As I’m walking through the Orto Botanico gardens of Palermo, Sicily – one of the main host sites of Manifesta 12: ‘The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence’ – past rows of cacti, huge greenhouses and irrigation systems, I’m wondering, as someone with an amateur’s love for learning how plants live, work and survive, who’s doing the gardening here?

The biennial’s title is taken from a quote from botanist and gardener Gilles Clément, who has also co-created a community garden in the city’s Zona Espansione Nord (ZEN). In the context of this nomadic biennial, the quote is used by the curatorial team to frame their explorations into cross-pollination, and how life forms – including plants and people – ‘meet and adapt to coexist’. The idea of the garden is used as a laboratory blueprint for the world: to study, mix, gather and – most specifically in Palermo, which has been a host for continuous migration – integrate ‘diverse species’.

Manifesta 12 tells us in the printed catalogue and every introductory exhibition text that they have done the ground work for the gardening. Beginning with a commissioned pre-biennial study on Palermo, Palermo Atlas by Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), it’s clear that starting with an understanding of the city from its inhabitants has been an important method to introduce the commissioned 40-plus artists to its context. And looking to the future, the Manifesta 12 Research Studios project on display at the University degli Studi di Palermo shares the findings of four international architecture studios into proposed scenarios for the city, working in collaboration with activists, citizens and local experts.

The overall aim for Manifesta 12 is to create a new, sustainable biennial model that leads with a deeper understanding of a city and an ambition to ‘sow seeds that will continue to flourish in the future’. But walking though the ‘Garden of Flows’ chapter, with most works hung awkwardly in amongst the plants within standard frames – video, photos, framed collages, works on paper – it’s not clear who will nurture these seeds once Manifesta leaves. Nor how these selected artworks contribute to that ambition.

The Education and Mediation team – who have helped to sow these seeds in collaboration with community projects, schools, and local associations – do seem to have been working hard. However, for the opening-weekend-quick-stop-biennial-digester (Manifesta 12 came third in the week after Art Basel and the Berlin Biennale), the locally-focused learning programme is kept separate from the exhibition works, in the back pages of the catalogue and in a small video loop and a few vitrines in the main hub at Teatro Garibaldi. It’s a marked separation that keeps the learning and doing far from the real art work – and keeps Manifesta 12 looking very similar to any other biennial blueprint.

For the exhibited works, this Manifesta makes good use of its non-gallery buildings. With maximum groupings of up to 10 artists, it means your attention is not completed exhausted by the time you leave. But the traditional catalogue display of artist after artist still makes it hard to really spend time with each work.

In the section ‘Out of Control Room’, complex data works explore migration and local struggles. The display by Forensic Oceanography plots migrant crossings in the Mediterranean, while John Gerrard’s Untitled (near Parndorf, Austria) (2018) is a photographic survey of the spot where a truck found to contain the corpses of 71 migrants was abandoned in 2015. Yet despite the devastating subject matter, you are still able to walk on to the next work, like the passing of news headlines.

The highlights in the exhibition venues offered me more of an insight into Palermo’s inhabitants and a way to grasp personal stories, rather than present numbers and data. Uriel Orlow’s multi-part installation in the ‘Garden of Flows’ section, Wishing Trees (2018), shared insights into the contemporary lives of anti-Mafia feminist activists and African migrant cooks, connected through three trees in the city: one planted by St Benedict, the first black saint of the Catholic Church, one outside the former residence of judge Giovanni Falcone who was assassinated by the Mafia in 1992, and an olive tree under which the second world war armistice was signed.

In another of the three Manifesta sections, ‘City on Stage’, one of my favourite works was Jordi Colomer’s video installation New Palermo Felicissima (2018) in a former orphanage at the Caletta Sant’Erasmo, a tiny harbour and now headquarters for the Fondazione “Casa Lavoro e Preghiera” di Padre Messina. In the film, you watch a tour of the local area unfold. We’re off the tourist trail and the tour guide, in amazing golden boots, weaves in fictions, oral histories and lines dictated into her headphones, until questioned by the locals about the source of her information. It’s a thoughtful comment on biennial tourism, contemplating who is the guest and who is the host here.

Manifesta’s own organised tours of the city-wide sites are led by ‘Gardeners’, trained not in gardening but in ‘cultivating the coexistence of visitor opinions’. This is my first Manifesta and everywhere we go we are reminded of its aims to create a sustainable ecological network in the city. But it is not clear yet how all this work and goodness will be maintained after Manifesta moves on to its next host city, Marseille, in 2020.

Communal gardens bring together those who share a fierce commitment to keeping a garden alive and growing, to share knowledge on how to care for and use the plants. An investment in gardening is a lot about failure and learning through the experiments that didn’t work, the plants that told us where they liked being and where they didn’t. So who is keeping note here? Who is doing the gardening? A long and impressive list of acknowledgements – but without job or activity titles – is listed in the back of the Manifesta handbook. I hope the gardeners – the actual gardeners not just the cultivators of visitor opinions or biennial formats – are all in there.

Manifesta 12 continues in Palermo, Sicily until 4 November 2018.

Eva Rowson was one of 10 a-n members who received a £600 bursary to attend the preview of Manifesta 12. The others attending were: Ania Bas, Amelia Crouch, Silke Dettmers, Fionn Duffy, Carrie Foulkes, Carl GentLaura Hindmarsh, Tania Kovats, and Melanie Menard

Watch out for more thoughts on Manifesta 12 from all the bursary recipients on a-n Blogs and a-n Reviews

1. Zheng Bo, Pteridoohilia 1, 2016 – ongoing, Video, Duration 17min 14sec. Photo: Wolfgang Trager; Courtesy: Manifesta 12 Palermo and the artist
2. Istituto Padre Messina, Palermo, Sicily. Photo: Cave Studio, copyright Manifesta
3. Forensic Oceanography, Installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Photo: Wolfgang Trager; Courtesy: Manifesta 12 Palermo and the artist
4. Jordi Colomer, New Palermo Felicissima, 2018, Installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Photo: Wolfgang Trager; Courtesy: Manifesta 12 Palermo and the artist
5. Uriel Orlow, Wishing Trees, 2018, Installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Photo: Wolfgang Trager; Courtesy: Manifesta 12 Palermo and the artist

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