This weekend, Manifesta 12 (curated by ‘cultural mediators’ Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli and Mirjam Varadinis) opens its doors in Palermo under the title of ‘The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence.’ It’s a pertinent header that openly clashes with the populist decision of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s newly elected interior minister and leader of the far-right League party, to close the country’s ports to NGO rescue boats operating in the Mediterranean to save migrants at sea. Recently instead, Palermo’s mayor Leoluca Orlando offered to open the city’s port to all rescuers. frieze contributing editor Barbara Casavecchia asked Palermo-based artists and curators how they see their city, its problems, its cultural scene and ongoing transformation, and how a biennale should operate in the South.
Stefania Galegati Shines
Francesco Simeti (b. 1968, Palermo, Italy) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, USA. He is known for his site-specific installations using wallpaper, sculptures and textiles. His work questions our relationship with nature and how it is filtered by the media.
You were born in Palermo and you’ve been living between Sicily and New York for decades. How do you feel about the recent rise of interest in the city, with the arrival of Manifesta?
Palermo is a truly fascinating and intriguing city, but it’s possibly an easier place for artists who move here from abroad – in recent years, for instance, Jenny Saville and Aleksandra Mir – than for local artists. In the early 1990s, after finishing at the Bologna academy, I tried to work and exhibit in the city, before coming to the conclusion that it was not really doable for me. It was the time of the ‘Palermo Spring’, and although there was not much of a contemporary art scene, civil society was mobilized by a strong anti-mafia movement. I was part of a small association of artists – a branch of the collective Circolo Società Civile – and we organized temporary projects, often in the historical centre, which was pretty much falling apart. I left Palermo for New York, returned in 2002 for a couple of years, before moving to New York for good, but I’ve always kept in touch with my hometown.
There is definitely a lot of energy in Palermo, a need for things to happen and a will to make them happen, so that there are always new waves of people doing something special. I recently made a work for Sacrosantum, a project run by artist Adalberto Abate in the Oratorio di San Mercurio – a baroque chapel with amazing stucco sculptures by Giacomo Serpotta. Each month Adalberto invites an artist to produce an image for an empty niche, that he prints at his own expense. Another great not-for-profit exhibition space is L’Ascensore, started by Alberto Laganà together with artist Gianluca Concialdi, a small storefront in the heart of Centro Storico. And a lot of good stuff is coming out of the art academy, where critic Daniela Bigi is very active in organizing shows and exhibitions.
Is there any risk of exoticizing ‘the South’ when blockbuster exhibitions like documenta and Manifesta land in cities like Athens and Palermo?
Southern Europe is a place where dynamics are different. Big exhibitions like documenta or Manifesta can act like a flood, that all of a sudden fills a place, without really irrigating it. Without adequate time and preparation, the interaction with a different culture can only be superficial. Doing something that has a real social impact on a city has to happen over a longer period of time, I think.
And if you had to name one place not to be missed in Palermo …
Talking about exoticism, I would recommend a visit to the Palazzina Cinese (Chinese Palace), a former royal residence and hunting lodge built as a Chinese folly at the end of the 18th century in the park of the Favorita. It’s a bit out of the way, and also surreally out of place and time.
Francesco Pantaleone is the founder of gallery FPAC (Francesco Pantaleone Arte Contemporanea), with venues in Palermo and Milan. He also teaches a course on Art Markets at the academy of Palermo.
Are you originally from Palermo?
Yes, I was born here in 1972, from a German Steinerian mother and a Palermitan father, from an old family who has been selling religious articles since 1905.
When you opened your gallery, what was the city’s art scene like?
I trained as an artist, then I worked for Gagosian in New York and for Christie’s in Rome. When I returned to Palermo for family and health reasons, with the intention to leave soon after, I met Francesco Giordano, who then became my partner and my husband, and so I happily stayed on. In 2003 we opened a space on the first floor of Palazzo Rammacca, a 17th century run-down palace overlooking Piazzetta Garraffello, at the heart of La Vuccirìa, the open-air market of the historic centre. It was also our house and the place for a lot of fun: we organized shows and threw big parties with artists, poets, writers, directors, whoever was in town. La Vuccirìa was a rather tough area, but artists fell in love with it, and the gallery worked as a catalyst for those who later chose to move here, like Jenny Saville, Aleksandra Mir (who created special editions to support our open library of more than 3,500 books) and Stefania Galegati. In 2013, we moved to Palazzo di Napoli, in the central Quattro Canti area, with an opening show by Julieta Aranda. In the meantime, Palermo has become more attractive for an international public and its relationship with contemporary art is finally being ratified. It took a while, but tastes are changing. There are still few large collectors, like Francesco Galvagno or the Berlingieri Marquis, whose Palazzo Mazzarino hosts an exceptional contemporary collection: its Cavallerizza, the ancient horse stables, will be opened to the public for the first time, for a monumental installation by Per Barclay, that we organized as a collateral event of Manifesta (15 June – 4 November, curated by Agata Polizzi).
Your gallery represents both international and local artists.
I’ve always considered it a duty of the gallery to pay attention to the local scene, otherwise you operate as a franchise, and that's not my story. Currently, around one third of our artists are from Sicily (like Loredana Longo, Ignazio Mortellaro, Concetta Modica), but many more have showed with us in the past. I think it’s good to keep a balance between the faraway and the close: our latest exhibitions are by Assume Vivid Astro Focus and Carlos Garaicoa, and in September it will be Juergen Teller’s turn.
Do you think that Manifesta will change the image and culture of the city?
I think something always stays in cities, after the passage of so many people. This time, instead of having to go to Venice to see a biennale, Palermitans will have one coming to their doorstep. Let’s wait until Manifesta opens, anyway: artists and curators have worked in conditions that are not easy, so I’m grateful for all their efforts.
What shouldn’t be missed for those visiting Palermo?
The almond sweets of Pasticceria Scimone in Via Imera, an absolute delight.