Friday, 5th October, 2018

Infinite Times Palermo*

Is it possible to draw the portrait of a city? Is it in fact attainable to define its contours, to distill its essence in order to brake it down, exposing its relations and conflicts with an external context? Giorgio Vasta describes Palermo as a city so big and complex that the word itself can not contain it: “When I say Palermo I feel the physical space of the city that contracts rapidly and flakes, like a piece of paper burning from the margins towards the centre”. Immersed in the torpor of his stay in Mondello (Palermo’s sandy bay), Ernst Jünger watched the sun unraveling the stones by wrapping them in heat: “The contours crumble and this solar agglomeration merges into the distance with the scenery of the mountains and rocks on which it is raised. The patina of time […] suppresses the traces of history and restores the works to nature”.

Palermo, 19th January, 1990. A brick wall suddenly collapses, raising a cloud of dust: “The earth comes from above”. Some people chase each other among the scattered debris, moving bricks between the trash. “Let’s start all over again”. The road is deserted. There remains a woman sitting on a chair, with her arms behind her head and an “X” marked on her face. Two men in front of her, in turn, violently throw tomatoes in her face. The woman’s screams collect the blows, as if under torture. Another woman, dressed in mourning and wearing a veil to cover her face entirely, sits down holding a beer. “Resist the temptations”, the “horns that kill” in the cloud on the horizon: “When we cannot think, what do we think?”**

Palermo Palermo on stage at the Teatro Biondo, 19th January, 1990.

Is it possible to perceive the body of Palermo between the incandescent edges of the city? Described by the journalist and essayist Leonetta Bentivoglio as the most nocturnal and pessimistic among the performances of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, Palermo Palermo debuted at the Teatro Biondo in January 1990. The company from Wuppertal—arriving in Palermo in 1989 in the context of a divided Europe—descended to cross through the neighbourhoods, to be trespassed by them. Only after having explored the most extreme margins of the city, Pina and her “danzattori” returned to the closed space of the theatre, so that it was the emotional interiority of the individual, first, to seek a passage out from its own corporality and become a “collective body”. It happens when the boundaries of one’s individuality become blurred, and almost transparent, “suppressing the traces”, going to coincide almost accidentally with those of others.

It is often from the convergence between two distinct margins that the complexity of a third entity is composed: a single body that moves. A coincidence that is as strong as it is labile, at times almost liminal, as described by Jo Ann Endicott—dancer of Thanztheater Wuppertal for more than thirty years: “I was as possessed, imprisoned, engulfed. Pina was more than close. With the passing of time, she had really penetrated inside me”. This coincidence, this idea of a single body, enlightens us on the transience of the physical and rhetorical margins that define the city. Of the wall, whose collapse opened Palermo Palermo, the choreographer said she did not know if it divided, closed, protected: “That wall is what each of us means as a wall”. But as she herself suggested, reality in itself is not representable, it is only a transposition to work on: “There are no actions, there is nothing, there is only one feeling, a Gefühl. And this feeling is insanely precise, it is a language without words”. We were looking for a portrait and we found ourselves in front of a landscape.

This “queen in exile”, as Fellini described her, often thought about the reef of the public and its overcoming. An abyss—an introflected wall made of emptiness—which materialises when the show begins, and of which in a certain sense it is the supporting wall. Its collapse, the epidermal collapse of its shelter, followed by the vertigo that precedes the jump, has always been the arcane from which the “narration”—centrifugal—of the actor and the introjection—centripetal—of the spectator respectively take place. From here a continuous motion is triggered that alternately transports from the centre of the earth to the edge of a road. It insinuates itself in its past (always) imperfect or plunges into an anterior future, which makes present and absent together, going to dissolve the limits of its integrity in a sort of fluctuation to which we entrust our body.

Palermo seen from the ruins of Pizzo Sella, September 2018.

This fading game also compromises the city itself. As the black contours of a burning page progressively erase the centre, neighbourhoods and bodies melt into each other through the margins of an obscure shadow play: the grey of the ash coincides with the shadows defined by the unfinished walls, with the profiles of the statues, with the dirt under the nails. Palermo is a complex and fleeting city in its metamorphoses. Perhaps this is why Pina chose to double its name, almost to want to increase its capacity to contain or to seal the multiplicity of its faces, its indefinable, infinite identities. To confirm this process, it is interesting to point out two events in which we can visit Palermo Palermo outside of itself: “Position Palermo Palermo”, Stadtmuseum Düsseldorf, 06.09.–30.12.2018; “Palermo Palermo, the artist, the city”, Piccolo Teatro Bolognini of Pistoia, 28.09.2018.

*Coauthored with Emilia Cantieri.
**All autonomous quotations taken from “Palermo Palermo. Domande, temi, appunti dalle prove”.

Colophon: Nostre Signore del Fuori (Our Ladies from the Outside) is a complementary column to the performative work of Nora Turato,
published in the Giornale di Sicilia every once in a while throughout Manifesta 12. Written as a series of eight microhistories of women related to the city of Palermo, this column aims to explore the theme of the outside through ‘minor’ voices, mumblings and mutterings, popular myths, clichés and platitudes, potential forms of reflection on the linguistic and cultural syncretism of the city.
Edited by Andrea di Serego Alighieri. Italian proofreading by Emilia Cantieri.
Typesetting by Robert Milne. Contact: Made possible with the support of Mondriaan Fonds.