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(Image: ‘New Herbs from Palermo and Surroundings. A Sicillian Expedition,’ 2018 by Alberto Baraya.)

The title of Manifesta 12 is: “The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence;” to quote some exhibition blurb:

“[Manifesta 12] explores coexistence in a world moved by invisible networks, transnational private interests, algorithmic intelligence and ever-increasing inequalities through the unique lens of Palermo – a crossroads of three continents in the heart of the Mediterranean.”

Before I went there, this blurb and the exhibition structure seemed somewhat beguiling but in retrospect the text above does sum things up pretty well

The biennial is organised into 3 strands:
Garden of Flows
Out of Control Room
City on Stage

From my point of view, there seemed to be broadly 2 approaches. Firstly, a large proportion of works involved mapping, tracking, representing or taking stock of recent instances of migration and other flows (both flows of people and flows of data). i.e. these works looked at the world as it is currently. An indicative example would be Forensic Oceanography’s ‘Liquid Violence’ (2018) introduced with a graph tracking migrant deaths in the Mediterranean since 2011 and continuing with 3 filmic investigations into particular instances of non-assistance, abandonment or failed rescue of migrant boats, each of which traces shifting political dynamics and boarder control methods and the consequences of these. Most of this work fell under the category ‘Out of Control Room.’

(Image: ‘What is Above Is What Is Below,’ 2018 by Cooking Sections.)

A second approach was to imagine or posit an alternative, borderless world. Here the ‘garden’ metaphor that provides Manifesta’s central motif was key and most of these works came under the strand ‘Garden of Flows.’ An example here is Fallen Fruit’s ‘Theatre of the Sun.’ Based on the idea that seeds move freely – on the wind or carried in clothing or cargo – Fallen Fruit’s spectacular, multi-coloured wallpaper images Palermo’s fruits. Alongside this ‘The Public Fruit Map of Palermo’ shows the location of hundreds of fruit trees in the city, as part of an expanding, global resource mapping edible fruits.

The ‘Garden of Flows’ strand is centred on Palermo’s Botanical gardens (worth visiting although the artworks here were overshadowed by the setting). Other works are dispersed throughout the city in smaller gardens and historical buildings including semi-derelict, formerly grand houses and churches. Some locations include a presentation of an individual artists work whilst others are more like small group shows. Overall the biennial feels manageable. Three days gave me enough time to engage in a fair amount of depth with the main programme. Having said this, I did not venture to projects at Costa Sud, ZEN or Pizzo Sella (all projects on the outskirts of the city 30mins-1hour by car) nor did I see much in the parallel programme disseminated in a long and fairly impenetrable list of exhibitions and events happening between now and November.

Be aware that looking around Palazzo Forcella De Seta in particular takes time. There is 3-4 hours of moving image material here and though compelling, it does get quite draining (I split it across 2 days). The other larger groupings of work at Palazzo Butera and Palazzo Ajutamicristo have a nicer variety of work with more sculptural installation pieces alongside moving image. On the whole the biennial is dominated by moving image and performance or participation based projects.

Visiting Manifesta, you also get to see a lot of central Palermo, so the third strand of the biennial ‘City on stage’ could be taken almost as a condition of the biennial itself. Works curated under this heading include parade works by Jelili Atiku and Marinella Senatore and a confetti cannon in Palermo’s Quattro Canti – baroque square – by Matilde Cassani; fired once a day during the opening weekend. Though I made some effort to see all three, bad time planning or getting lost meant I missed them.

(Image: ‘New Palermo Felicissima,’ 2018 by Jordi Colomer.)

The piece I enjoyed most from this strand was Jordi Colmer’s ‘New Palermo Felicissima’ (2018). A guide leads small groups on boat trips and along the coast, and it gradually becomes apparent that the groups know more about the location than her. Whether the information the guide gives about each location is true is unclear. At times she relays lines fed to her though an ear piece. The work was funny – some light relief in a serious exhibition – and it resonated with the tourist experience of trying to make sense of a new place.

‘City on Stage’ suggests a show, a presentation of the city for visitors. But it has a second aspect too, more to do with re-presenting the city to residents themselves. The biennial began with an urban research study, published as ‘Parlermo Atlas’ – “an interdisciplinary investigation of the city covering architecture, archaeology, anthropology, archival research, personal histories and media.” Part of its intent is to ensure a long-term impact from Manifesta 12. Some of the ‘City on Stage’ projects are geared toward collaborations with existing projects in the city and in the biennial more widely an education programme and parallel events aim to support Palermo’s existing communities. The effectiveness of this is hard to gauge on a short visit and maybe won’t be known until a while after the event. Eva Rowson thoughtfully discusses some of the questions arising about the relationship between a biennial and a city’s existing inhabitants in her Manifesta review.

Suffice to say, by way of concluding this part, its an ambitious biennial and the three strands – though a bit confusing at first – did help me to make sense of the work. For me there wasn’t any really stand-out pieces that made me think “wow, that’s fantastic, the best thing I’ve ever seen,” but there was plenty of good work (my favourites are listed below). Moreover a lot of the artwork worked together, forming connections or stories that influenced one another. As such the biennial worked as a coherently curated show. It was relevant to its location and the city of Palermo added to the experience and richness of the work.

(Image: ‘Across the Border,’ 2010-ongoing by Fillipo Minelli.)

Recommended works by venue:

Palazzo Butera:
• Uriel Orlow ‘Wishing Tree.’ (2018). (A considered piece which melds the concerns of both the ‘Garden of Flows’ and ‘Out of Control Room’ strands)
• Fallen Fruit ‘Theatre of the Sun.’ (2018). (For sheer visual pleasure).

Palazzo Ajutamicristo:
• Fillippo Minelli, ‘Acoss the Border,’ (2010–ongoing). (Make sure you read the slightly shoddily presented but worthwhile accompanying A4 booklet, explaining each contributors design).
• Lydia Ourahmane, ‘The Third Choir,’ (2014). (Ditto, read the accompanying file).

Palazzo Forcella De Setta:
• Forensic Oceanography, ‘Liquid Violence’, (2018). (More on this above and below).
Casa del Mutilato:
• Cristina Lucas, ‘Unending Lightening,’ (2015-ongoing). (Takes a while to get into but it’s pretty moving – and saddening – once you do).

Oratoria della Madonna del Rifugio dei Peccatori Pentiti:
• Yuri Ancarani ‘Lapidi,’ (2018). (I liked the interplay here between 2 vertically displayed flat screen TVs).

Orto Botanico:
• Alberto Baraya ‘Bew Herbs from Palermo and Surroundings. A Sicilian Expedition,’ (2018). (For it’s dry humour.)

Fondaione “Casa Lavoro e Pregheira” di Padre Messina:
• Jordi Colomer, ‘New Palermo Felicissima,’ (2018). (For humour again, and nicely presented).