Manifesta 12

The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence


16 June 2018 - 4 November 2018

Curated by Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis, Andrés Jaque, Bregtje van der Haak

Artists: Taus Makhacheva, Sergey Sapozhnikov

View of the Piazza Vigliena. Photo: Sergey Sapozhnikov

The artist Taus Makhacheva’s video Baida from the Gazprombank corporate collection and photographic works from Sergei Sapozhnikov’s new project A Wonderful Day are participating in the main Manifesta 12 project

The exhibitions making up the official programme are located at 20 venues, including churches, a half-abandoned palazzo, a botanical garden and dormitory suburbs. Milena Orlova, editor-in-chief of The Art Newspaper Russia, tells about it.

Manifesta, the international biennale of contemporary art that moves from city to city, is based in Palermo this time. Here there are olive trees from Asia, aspens from the Middle East, eucalyptuses from Australia, plants from Mexico and Japan. The lemon tree – a symbol of Sicily – was introduced by the Arabs. Inspired by the local botanical garden, the Orto Botanico founded way back in 1789, the curators chose the theme “The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence” for the biennale, reflecting the character of a city that has absorbed a host of cultures and continues to be a melting pot where different ethnicities mix, a haven for refugees.

On this occasion, Manifesta has thought up a new title for the curators: they are now known as “creative mediators”, which stresses their special role – not so much as authors of the exhibitions as intermediaries between the local setting and the incoming artists. They are Bregtje van der Haak, a journalist and film-director from Holland; Andrés Jaque, a Spanish architect and scholar; Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, an architect born in Palermo; and Mirjam Varadinis, a Swiss curator. Some of them work in Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) that was commissioned by Manifesta to produce a collection of studies entitled the Palermo Atlas. Then, already on the basis of those studies, more than 40 projects were devised specially for Manifesta 12. The journey around these not especially obvious locations offers visitors a fascinating quest, immersing them in the history and the present day of Sicily’s capital.

The press conference for the biennale took place in one of Palermo’s most sumptuous churches, the functioning Baroque Santa Caterina, and it was hard not to liken the mediators speaking from the chancel to apostles of the new European religion – the religion of tolerance.

Some buildings, including the Teatro Garibaldi which acts as the local HQ for Manifesta (the main one is in Holland), have been put in comparative order for the biennale, and the exhibition organizers hope that they will be usable afterwards as well. A large number of exhibitions are concentrated in the oldest part of the city, the Kalsa, around a gigantic area of waste ground overgrown with grass. This square, the Piazza della Magione, came into being after the bombing of Palermo in 1943. Although it is hard to believe, many historical buildings here have been in a ruined state ever since, and it is only in recent years that the district is coming back to life and being restored.

Taus Makhacheva. “Baida”. 2017. Photo: Wolfgang Träger / Manifesta 12, Palermo

Currently under restoration, for instance, is the gigantic Palazzo Butera, which was constructed in the 17th century for one of the Branciforte family, the Marquis of Martini, who was granted the title of Prince of Butera.  Now some of its halls have been given over to the exhibition, but it is still possible to see, for example, a huge hole in the ceiling, right in the middle of some frescoes about Hercules, and walls that are bare for the moment. Renato Leotta decided to help the restorers. For one of the halls he created a new floor of terracotta tiles, which are noticeably indented in places, and on the wall he placed a small plan showing the layout of a lemon orchard in the environs of Palermo. There the artist spread out a huge canvas that reproduced the shape of the palace hall. He transferred the places where the ripe fruit dropped to the ground onto the tiles, bringing a rural spirit into the palazzo.

Maria Thereza Alves from Brazil found parrots native to her own country in a talismanic decorative motif that is traditional for Sicily – depictions of “birds of paradise”. The group Fallen Fruit from Los Angeles took a striking approach to “greening” the palace by covering the walls of one hall with extremely garish wallpaper, creating the impression of some superabundant paradise.

Fallen Fruit are also distributing leaflets carrying a map of the city marked with accessible fruit trees, the finest examples of street art, which is flourishing in Palermo, and also outdoor altars. The group is calling on the locals to get together and plant their own tree and on tourists to not just walk past striking urban scenes. As a bonus, four classic recipes using citrus fruit are included: orangeade, marmalade, granita and limoncello. Gastronomic pleasures have also been planned for Manifesta – the producers of all things most traditional and organic have set up stalls on the Piazza della Magione.

Marinella Senatore’s project Palermo Procession invites people to participate in a light-hearted parade, similar to our own Monstration. It passes regularly through the centre of the city touting a whole variety of slogans (embroidered in gold letters on velvet banners “We are women, we are right” or “Knowledge is power”).

On the Baroque “Quattro Canti” square there is a reminder of traditional Catholic holiday celebrations in the Tutto daytime “fireworks” devised by Matilde Cassani, when each day the public are showered with colourful confetti fired from cannons standing in each of the four corners.

Sergey Sapozhnikov. From the series “ A Wonderful Day”. 2018.

Our Sergei Sapozhnikov, by contrast, was inspired by the poetry of picturesque decay. He has mounted photographs of the Palazzo Costantino (another of the venues), which is in the most lamentable state, into ugly structures found in the fields and by the side of the roads in his native Rostov-na-Donu, and is displaying these strange juxtapositions in the Palazzo Butera. Alongside Taus Makhacheva is showing her video film where there is nothing but the waves of the Venetian lagoon on the screen, while off-camera you can hear a philosophical discussion. The Russian artists are also participating in the collateral programme – Evgeny Antufiev’s exhibition in the Archaeological Museum and the АЕS+F group’s Mare Mediterraneum that is being presented by the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow.

Against the background of the ephemeral “garbage” aesthetics that predominate among the Manifesta participants, АЕS+F’s installation of porcelain statuettes in the Pompeian Hall of Palermo’s main theatre, the operatic Teatro Massimo, seems provocatively luxurious. The multifigure compositions depict the miraculous rescue of drowning refugees from underprivileged countries: wealthy holidaying citizens welcome them into their arms, pulling them onto airbeds and aboard their yachts. The creators stress that their fantasies belong to the “post-truth” era. “The Mediterranean Sea is once again the epicentre of ideological contradiction. … Porcelain has always been a symbol of contentment and bourgeois comfort. The recent waves of migrations have confronted Europe with a dilemma: whether to accept refugees – allowing them to enter at the cost of the material and psychological comfort of their hosts; or to reject them in an immoral, inhumane, and cynical act that would undermine the co-operative ethical basis of Europe itself,”  the artists explain their own work. (Incidentally, АЕS+F are also now trying their hand as theatrical directors – the Teatro Massimo is due to stage their production of the opera Turandot.)

The theme of refugees has inevitably become a central one at the biennale. A large number of works are devoted to the problem. The Dutch artist Patricia Kaersenhout has heaped up a mountain of salt in the 16th-century semi-Gothic Palazzo Forcella De Seta. It references a legend that existed among slaves in the Caribbean that if they avoided eating salt they would become light enough  to fly back to their native Africa.

One other important theme is designated as the “Out of Control Room”. That section presents works that cast light on various surveillance systems and all sorts of secret materials more generally. One of the installations is devoted, for example, to the American military bases on Sicily and to the way satellites ply the skies above totally unsuspecting holidaymakers on the beaches.

The Orto Botanico has become a haven for various artistic-ecological activists, who have introduced a variety of unpleasant items into the garden’s idyllic groves – from harmless herbariums of artificial flowers to a fountain disgorging repulsive blue-green slime. The fountain, created by the American Michael Wang, is a reminder of the danger represented by the algae spirulina, while the Pteridophilia project by Zheng Bo from China is executed, in its creator’s words, in a new “eco-queer” style and tells about love between plants and young men.

One more notable work was produced by the group Mosbedo, who infiltrated spy-like a state archive usually closed to the public. Among the impressive mountains of old folders containing documents covered literally with the dust of centuries, a screen shines upon which a marionette with the sad face of a civil servant waves his arms about pointlessly. Marionettes are among the most popular souvenirs of Palermo. In the places selling them among the white-skinned wooden knights in armour you can also find a dark-skinned Saracen doll, testifying to the historical depths to which the roots of today’s problems in the planetary garden descend.


Taus Makhachev’s 2017 work Baida was created with the support of Gazprombank and  "Art Finance" LLC for the corporate art collection. It participated in the main project of the Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2017.

Sergei Sapozhnikov’s works from the projects Dance (2016) and The Drama Machine (2015) are also part of the collection.