Reporter’s Notebook: A City at the Crossroads Examines Migration, Through Art

PALERMO, Sicily — Political art and world politics seldom dovetail in real time, but as the twelfth edition of the Manifesta contemporary art biennial approached, its host city of Palermo found itself walking its talk.

Titled “A Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence,” the exhibition, which opened June 16, takes migration as one of its themes. And days before the international art crowd descended on the Sicilian capital, Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, closed the country’s ports to rescue boats — including the Aquarius, a ship looking to dock in Italy with 629 migrants aboard.

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Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, wants to transform the city through culture.CreditGianni Cipriano for The New York Times

Resisting the national announcement, Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, offered to open the local port to the vessel, but the Italian Coast Guard declined to escort it in and the migrants were rerouted to Spain. Mr. Orlando, who often personally greeted migrants who arrived in Palermo’s harbor before Mr. Salvini’s decision, is famous for fighting the Sicilian mafia in multiple terms as mayor since the 1980s.

Another mission is to transform his hometown with culture: He bid successfully for Palermo to be recognized as Italy’s “Capital of Culture” this year, bringing extra government funding for cultural activities and tourism, and he was instrumental in bringing Manifesta, a roving arts festival, to the city. This year, Manifesta is using Palermo as a stage on which to consider some of our time’s most pressing dilemmas.

“It’s a migrant biennial. And Palermo is a migrant city,” said Mr. Orlando.

Sicily has long been at the crossroads of Africa and Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks and Normans left their often glorious cultural and architectural marks on Palermo long before World War II and a period of mafia-driven real estate speculation and neglect left ugly scars. Muslims, Christians and Jews lived on the island in harmony for hundreds of years. Even the plants are mostly imports — the Sicilian lemon originated in the Middle East.

The flow of humans is one of Manifesta’s primary themes. Another is human interaction with nature: The exhibition’s title comes from a 1997 essay by the French landscape architect Gilles Clément that presents the notion of human beings as Earth’s gardeners.

“You can see the world’s crises through the lens of Palermo, in a condensed way,” said Hedwig Fijen, founder and director of Manifesta. “The exhibition asks, ‘With all the issues we’re dealing with today, how is the human being still in charge of the garden?’”

As the exhibition “mediators” (this Manifesta avoids the word curator), Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli and Mirjam Varadinis have planted interdisciplinary works by more than 50 artists, architects and thinkers across 20 venues, ranging from long-neglected palaces to Palermo’s lush botanical garden.

In the Moorish halls of the seaside Palazzo Forcella de Seta, “Untitled (Near Parndorf, Austria)” by the Irish artist John Gerrardis uses video game technology to reconstruct the site where, in August 2015, an abandoned truck was discovered on an Austrian highway, filled with the suffocated bodies of 71 migrants.

The large-screen work shows police marks on a highway shoulder outlining the vehicle’s location, as well as a stain of leaked bodily fluids. “Seventy-one people were lost here. Each had a spectrum of possibilities, now lost. Let’s not forget that. Let’s mark it,” Mr. Gerrard said of his digital memorial in an interview.

Several artists address the issue of surveillance. Among them is “Connected by Air,” by the Amsterdam-based designer Richard Vijgen, which is projected on a ceiling in the Palazzo Ajutamicristo. Reminiscent of a planetarium display, it traces not constellations but real-time data from aircraft, wireless signals and satellites in the sky above Palermo, reminding us that we’re never not being watched.

To create “Signal Flow,” the American filmmaker Laura Poitras collaborated with the Danish journalist Henrik Moltke and film students in Palermo.

“We learned how essential Sicily is for the U.S. military, both in terms of communications and the drone program,” said Ms. Poitras, explaining that signals from drone operators based in the United States are relayed to their targets through satellite dishes recently installed on Sicily and vehemently protested by local activists; an older United States Navy base has been present on the island since 1959. The installation’s centerpiece is a meditative short film of a relay site and its surroundings. It was surreptitiously filmed with a drone, turning drone surveillance back on itself.

Such documentary pieces are stark reminders of our darker realities, yet this Manifesta also celebrates beauty, hope and possibility. In the Palermo Botanical Garden, established in 1789 and home to 12,000 species, art works emerge from the foliage. The Colombian artist Alberto Baraya collected Palermo’s decorative artificial plants and arranged them taxonomically amid real ones in the garden’s greenhouse. And on a screen in a grove of bamboo stalks, the video “Pteridophilia” by the Chinese artist Zheng Bo follows seven young Taiwanese men who engage in intimate contact with ferns: “plant porn,” perhaps, but weirdly compelling.

Many site-specific community projects, including a garden planted with residents of a social housing project on the city’s outskirts, are the result of extensive research conducted as the exhibition took shape. The Dutch architecture firm OMA led a deep study of the city through data analysis and interviews with residents, culminating in a book called “Palermo Atlas.”

“Manifesta can be a mirror of a possible Palermo, a mirror of the future,” Mr. Orlando said. “It’s not a temporary event.”

“Art can instigate small changes, when it starts with respect and moderation,” said Marinella Senatore, an Italian artist who assembles public performances based on gestures of protest. (Her drawings and banners, made in collaboration with locals, are on view until Manifesta ends in November). On Manifesta’s opening weekend, her “Palermo Procession” saw 300 participants including children, dancers, majorettes, and marginalized groups like prostitutes and mentally ill people, gathering at City Hall.

They marched, sang, and danced behind blind residents of the city that Ms. Senatore chose as parade leaders, snaking through the historical center for four hours, picking up hundreds of Manifesta visitors, tourists and rogue performers along the way. It was joyous and loud and empowering. “At the moment, the biggest issue, politically, is to learn how to stay together,” Ms. Senatore said. “The participants say we changed the city that night.”

The performance and the exhibition as a whole honor Palermo’s multilayered history, its problems and its potential. But they also remind us that coexistence can be celebrated, and needn’t be feared.

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