Ficarra Contemporary Divan at Ficarra, Messina
A short report from a weekend in Sicily in early August 2015

review by Tobi Maier.
published on 20 Sep 2015 in Mousse Magazine

Almost fifty years after my father’s first trip to Sicily in 1968, I finally made it to the island. Sicily feels somewhat peripheral to Europe and Italy. At its borders the refugee streams from Africa arrive on a daily basis, while neighboring islands like the Greek Kos are overwhelmed by the arriving multitudes. There is a lure of independence to the island’s spirit, lent by the apparent geographical disconnect from the mainland.

Our airport pickup in Palermo listens to the radio. American and Italian songs alternate as we drive through the landscape of cheap residential housing blocks adjacent to the Palermo highway. We arrive near Ficarra and seek the beach in Brolo. Not many foreigners seem to come to this edge of the island. Surrounded by Italian tourists, my partner and I find ourselves in somewhat Antonioni-style scenery; everything has a comfortable, nostalgic feel reminiscent of the 1980s. Time seems to have stood still here. We order Campari Soda on ice in plastic cups and contemplate the sea.

The first stroll around Ficarra reveals a variety of curiosities. On the central square a self-branded Buy & Sell shop is waiting for customers: old computers, table football sets and sneakers sit on shelves, ready to be exchanged. Nestled below the main church a little square, the peace square, is adorned by the word peace in a dozen or so languages. Near the church entrance sits a Madonna statue, which only days before had been carried through the village streets in a procession celebrating the patron saint. Next door we arrive at Palazzo Milio, Contemporary Divan Ficarra’s main venue. It is an ambitious project that organizers around artistic director Mauro Cappotto have assembled here, consisting of two artist residencies, two short summer schools, several evening events, final exhibitions and publications. The city of Ficarra teamed up with private foundation Brodbeck from Catania in a bid for European funding. I was slightly skeptical at the outlook of this, to revitalize this rural region in the Sicilian mountains with a contemporary art project, part cultural tourism, part regeneration and gentrification. Yet the stream of young and creative people seemed to be welcomed by locals. Elsewhere on the island, mayors sell derelict houses for 1 euro, as long as buyers agree to refurbish them over a period of three years.

Four permanent window galleries around the city feature contemporary art. During our visit the work of artists that participated in previous Ficarra residencies was on view. Artist Compostabile exhibits abstract sculptures in one window, photographs taken around Ficarra in another; a video portrait of the city’s people and a suite of drawings by Tothi Folisi are placed on the floor in the fourth window gallery. What seems to really happen here is the integration of artistic production in the life of a community. Walking around the village we encountered artists in conversation with a medical doctor, the participants of the summer school “migrating” through the local context from one bar or cafe to another. When we arrived, the first group of European artists selected by Vienna-based Portuguese artist Hugo Canoilas had just left. At Palazzo Milio we encountered a number of works that bore witness to the efforts by Meris Angioletti, Atlas Projectos (André Romão and Nuno Luz), Club Moral (Danny Devos and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven), Thomas Knoefl, Mark Kremer, Emmanuelle Lainé, Ana Manso, Marco Pasi and Benjamin Valenza. The group’s constellation carried the signature of Canoilas, himself on personal terms with the entire village. Canoilas’ dedicated and intense relationship with the inhabitants of the village is somewhat reflected in his own large-scale painting. Carried out with the help of locals and in different locations, its process was visited by many. It echoed the characteristics of “social sculpture.”

During early August, Canoilas was in the process of completing the work, to be revealed at an exhibition opening at the ruin of the Convento dei Cento Archi towards the end of August. The 15×8 meter large painting will be mounted on a 4-meter-high aluminum structure, alluding to classical ceiling painting. It collects a variety of cultural and art historical references: first and foremost the work is inspired by Martin Kippenberger’s The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” (1994). Canoilas’ work features a number of tables and seats that can also be encountered in the Kippenberger installation, which we visited together at the artist’s retrospective at Tate Modern in 2006. The floating furniture is adorned by a number of pop-ish phrases, such as a drift on the poetry of Lucio Piccolo (1901-1969). The appropriated text phrases are applied using stencils and thus akin in form to Lawrence Weiner’s text works. Next to the chairs and tables a boat is depicted, which according to Canoilas is a pun on Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1918), secured by pictorial references such as nails that stem directly from Shûji Tereyama’s film The Process (1975), among others. Within the medieval landscape of Ficarra in the Sicilian mountains, his massive “fresco” catapults our imagination towards a landscape of 20th-century cultural references, and pulls us back into the midst of a remote village that is negotiating its role in contemporaneity.

While we were in Ficarra a second group of Italian artists began their summer school term under the directorship of Vincenzo Estremo. Alongside this group, Austrian artist Lois Weinberger was invited by Lorand Hegy to stay in Ficarra for two months, developing a new body of work. Departing from his Kartografische Sprachbilder body of work, Weinberger started out drawing a number of abstract topographic maps from the region surrounding Ficarra, adding texts from the Italian version of Homer’s Odyssey, a found book left behind in his studio by a previous resident. A photographic mapping installed adjacent depicts Weinberger’s study on the movement of plants growing on Sicilian streets. According to Weinberger the plants are neglected and grow anywhere between rocks, alongside the highways and in other inhospitable sites. Many were carried over by the wind from the African continent. From around Sicily the artist is currently collecting a variety of seeds that will be sent to Kassel, where Weinberger’s Documenta X installation What is beyond plants / is at one with them (1997) is currently being recreated on the railway tracks in Kulturbahnhof.

While plants find their way from Africa via Sicily to Kassel in a seamlessly light manner, supported by wind and the poetics of Weinberger, the political landscape of Ficarra and Sicily will undoubtedly change with the apparently never ending stream of refugees crossing the sea. Some of the younger students of the summer school seem to want to take up the issue in their works; one was planning to install a boat on the central square of Ficarra. As contemporary art enters the domain of faraway historically grown terrain, Ficarra Contemporary Divan is going to be challenging citizens and artists to maintain a dialogue and develop discursive capacities in an evolving landscape of economic, demographic and ethnic identity.

Related group exhibitions: Contemporary Divan