Lois Weinberger

When Lois Weinberger planted weeds around a railroad track near the Kulturbahnhof at Documenta X, it was widely noticed. In fact, the piece attracted more attention than many of the other works in the show. But why did common grasses, ferns, and thistles seem so intriguing when presented in a cultural context? Was it because large exhibitions can be tiring, even boring, for professionals as well as for laymen (perhaps for different reasons), and that a little nature is felt to be liberating? Especially in a clean, solid town like Kassel—where the train station is surrounded by a revitalized bourgeois area—a patch of untamed growth can be alienating, or at least have an incongruous effect.

One might say that nature has to a certain degree assumed a role that once belonged to art. Of course, one has to wonder whether it is in fact nature that is so interesting, or nature as art. At the edge of the Kassel station, only a few meters from Weinberger’s piece, there is another stretch of uncultivated land, covered with a diverse mix of the kinds of weeds that grow near many train stations. No one takes any particular interest in this area, which suggests that it is the label “art” that attracts interest. Here we may have an example of the old cliché that art opens our eyes to “little things.” If so, this is only one dimension of Weinberger’s work.

Wegwarte (Cichorium intybus), 1997, was a more public manifestation of the experimental gardening Weinberger has pursued privately since 1988 on a small plot of land on the outskirts of Vienna. In his recent solo exhibition, he displayed two videos showing this garden, which is filled with wildflowers typically considered mere weeds. The first video, Gebiet (Territory, 1996), is straightforward: the camera sweeps across the ground, showing all sorts of growing things. In the second, more dramatic tape, Datura Siramonium, 1996, the camera moves in on a beautiful, dead thorn-apple bush, tunnels into the plant, and breaks off branches until the shrub has been completely destroyed. This aestheticized act of destruction indicates that Weinberger’s relationship to nature is not merely romantic, but is the result of an exploratory impulse of which destruction is almost necessarily a part. One finds the reverse of the latter in certain of his photographs in which nature’s power to ravage—causing, for example, cracks in streets and walls—is also given an aestheticized treatment. When such natural “subversions” emerge next to graffiti as expressions of cultural resistance, one begins to understand the matter in a metaphorical sense. And it is here that problems begin to arise.

Curator Catherine David’s selection of Weinberger as one of her paradigmatic artists in Documenta rests, for example, on this metaphorical reading. Weinberger’s work is suited for her peculiar “Politics/Poetics” concept precisely because his gardening work is based on his interest in the coexistence of “domestic” and “foreign” plants. When this coexistence, and eventual commingling, is transposed to the human plane, and is understood as a call for, or proof of, the possibility of the cohabitation of “indigenous” peoples and immigrants, such a transposition is dangerous because it approaches a problematic ideology of survival of the fittest. The artist quotes his father, a farmer, as saying, “All weeds that survive the winter are native to us.” That Weinberger managed to get plants from Eastern and Southeastern Europe to endure the winter in his garden would appear to give them a natural right to existence, but if this right is conferred only on those that are able to survive, his becomes a very Darwinian perspective.

Still, it must be maintained that Weinberger’s horticultural project—even though it opposes the taming and cultural adaptation of nature in most gardens—is not simply committed to the dominance of the strong. Interested in what he calls the “diversity of the low,” he often makes an effort to restrain the hardiest plants. Weinberger’s art surely has an idiosyncratic quality, and his relationship to nature is strongly fed by his personal history. Whether one values this or not, however, one should beware of overinterpretation.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by Vivian Heller.