periphery of Europe, but in the middle of the Mediterranean, has been shaped by the movement across it. Under mayor Leoluca Orlando – who made his name fighting the mafia in the 1980s and ’90s and is now an impassioned advocate for the rights of migrants – the city of Palermo is redrawing itself as a European blueprint for allowing communities to grow together in difference. (This policy of openness is under strain from current national policies. The week of the biennale opening, interior minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right party Lega Nord, refused to allow a French NGO vessel carrying 629 migrants rescued from the sea to dock in Italian ports in spite of statements by both Orlando and the mayor of Naples, Luigi Di Magistris, that their cities would welcome them.) Gardens, in this reading, are above all a question of community (as well as, in some fundamental way, places of nourishment and of healing); they offer a model of cosmopolitanism, of how a city might be.
Of course, this is a slightly neat proposition, and many of the works in the exhibition struggle with a flat-footed kind of literalness. This is true of all three of the programme strands – ‘Garden of Flows’, ‘City on Stage’ and ‘Out of Control Room’ – each of which explores a different aspect of the networks, rituals and spaces that both connect us and can alienate us from one another and the world in which we live. However, while the latter strand (the focus of an upcoming piece by my colleague Evan Moffitt) tends towards a didactic mode of documentary-style film presentation, the former have a more utopian bent.
Processions through the city by Marinella Senatore (Palermo Procession, all works 2018) and Jelili Atiku (Festino della Terra [Alaraagbo XII]), and a daytime firework display by Matilde Cassani (Tutto) assemble diverse temporary communities to suggest, not altogether convincingly, the political potential of ‘being together’; in the botanical gardens, Leone Contini’s Foreign Farmers vegetable patch feels unsatisfactory as one outcome of a ten-year research project into the cultivation activities of Sicily’s many migrant populations. Maria Thereza Alves’s Una proposta di sincretismo (questa volta senza genocidio) (A Proposal for Syncretism: This Time Without Genocide), which recreates the biodiversity of Lojacono’s painting in vibrant majolica, is thuddingly direct; while Theatre of the Sun, Fallen Fruit’s project to map areas in the city where fruit can be foraged from overhanging trees (technically on public property) has a slightness unfortunately exacerbated by the Instagram-friendly acid-bright floral wallpaper with which they have decorated one room of the spectacular 18th-century Palazzo Butera.
The strongest projects are those that more subtly evoke the land in its complexity and contestation. (It says something about the architectural orientation of the curatorial team that these are frequently structural interventions.) The tiles of Renato Leotta’s unglazed terracotta floor (Giardino), for instance, which stretches out across one large chamber of the Palazzo Butara, are marked with slight indents caused by falling lemons. Made on a citrus grove recently purchased by the artist in the foothills of Mount Etna, they act as a kind of mirror for the baroque frescoes of the crumbling ceiling above, reminding us of the agrarian economies on which such urban/urbane luxury was constructed. (This is something that will be familiar to anyone who has read Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s The Leopard, 1958, a portrait of the gloriously smouldering embers of feudal Sicily in the late 19th century.) For their project What Is Above Is What Is Below, the duo Cooking Sections have used common Sicilian building and farming materials to rethink the dry irrigation techniques of traditional giardini Panteschi. Found on the nearby island of Pantelleria, these circular stone structures surround citrus trees to provide the shade and humidity without which they would not produce fruit. In Sicily, where control over water has long been intimately linked to organized crime and whose largely agricultural economy is newly threated by the droughts of climate change, these three propositional structures, located at sites across the city, imagine different ways forward.
The most compelling piece of the biennial, to my mind, has been achieved by the most restrained of gestures. Between the beach towns of Mondello and Sferracavallo, just beyond the fringes of Palermo’s northwest suburbs, the green peak of Monte Gallo rises up between the autostrada and the sea. Although designated a national park, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, some 300 building permits on the hillside were issued to a company owned by the brother-in-law of Cosa Nostra boss Michele Greco. Large villas began to be constructed. The development was stopped by the Municipality of Palermo in 1997 and has since been the subject of various legal battles. Visible from the road, the concrete skeletons of the unfinished buildings loom eerily. At the top of a steep road, around 14 clutch-burning switchbacks, the Belgian design and architecture collective Rotor has secured one of these structures and converted it into a viewing platform, using materials found on the abandoned site to build a bench in a cleared garden area. In one direction, the landscape drops away towards the rippling Mediterranean; in the other, towards the urban sprawl of Palermo (a city of 1.2 million inhabitants). Nearby, you can see the sandy-coloured blocks of Zona Espansione Nord (ZEN), a 1970s social housing development outside of the city designed by legendary Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti. Inspired by the walled city, it looks like a fortress – or a prison. (The political situation in late 1970s Palermo was such that ZEN was never properly completed and left without facilities and infrastructure. In spite of its architect’s utopian aspirations, it quickly became notorious for crime, unemployment and poverty. As part of Manifesta, the French garden designer Gilles Clément and landscape and urbanism collective Coloco are creating a community garden in close collaboration with local people and resident groups.) As a framing device for the complex terrain of this city – legal, ecological, social – Rotor’s project at Pizzo Sella is both eloquent and elegant.
There is a sense in which what is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself. It is this biennial’s great strength that, of the 50 artists whose work is included, 35 were invited to produce new commissions. Many have done so in close collaboration with people from the city; all have done so with an attentiveness (and imagination) towards place – as something spatial, cultural, political, historical – which is rare in international exhibitions on this scale. The blueprint for curatorial engagement is the Palermo Atlas, a publication produced by Laparelli and a team at OMA that is the result of a three-month research project and conversations with more than 100 Palermitans. It offers a mosaic-like (clear but fragmentary) portrait of the city as it was, is and is changing – at least as perceived from the outside. We – and by ‘we’ I speak as part of the international strata of art professionals who are privileged enough to be able to follow Manifesta each time it moves – are always asking biennials, as institutions more than exhibitions, to do more for their host cities; we are rarely the best placed to judge their success in this. Coming in Palermo’s year as Italian capital of culture, Manifesta 12 is an important part of a narrative, clearly desired by many in the city (not least in the mayor’s office), to reassert its place as a centre of cultural and civic values. It wrests the image of the city away from mafia lawlessness and urban decadence, modelling itself on an older, idealized and tolerant history. From everything that this exhibition has shown me of Palermo, it is a city that is resilient, ambitious and hopeful. That the art is the least interesting thing about this biennial can be read any way you want. Or, as Andrea Cusamano, the head of Palermo’s Municipal Department of Culture, put it (somewhat equivocally) in his press statement: ‘As contemporary art teaches us, beauty is not something given but a task to be undertaken.’
i Interestingly, given the theme and focus of Manifesta 12, this quotation was cited by Roland Barthes in one of his 1977 College de France lectures, published in 2012 as How to Live Together (Colombia University Press, New York).
Main image:View of Palermo from Rotor’s project at Pizzo Sella for Manifesta 12. Photograph: the author