REVIEW

The Planetary Garden

Palermo

20 June 2018

In 2015, Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, published the 'International Human Mobility Charter of Palermo' calling for mobility as an inalienable human right and the immediate abolishment of residence permits in Europe.

Two years later, in an interview published on Krytyka Polityczna, Orlando passionately critiqued the logic of a European system which privileges asylum seekers over economic migrants:

"The 'residence permit' is contemporary slavery, the new death penalty, the piece of paper that plunges thousands of people into the Mediterranean," he said. "'Residence permits' must be abolished. Beyond this, the distinction between the 'asylum seeker' and the 'economic migrant' based on the policies of European countries makes me shiver. What is the difference between those who are likely to be killed because their country is in war and those who are likely to starve?"

Orlando’s insistence on the right of humans to move freely around the world is particularly notable given that Sicily and neighbouring island, Lampedusa, are key points of entry for people trying to reach Italy from across the Mediterranean Sea. Orlando’s position, moreover, places him in direct opposition to that of the increasingly-prominent voice of Matteo Salvini and his rebranded right-wing Lega Salvini Premier party. A parliamentary candidate for Lega Salvini Premier, Sabina Bonelli, for example, remarked to CNBC that Sicily had been turned into a "big refugee camp".

Against this fraught political backdrop, the twelfth edition of Manifesta, Europe’s nomadic biennial, opened last week in Sicily. It was mayor Orlando who lobbied for Palermo as host city and whose energy seems to have infused the biennial with new intellectual vigour. Rather than impose a predetermined curatorial statement on Palermo as if the city were a tabula rasa, Manifesta 12's thematic structure and subsequent programme – 'The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence' – emerged directly from urban research commissioned by the biennial’s director Hedwig Fijen.

In 2016, Fijen approached the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) to carry out the study, ultimately directed by Sicilian-born architect and OMA partner Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli. Summing up the relationship between this research and the biennial in an interview during the opening, Laparelli told me: "The project proposal is the place. The project is the city." Following the research gathered for what OMA came to call the Palermo Atlas, Manifesta 12 was divided into three strands: 'Garden of Flows', 'Out of Control Room' and 'City on Stage'.

One of the key inspirations for Manifesta 12’s focus on the garden’s "capacity to embrace difference as a generative force, and to compose life out of movement and migration" is an 1875 painting by Francesco Lojacono, View of Palermo, from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna’s collection. In Lojacono’s picturesque view of the city, not a single depicted species is native: the olive trees are from Asia, the prickly pear cactus from Mexico. Even the citrus trees, one of the symbols of Sicily, were imported under Arab rule.

The garden is a particularly rich metaphor for a biennial concerned with mobility, migration and the environment in a city described by its mayor as a "Middle Eastern metropolis in Europe." In a European context, the garden cannot escape its historical relationship with colonial exploitation and exploration. But the "planetary garden" philosophy of French gardener, Gilles Clément, another key source of Manifesta inspiration, offers a more hopeful interpretation of the Earth as an inter-dependent, inter-related ecosystem which thrives on diversity and change. Clément’s argument is that humans must harmonise with evolving life forms in a naturally-collaborative environment, rather than undertake a "gardener’s war" to eradicate and control the unwanted. If gardens are places where diverse forms of life mix and adapt to co-exist and the Earth is a planetary-scale garden, the metaphor of humans as “gardeners” who recognise their dependency on other species and share responsibility for caring for the environment and each other holds considerable appeal.

In a small area of Palermo’s Orto Botanico (founded in 1789) previously given over to the integration of foreign plants, Leone Contini’s Foreign Farmers installation sees a continuation of a long-term research project across Italy collecting seeds and stories from different migrant communities. Squashes from Contini's Chinese farmer neighbours in Tuscany grow alongside different varieties collected from Bengali families outside Palermo and a Senegalese garden near Venice. Contini, who is hoeing weeds on-site when I pass by, remarks critically on the "liturgy" of Italian food when I ask whether immigrants are having an effect on Italian cuisine. He says that Italian food was originally born of poverty and that, although there’s much resistance due to tradition, he’s hopeful that change will happen; that immigrants will start to hybridise Italian food and make it more interesting. When that day comes, he says, "finally, my work will no longer be necessary."

Colombian artist, Alberto Baraya arrived in Palermo a month before the opening to expand his herbarium of artificial plants project according to a new taxonomy developed in relation to the city. Plastic flowers from Palermo’s many religious shrines and floral tiles from garbage tips are catalogued and displayed in one of the botanic garden’s beautiful greenhouses – a thoroughly 21st-century collection of plants that eloquently speaks to globalisation, environmental concerns and cultural norms.

Elsewhere, in the 17th-century Palazzo Butera – currently undergoing extensive restoration – a superb new video commission by Swiss artist Uriel Orlow weaves together stories of anti-Mafia activism; St. Benedict, the first black saint of the Catholic Church; African migrant cooks in Palermo; the 1943 Armistice of Cassibile and connects them to three particular trees in Sicily. "Palermo doesn’t feel so different from Africa," says Alieu Jabbi from Dampha Kunda in one clip, sitting underneath the huge Cyprus planted by St. Benedict overlooking Palermo.

If 'Garden of Flows' considers diversity and migration on the planetary scale through the lens of the garden, 'Out of Control Room' questions one of the fundamental contradictions of globalisation: data and goods and privileged peoples can move freely around the world, while so-called migrants and refugees cannot.

Overlooking the sea in Palermo’s old town, Palazzo Forcella De Seta hosts a powerful cohort of works looking at mobility, migration, privilege, and civic participation. Forensic Oceanography’s devastating reconstructions of migrant crossings in the Mediterranean Sea highlight the deadly consequences of the Italian government’s new two-pronged policy to close off the Med. Mare Clausum (2018) demonstrates both how NGO rescue activities are increasingly being criminalised within Europe, and how the Libyan government is being trained and equipped to prevent and intercept departures from Africa in the first place.

Next door, The Peng! Collective’s 2015 Fluchthelfer.in. Become an Escape Agent draws on the history of those who risked their lives to help people escape from the former DDR as a call for contemporary acts of civil disobedience to enable refugees to move freely around Europe. In their moving video, an older German couple drives a migrant across the Italian/Swiss border. "I think it’s unfair that I can move freely and he cannot," the woman says. "Who has the right to decide this? [...] We always talk about freedom and equality for everyone, but who is this 'everyone'?"

The decision to exhibit such works in Palazzo De Seta exemplifies the curatorial intelligence which underpins much of this biennial. Watching Erkan Özgen’s film of interviews with refugee women from northern Iraq now living in Turkey while standing in a Sicilian palazzo redecorated in an Arab-Norman style in the 19th century somehow reinforces the artificial boundaries implied and implicated in the word migrant. As the documentary filmmaker Awam Amkpa noted during Manifesta’s opening event, "migration is the engine that defines culture."

In maintaining a tight, deeply-rooted focus on its host city, Palermo, Manifesta’s four curators – OMA's Laparelli; Dutch filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak; Spanish architect Andrés Jaque; and Swiss curator Mirjam Varadinis – have done what innumerable previous biennials failed to do: speak to universal concerns. Palermo’s unique history of cultural syncretism layered on top of its more recent history of organised crime, the impacts of the economic downturn, environmental change, tourism and gentrification and an influx of Mediterranean migrants acts as a platform – both conceptually and literally, spread out in venues across the city – where artists, architects, activists and academics have used their positions not to draw attention to their own problems or to speak on behalf of others, but to enable those who are often denied the ability to speak for themselves an opportunity to tell their own stories (although the question of the performance of suffering does remain problematic).

A few days before arriving in Palermo for Manifesta, driving in Sicily with my husband – from Siracusa on the east coast to the Villa Romana de Cassele in the central interior – I was flagged down and pulled over by police at a random checkpoint on the highway. Immediately prior to the checkpoint, we had turned off a smaller road, the SP131 onto the larger SS417. Before turning, we noticed an enormous site off to the right surrounded by barbed wire fencing and manned by armed soldiers. In a part of the island where very little else existed, the site was a conundrum. What was it? Military? Accommodation for agricultural labourers? When we were stopped by the police a few minutes later, we were certain the checkpoint’s proximity to the site wasn’t an accident, but we were utterly ignorant as to why.

Later, upon returning home, I retraced our driving route on Google maps to determine where exactly we had been pulled over and tried to identity what the site actually was. It turns out we had driven past Cara di Mineo. This small village, constructed in 2005 to house American naval officers and their families in relative comfort, is now the biggest refugee camp in Italy. Given this, I can only assume the police stopped us to see whether we’d picked anyone up and we had no idea at the time – not about the refugee camp, nor the reason for the police check – even though we clearly knew something was not right about the place. Indeed, without the knowledge of my subsequent research (exactly the kind of work that the curators of Manifesta 12 were so diligent in undertaking), all one can ever have in such situations is a vague feeling of unease.

The success of this incarnation of Manifesta largely relates to the curators’ decision to occupy and foreground this disconnect between our awareness of facts and statistics about migrants and refugees in Europe and genuine knowledge of the actual circumstances in which those facts are played out. In keeping its sights firmly fixed on Palermo, and offering up the metaphor of the planetary garden as an optimistic model for present and future change, Manifesta 12 demonstrates that biennials can, on very rare occasions, act as important sites for contemplation, discussion and even action.