Culture under threat

Mike Watson reports on the vandalisation of a public artwork in Palermo

By Mike Watson

The second edition of the BAM-Biennale Arcipelago Mediterraneo, held in Palermo, is at the centre of a political row after a public installation by the London-based, Catania-born artist Giuseppe Lana was vandalised. The damage to the work – entitled Crossover (2019) and comprising four alternately rising mechanical traffic barriers placed in a square formation – comes after a Facebook video in which city councillor Fabrizio Ferrandelli criticised it. Successive attacks on the work took place over the following days, with the result that the work was destroyed, with all four of the barriers uprooted from the concrete in which they had been set.

While no link can be confirmed between the video by a member of the new centre-left party +Europa and culprits who have not been identified, the incident nonetheless raises questions over populist rhetoric and accountability for statements made via social media platforms. ln the video, posted on the morning of 7 November, Ferrandelli asked his 20,000 followers how it is possible that “a seemingly dysfunctional arrangement of road barriers”, which was “probably” an artwork came to be installed in a public space with no clear explanation as to its purpose. As promised in the video, the councillor – who came in second place in the mayoral elections of both 2012 and 2017 – sent a letter to Mayor Leoluca Orlando of the centre-left Partito Democratico, which he posted in the comment thread of the aforementioned video.

Ferrandelli’s letter enquired as to the purpose of the work and its legality in regard to local permissions for public installations, employing a wording that at no point acknowledged the artistic nature of the structure. This stance depends on his assertion that there was no artwork description in place. However, several people – including Palermitan gallerist Francesco Pantaleone – posted pictures in the same thread that clearly showed a description adjacent to the work. Ferrandelli’s feigned ignorance of the installation’s status as an artwork and clear message regarding the role of barriers in facilitating and limiting movement served to stir up public antipathy online.

The city councillor for culture, Adham Darawsha, issued a statement that ‘discussion and criticism of contemporary art are welcome but acts of violence remain always unacceptable’. Mayor Orlando’s administration has emphasised the importance of cultural initiatives such as last year’s Manifesta 12 in bringing unity and economic development to Palermo. Aside from highlighting again the rise in populist dismissals of culture, this incident raises further questions over the accountability of Facebook for false statements made on the platform, one month after Mark Zuckerberg testified to US Congress that he would not penalise factually inaccurate political campaign posts.

Crossover is being restored at the expense of Fondazione Merz and will be reinstalled ‘as soon as possible’, according to the biennial.