The sunlight that has settled into an empty room of Palermo’s Palazzo Butera, one of the venues for the 12th edition of Manifesta, is disturbed by the flurry of a pigeon through an open window. After briefly touring the exhibition, the bird perches on a doorframe and casually defecates onto the ceramic tiles of Renato Leotta’s floorwork Giardino (2018), the pockmarked surface of which records the fall of lemons onto the ground beneath citrus trees. After shooing the invader out of the space, the invigilators decide against clearing up the mess, and so visitors pick their way delicately around it.
The intervention dramatises the questions shaping the latest edition of the peripatetic European biennial, which takes ‘the garden’ for its theme: who’s allowed in, what’s excluded and who gets to decide? The curators adopt the garden as both a model for the presentation of contemporary art and an allegory for a Palermitan society defined by the combination of Arab, European and African civilisations. The exhibition is divided into three strands and hosted by spaces that in their faded grandeur, syncretic architectures and immersion in the city’s bustle offer their own evidence of how art interacts with the world and how cultures intersect with each other.
Yet the basic principle of a garden is that it is bounded, and the works most directly engaged with the political implications of borders – citizenship, sovereignty and migration – are gathered under the bathetic title ‘Out of Control Room’. Setting the tone, Laura Poitras and Tania Bruguera draw attention to a US military base in the Sicilian countryside: the former through a video installation (Signal Flow, 2018) made in collaboration with local filmmakers, the latter (in Article 11, 2018) by documenting residents’ protests against its construction. In both cases the artists align themselves with the defence of sovereignty disregarded by, for example, the US military’s drone strikes or, as touched upon by Trevor Paglen’s series of photographic portraits as biometric data sets (It Began as a Military Experiment, 2017), its surveillance programme.
The peripatetic European biennial takes ‘the garden’ for its theme: who’s allowed in, what’s excluded and who gets to decide?
The freedom to transgress borders is not equally distributed, as John Gerrard’s Untitled (near Parndorf Austria) (2018) makes clear. The cold digital precision of this virtual portrait of the roadside on which 71 migrants suffocated in the back of an abandoned truck, and the inhuman steadiness of the circling perspective on it, might be seen in isolation to fulfil the Kantian principle that pleasure in the beautiful is predicated on disinterest. Yet the contextualising information makes any such suspension of interest impossible, and so Gerrard captures the tension inherent to any work of art that protests the unequal systems of power in which it is, as the product of a specific economy, implicated. That this ambiguity is implicit does not diminish the work.
Indeed, the felt need to signpost to the audience that the curators are aware of the disputed line between highlighting and exploiting suffering characterises the biennial’s clumsiest moments. To juxtapose Kader Attia’s The Body’s Legacies. The Post-Colonial Body (2018), in which a speaker laments that white people take pleasure from musical forms such as the blues and hip-hop that are rooted in black suffering, beside Forensic Oceanography’s Liquid Violence (2018), a reconstruction of the botched rescue of African migrants from the Mediterranean, has troubling implications. Either that the latter is served up for a sadistic and presumptively white audience as entertainment; or that there is a meaningful equivalence between engaging with experiences sublimated through culture and watching documentary footage of people drowning as a consequence of racist European immigration policies. This does no justice to either work.
For all the cross-pollination, peaceful coexistence and productive admixture, the botanical garden also expresses the colonial impulse to uproot, assimilate and systematise
How it might be possible to generate solidarities between diverse constituencies is the subject of ‘Garden of Flows’ at the Botanical Gardens, whose heterogeneous ecosystem offers a template. The idea, eloquently illustrated by Toyin Ojih Odutola’s drawings of West African people and objects in Italy (Scenes of Exchange, 2018), is appealing but risks seeming selective: for all the cross-pollination, peaceful coexistence and productive admixture, the botanical garden also expresses the colonial impulse to uproot, assimilate and systematise. So the Molotov cocktails scattered through Lungiswa Gqunta’s installation in an empty hothouse (Lituation – The Gardener’s Revenge, 2018), while seeming to incite rebellion, also read like a welcome reminder of the violence of certain dislocations. The question, here as elsewhere, is not whether movement across borders is per se a good or bad thing, but how inequalities of power dictate the consequences of those movements.
The curators’ adoption of Gilles Clément’s description of the world as a ‘planetary garden’ preempts such reservations by reframing the garden as global commons, and Uriel Orlow’s Wishing Trees (2018) makes a powerful case against a constructed ‘local culture’ being used to justify exclusionary policies. But gardens are by definition local and manmade – the exception being Eden, which we also ruined – and the conflation of the garden with the planet implies that humanity should be its superintendent. Which plays into the anthropocentric assumption that because we are alone responsible for destroying the planet, we are singlehandedly capable of fixing it. Works including Jelili Atiku’s Festival of the Earth (Alaraagbo XIII) (2018) and Melanie Benajo’s Night Soil (2014–2018) are among many to caution against the self-aggrandising assumption that humanity can remove itself from, and thus oversee, nature; OMA’s Palermo Atlas (2018), a study of the flows of people and capital across the city, disputes whether we can ever fully grasp the complex systems of which we are a part and the consequences of our interventions into them. Rather than impose totalising systems on the world, horticultural or otherwise, the implication is that we should acknowledge our own entanglement in wider patterns.
Part of the ‘City on Stage’ strand, Roberto Collovà’s architectural proposal for Palermo’s southern coastline (Giardino di Giardini. Azioni sulla Costa Sud, 2018) laments that wildflowers on the rubble left by the disastrous postwar urban redevelopment known as the Sack of Palermo are now carefully preserved. By pointing out that nature would thrive without our guiding hand, its pioneer plants replaced by hardier and better-adapted species, he suggests that the impulse to preserve the world is only another expression of the urge to master it that created the desolate landscape in the first place. As Pangloss learns in Voltaire’s Candide (1759) – to which the exhibition’s subtitle alludes – that ‘human grandeur is very dangerous’, so Manifesta proposes that living ethically means adapting to local conditions, relinquishing a degree of control over the world of which we are part and recognising the virtues of pragmatism. Collovà’s installation includes a desk on which a sheet of paper offers a set of definitions of archaeology that might equally describe the impression left by the biennial: ‘WHAT REMAINS’; ‘WHAT RESISTS OR CAN RESIST’; ‘A PLACE FROM WHICH YOU CAN REALISTICALLY RESTART’.
Manifesta 12: The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence, various venues, Palermo, 6 June – 4 November
From the September 2018 issue of ArtReview