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This edition of the nomadic biennial has Palermo's Orto Botanico at its heart, exploring ideas of growth, cross-pollination, and hope

There are, apparently, around 391,000 species of plants on earth and (happy thought!) 94 percent of them can flower. The number, however, keeps growing: in 2015 alone, 2,034 new varieties were discovered. At a time when the worst kind of politics is infecting the planet with its fear-mongering and cruelty, I find it reassuring that we are still making discoveries about this place we call home – especially in regard to the natural world, which, despite the violence we inflict upon it, somehow manages to soldier on.

This is why I applaud the spirit of Manifesta 12, ‘The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence’ – even if its title is more evocative of an academic conference than an art exhibition. That Europe’s roving biennial takes place this year in Palermo – capital of Sicily and one of the most beautiful yet battered cities on earth – is apt. For almost 3,000 years, the island has been colonized by seemingly countless empires or brutalized by organized crime, yet still it rises: its art and architecture have been endlessly reinvigorated thanks to this diversity of cultural influences. At the heart of Palermo is a botanical garden (the Orto Botanico), founded in 1789 and host to a multitude of plants from around the globe, which the biennial has taken as a metaphor for growth, cross-pollination and, more generally, as a symbol of hope. 

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Cooking Sections, What Is Above Is What Is Below, 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: the artist and Manifesta; photograph: Wolfgang Träger
 

Manifesta 12 was curated by a team of four ‘creative mediators’: Sicilian-born architect and Office of Metropolitan Architecture partner Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli (who led the project), documentary filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, architect Andrés Jaque and curator Mirjam Varadinis. In their mission statement, the group cites the French botanist Gilles Clément who, in 1997, described Earth as a ‘planetary garden’ with humanity as its gardener. They ask: ‘But how to tend to  a world that is moved by invisible informational networks, transnational private interests, algorithmic intelligence, environmental processes and ever-increasing inequalities?’ They attempt an answer via the work of 50 artists – including videos, installations, sculptures, gardens and occasional paintings and performances – installed across 20 venues in and around Palermo’s ancient palaces, streets, gardens and housing estates. That the show reaches no concrete conclusions is as it should be: this is, after all, an exhibition not a government enquiry. Manifesta 12’s headquarters – the wonderfully atmospheric, 150-year-old Teatro Garibaldi – hosts displays, public talks and a film programme.

The show, whilst uneven, has some brilliant flashes and is divided into three rather ponderously titled sections. The ‘Garden of Flows’ explores ‘toxicity, plant life and the culture of gardening in relation to the transnational commons in Orto Botanico’. The ‘Out of Control Room’ (a punning title that left many wincing) ‘investigates power in today’s regime of global flows’. The ‘City on Stage’ ‘builds on existing opportunities in the centre and the outskirts of Palermo to further develop the existing plans that are stuck somehow and have not been fully realized’. Generally speaking, each venue hosts work that explores issues around surveillance, ecology, migration and climate change; as a result, distinctions between the sections are somewhat nebulous. Certain questions recur: what can art do? What is it for? Is it even useful in the face of global suffering? Yet, asking whether or not something is good or bad art – or even if it’s art at all – becomes irrelevant when faced with many of the statements  of awful fact presented here.

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Forensic Oceanography, Liquid Violence, 2018, video installation and mixed media. Courtesy: the artist and Manifesta; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Much of the strongest work in  Manifesta 12 has its roots in reportage. In the Palazzo Forcella de Seta, as part of ‘Out of Control Room’, Forensic Oceanography’s video installation Liquid Violence (all works 2018, unless otherwise stated), is a compilation of three investigations into migrant deaths in the Mediterranean: between 2011 and 2018, 16,173 human beings have died as a result of the complex, often murderous, politics of border control. On view in the same venue is John Gerrard’s chilling digital memorial, Untitled (Near Parndorf, Austria), a sombre recreation of a seemingly ordinary stretch of road where the bodies of 71 migrants from Iran, Iraq and Syria were discovered in an abandoned poultry lorry in 2015; and Laura Poitras’s mixed-media video installation, Signal Flow – a study of US military bases in Sicily – which she developed in tandem with local filmmakers.

In the Casa del Mutilado, also as part of ‘Out of Control Room’, Cristina Lucas’s devastating, six-hour, three-channel video installation, Unending Lightning (2015–ongoing), charts the aerial bombing of civilians since 1911. Looking to the future by mining the past, the duo Cooking Sections created a series of ‘installations and packed lunches’ in response to traditional Sicilian irrigation methods that allow fruit to grow in drought conditions (What Is Above Is What Is Below). A rare moment of subtlety was supplied by Renato Leotta’s enigmatic clay floor (Giardino) in the Palazzo Butera, as part of the ‘Garden of Flows’, which bears the imprints made by lemons as they fell from the trees in a Sicilian grove. In a nearby room, Uriel Orlow’s powerful video installation Wishing Trees links the stories of three Sicilian trees with complex tales of activism and migration. A highlight is an interview with the legendary 90-year-old anti-mafia and feminist activist, Simona Mafai, who rejects a simplistic approach to responsibility, declaring at one point: ‘We have  to look inside ourselves to understand the ways in which our own comfortable self-serving habits contribute to the Mafia’s actions.’

Ironically, given its thematic significance, the weakest part of Manifesta 12 is the Orto Botanico. With the exception of some successful pieces by artists such as Toyin Ojih Odutola, Khalil Rabah and Michael Wang, many works here are, quite simply, overwhelmed by the grandeur of the surrounds: enormous ficus trees with flesh-like, surreal elephants; giant ferns with sci-fi fronds; ornate greenhouses and lush ponds. The lack of maps didn’t help either – I kept stumbling across sweating visitors, wildly fanning themselves in the blinding heat, crashing through the undergrowth, looking for art. When set against 250 years of research and hard work by botanists, scientists and gardeners, contemporary art’s contribution looked, well, a little thin.

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Uriel Orlow, Wishing Trees, 2018, video installation, documents and artefacts in vitrines, photography, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Manifesta; photograph: Simone Sapienza

In a very different part of town – the Zona Espansione Nord, a notorious, poverty-stricken 1970s social-housing development on the outskirts of the city – a very different kind of garden is taking root as part of ‘City on Stage’. The aformentioned Clément, along with the radical gardening collective Coloco, have transformed a rubbish-choked wasteland into a community vegetable garden (Diventare Giardino, Becoming a Garden, 2018), offering gardening lessons to enthusiastic local children and their families in the process. It’s a useful, beautiful project and one that has been created, at every stage, in collaboration with local residents. Diventare Giardino is a reminder that, sometimes, the simplest gestures are the most powerful.

Back in the city centre, in the midst of the astonishingly Kafkaesque state archives, Milan-based duo Masbedo have installed an enormous LED video, Protocol No. 90/6, of a mournful Sicilian puppet who jerks, jolts and occasionally collapses in front of thousands of dusty, centuries-old files. It’s a portrait of sorts of the great Italian film director Vittorio de Seta, who was harassed for his communist sympathies; the work was inspired by the duo’s discovery of a police file from 1956 listing the names of artists, film directors and writers who were under observation. It’s a stark reminder – like so much of the work in this biennale – of the madness that can ensue when governments fail the citizens they’re meant to serve.

Manifesta 12 is on view at various venues around Palermo, Italy, from 16 June until 4 November 2018.

Main image: Coloco and Gilles Clement, Becoming Garden, 2018, workshop documentation, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: the artists and Manifesta; photograph: Cave Studio