In Palermo, Fondazione Merz Looks Forward with New Initiative
A lot has happened in Palermo since Manifesta staged its 12th edition there in 2018, the year the Sicilian capital celebrated its role as Italy's Capital of Culture.
Alfredo Jaar, Two or three things I know about monsters (2016). Exhibition view: The other, the same, ZACentrale, Palermo (26 October 2021–27 March 2022). Courtesy the artist and Fondazione Merz. Photo: Filippo M. Nicoletti.
At the time, Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando stood against a state order to close the country's ports to rescue boats amid the Mediterranean migrant crisis.
It was Orlando, in fact, who invited Manifesta founder Hedwig Fijen to spend three weeks in Palermo in 2012 and see the work being done to rehabilitate the city, once the central base of the Cosa Nostra, into a cultural centre shaped by Sicily's historic roots as a European, African, and Middle Eastern crossroads.
But even before Manifesta, Palermo had a biennial. Biennale Arcipelago Mediterraneo was established in 2017 by the City of Palermo and curated by Andrea Cusumano, with its second edition in 2019 curated by Fondazione Merz's Beatrice Merz with European Alternatives.
Fondazione Merz has a growing presence in Palermo. Its second location beyond Turin, ZACentrale, opened in October 2021 in a converted factory building in the former industrial area known as Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa, home to the studio spaces of the city's Fine Art Academy.
The plan is to develop a contemporary art centre with a three-year programme tapping into the unique conditions of Sicily as a place at the edge of Europe and Africa—Palermo is closer to Tunis than to Rome—where conceptions of Mediterranean futures might be drawn out.
The foundation's inaugural show, The other, the same (26 October 2021–27 March 2022), curated by Beatrice Merz and ZACentrale Curatorial Coordinator Agata Polizzi, functions as a mission statement to that effect.
Among works by Lida Abdul, Lawrence Weiner, Rosa Barba, Joan Jonas, Mario and Marisa Merz, and a new outdoor sound commission consisting of transient city sounds by Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson, is Two or three things I know about monsters (2016) by Alfredo Jaar.
Installed in the Teatro Bellini for the 2nd Biennale Arcipelago Mediterraneo, Jaar's new install appears on ZACentrale's façade, in homage to the Gramsci Institute nearby. Red neon light spells out a timely warning from the Italian philosopher: 'The old world is dying. The new one is slow to appear. And in this twilight monsters are born'.
Navigating that twilight best expresses the paths that culture has taken in Sicily's capital, and ZACentrale extends these trajectories. Among the works on view is La maglie del pomeriggio, Roma 29 marzo 2020 (2020), a video by Emily Jacir showing the artist's hand pulling on a clothing line outside her window in Rome during lockdown.
Parallel to the show's opening, Jacir screened Letter to a Friend (2019) at the Migrant Literature Festival (27–31 October 2021), which Fondazione Merz is also involved in: a film about Jacir's family home in Bethlehem, now the site of independent artist-run initiative Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art & Research, and a target for state aggression.
Founded in 2015 with speakers over the years including Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi and Nigerian Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka, the Migrant Literature Festival was among the initiatives established in Palermo at the height of the migrant crisis.
As Orlando has said, 'We are a community that was born as a "migrant city",'1 and that identity comes through in The other, the same, which opens with Rosa Barba's moving film The Empirical Effect (2010), screened on a monumental standing wall.
Barba's camera follows an elderly community—survivors of Mount Vesuvius' eruption in 1944—prepare for and re-enact a volcanic eruption, at points finding joy and dance in their collaboration.
It is in these quiet extensions, gestures of collaboration and solidarity, that ZACentrale locates itself; in which a culture of togetherness is conceived as the only way forward.
Testimonies of community and survival are at the core of ZACentrale's inaugural exhibition, with Lida Abdul's Time, Love and the Workings of Anti-Love (2013) constituting the exhibition's most powerful work.
Each of the 480 black-and-white images lining the wall is a passport photo blown up to A4, developed from the negatives of an old camera Abdul acquired from a street photographer in Afghanistan.
These are representations of a journey that may or may not have been taken. As Abdul has said, 'I want the viewers of these photographs to reflect on what these images hide as much as they reveal.'2
That sense of contemplative revelation—of empathising with what is there as much as with what is not—also comes through in the materiality of Mario Merz's Pietra serena sedimentata depositata e schiacciata dal proprio peso, così che tutto quello che è in basso va in alto e tutto quello che è in alto va in basso, soprelevazione e opera incerta di pietra serena (2003).
Very much this show's spatial anchor, black metal scaffold constructing a giant table-like form spirals through the cavernous warehouse, hosting stone slabs on which fresh vegetables and fruits are arranged.
Once ripened, produce is given to Nuove Officine Zisa, a non-profit organisation located in the complex that is focused on sustainable development, skills exchange, and social inclusion, with community workshops focusing on craft, artisanal techniques, and natural materials.
It is in these quiet extensions, gestures of collaboration and solidarity, that ZACentrale locates itself; where a culture of togetherness is conceived as the only way forward. —[O]
1 Jamie Mackay, 'The Exception of Palermo', Tribune, Accessed 16 November 2021, https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/01/the-exception-of-palermo
2 Press release for the exhibition Lida Abdul: Time, Love and the Workings of Anti-Love II, Giorgio Persano, Turin (3 May–27 July 2018). Accessed 16 November 2021, https://www.giorgiopersano.org/en/mostra/lida-abdul-time-love-and-the-workings-of-anti-love-ii/