PALERMO, Italy — In recent years, Europe’s refugee crisis has hit the Italian island of Sicily particularly hard. In Sicily’s capital city of Palermo — famous for its Baroque and Art Nouveau monuments, markets, gardens, sunny beaches, and theaters — thousands of asylum-seekers are currently living in encampments. Filthy and overcrowded, many of these refugee camps are effectively uninhabitable, lacking even basic necessities; maintenance and supplies are outsourced to local crime networks, known as La Cosa Nostra.
Making matters worse, most refugees in Italy are unable to obtain work permits, so many of them end up working illegally in agriculture, or as petty drug pushers, pimps, or prostitutes in piazzas and urban train stations. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that even prior to dealing with Italy’s corrupt immigration officials, most refugees have already endured significant traumas in their homelands and on their perilous journeys over land and sea.
This year, Manifesta, a biennial contemporary art exhibition that has taken place in a different European city since its founding in 1994, chose Palermo as the site of its 12th edition — a choice that seemed promising in theory, but ended up fraught with complications.
“Manifesta 12 will raise questions such as: ‘Who owns the city of Palermo?’ and ‘how to claim back the city?’” wrote Hedwig Fijen, Manifesta 12’s director. “The city’s migration problems are symbolic of the far wider crisis situation which the whole of Europe is facing right now.”
M12’s four self-described “creative mediators” —Italian architect Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Dutch documentary filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, Spanish architect Andrés Jacque, and Swiss curator Mirjam Varadinis — selected the overarching theme of “Planetary Garden”, and stated their intentions to “work in a truly interdisciplinary way with local communities in order to rethink the basic architectural, urban, economic, social and cultural structures of the city [of Palermo].”
In this year’s Manifesta, 35 of the 50 of artists featured in the official exhibition produced new commissions, a number of which, refreshingly, pertained to the needs of the local community. Others attempt to address the European refugee crisis head-on, with varying degrees of success.
To create an installation titled “Article 11”, for example, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera worked alongside residents of Niscemi, a small town of some 30,000 people in southeastern Sicily, where the United States Navy has been maintaining a base of operations since 2009. There, the US Navy is testing a new global communications system called MUOS (Mobile User Objective System).
Local Niscemi residents are protesting MUOS, because they say the electromagnetic waves produced by the dishes and antennae are dangerous to humans and the environment. Together with local residents, Bruguera supported protesters against MUOS in an installation that presents audio, video, and photographic documentation of Niscemi’s residents, which takes the form of a mural adorned with newspaper clippings and a video of a recent protest involving the police.
As with most biennales, the most interesting projects at Manifesta took place not within the official program, but on the periphery. The “Politics of Dissonance,” a satellite project curated by Mike Watson, featured a sharp series of billboard works by Italian artist Giuseppe Lana. On four large yellow billboards, Lana printed a famous quote from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini — decrying “a nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of migrants” — translated into Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Greek. (It’s the same quote that’s inscribed on the roof of the Square Coliseum, a fascist-era building in southeast Rome.)
In his work, Lana reverses the nationalistic sentiment of Mussolini’s original quote by translating it into the four most commonly spoken languages in the Mediterranean. Displayed in several locations throughout Palermo’s streets, Lana’s billboards offer potent criticism of the rise of the populist, anti-immigrant federal ruling party in Italy.
At Palazzo Forcella De Seta, Erkan Özgen’s documentary, “Purple Muslin” (2018), documents the artist’s visit to Kurdish refugee camps in northern Iraq. Özgen focuses on the challenges of women in the region, who, in 2014, under the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, faced a genocidal massacre, ethnic cleansing, and forced conversion — the result of a brutal campaign that saw the eventual displacement of an estimated 500,000 people. Özgen’s work tells the human side of this conflict in a way that felt urgent, intimate, and necessary.
Less successful is Forensic Oceanography’s multimedia data visualization piece, titled “Liquid Violence,” which investigates the militarized border regime in the Mediterranean Sea. In the installation, dots on a screen represent migrants’ boats on a map. The artists employed digital technologies such as satellite imagery, ship location data, and geospatial mapping to offer what was billed to viewers as a “simulation” of the unfolding migrant crisis at sea — but the piece felt about as lively as a game of Battleship.
Rather than expressing nuanced human perspectives on the migrant crisis, Forensic Oceanography merely took an aesthetic cue from tacky, lifeless post-internet design. The work seemed to exemplify a recent art world trend that combines sleek digital maps and video animations with 4k visualizations — a trend that “risks turning sensitive investigative work into insensitive entertainment”, as Phineas Harper, writing in Dezeen, put it.
Perhaps this biennale’s particular brand of “insensitive entertainment” in the guise of socially conscious artwork should surprise no one. By now, it’s no secret in the art world that the biennale model is fundamentally broken. Having been to many biennales over the years, I can tell you that most, if not all, biennales are nothing more than crafty PR stunts that cities use to cultivate cultural capital in order to entice wealthy, foreign, Western-educated tourists. While biennales like Manifesta might pay lip service to various social justice causes, the commercial motives of such exhibitions undermine their power to foment real social change.
Manifesta’s program has long been about branding cities through fusions of art and social capital. Hedwig Fijen, Manifesta’s Founding Director, who’s in charge of selecting host cities and shaping thematic content, might be seen as the reigning queen of the biennale model. Responding to her selection of Palermo, Fijen said of the city:
“Migration, as well as the agglomeration of all the civilizations around the Mediterranean, has transformed the city into a condensed society, where all faiths and cultures mingle and live together in relative peace. In Palermo, for instance, there’s less xenophobia towards migrants than in many other European regions. This pluralistic society and complex urban environment is a huge source of inspiration for artists and thinkers.”
I arrived in Palermo just as the city’s Mayor, Leoluca Orlando, gave a speech. In it, Orlando triumphantly addressed Manifesta-goers as those who inherently know the value of migration. In numerous public interviews, the Mayor kept reiterating this point, citing a declaration contained within Palermo’s founding charter, which states: “I am Human.” Connecting Manifesta-goers to other migrants in Italy, he said: “Here, in Palermo, there are no migrants; all those who arrive in the city become Palermitans.”
As with most politicians’ proclamations, I saw this with a healthy dose of skepticism; it seemed like nothing more than political rhetoric. This skepticism was vindicated mere hours after Mayor Orlando and Manifesta’s “creative mediators” had delivered their press conference, when a ship carrying 629 migrants was stranded at sea outside Palermo’s port. Italy’s Foreign Minister, Matteo Salvini, a member of the anti-immigrant ruling League party, declared in a statement that the migrants on board would not be allowed refuge anywhere in Italy, much less Palermo, leading to a public standoff between the city’s outspoken mayor, keen on accepting them, partly in order to save face in front of the Manifesta set.
In an embarrassing turn of events for a mayor who had only days before declared that all who arrive here are “Palmeritans,” the migrant ship was left stranded at sea for days outside Palermo. Lacking sufficient medical supplies, food, and water, the ship was forced to seek refuge elsewhere and set sail for Spain, where it was eventually accepted at the port of Valencia.
Disillusioned, I found my way through Orto Botanico, an 18th-century garden and greenhouse and one of the main sites of Manifesta, hewing to the “Planetary Garden” theme. Here, in a botanical laboratory initially founded for introducing foreign plant species to the local environment, I couldn’t help but gawk and think about how Western artists and curators tend to recycle tropes of social engagement. I felt powerless, overcome with a sense that the artworks on display were “insensitive forms of entertainment.”
Soon after, I visited an organization called Archi Porco Rosso, a volunteer outfit that provides support to so-called “sans-papiers” (people without citizenship documents). The organization works to transmit knowledge of human rights in the European Union and, in doing so, helps resettle migrants by providing them with the information and access to resources they desperately need.
In Sicily, awaiting asylum decisions can take months, workers at Porco Rosso told me, which can often make people vulnerable and subject to exploitation by organized crime.
Meanwhile, on the shores of fortress Europe, brimming with museums full of classical antiquities and objects spanning cultures and centuries, biennales continue to make desperate pleas for social change through contemporary art. All too often, sadly, these calls can seem narrow and self-serving, preaching to the already converted.
Returning to Poco Rosso, I started to think about other initiatives, like Trampoline House in Copenhagen, which started out as an art project catering to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in Denmark, but which eventually expanded beyond the frame of art into an effective social justice organization.
Big biennales like Manifesta, in contrast, remain up there with building glitzy contemporary art museums on many modern cities’ lists of priorities. Yet, without improving the quality of experiences on offer at such biennales, it seems that this model has now reached its logical conclusion. In sum, Manifesta’s Palermo experiment shows how, when presented in a commercialized, PR-driven context, essential investigative and research-orientated work is at risk of being turned into frivolous, elitist entertainment. At their best, biennales can offer space for much-needed debate, research, projects, and new commissions that examine both local and broader international issues. At their worst, biennales are like circle-jerks for the pre-initiated, Western art jet-set elite.
Manifesta is all of these things.
Manifesta 12 continues through November 4, 2018 in Palermo, Italy (Teatro Garibaldi, Via Teatro Garibaldi, 46-56, 90133 Palermo PA.)
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