Issue 3/2005 - Hoffnung Südamerika?

Plant Politics

Lois & Franziska Weinberger’s garden and vegetation concept art in a first big retrospective

Georg Schöllhammer

The photograph shows a small cherry tree standing in a sloping meadow in the Austrian Alps. Its trunk and branches are completely wrapped in colourful plastic sacks. The tree looks like prayer trees in Lhasa or the »wishing bushes« around places of sacrifice near old Christian monasteries in Armenia, which are ritually decorated with coloured ribbons and prayer flags. It seems alien, like a pariah or bastard that has found its way among the palm branches awaiting consecration for a Palm Sunday procession. The wind makes the plastic billow in festive manner: the flotsam and jetsam of civilisation, rubbish. A good 25 years after this »Tree Celebration« of 1977, Lois Weinberger writes, on a large wall picture in the S.M.A.K. in Ghent, words to the effect that, unlike in Romantic verbal symbolism, the figure of the tree is no longer suitable as a metaphor in contemporary modes of thought, which take their botanical analogies from the world of lichens, mycelia and rhizomatic structures. The Ghent museum has now organised the first international exhibition devoted to the work of this Tyrolean artist (born 1947) – and that of his wife Franziska, who in the past few years has signed the works as co-artist. Plastic bags and PET bottles, wind-borne rubbish and shreds of litter frequently feature in their work: for example, as marginal sculptures, made out of shopping bags, set up ephemerally at the São Paulo biennial one-and-a-half decades after the tree celebration.

Incidentally, at the time, the cleaners simply swept them away on the day before the festival opened. Too much a part of the everyday life of the rubbish-towns at the fringes of this Brazilian metropolis, Weinberger’s objects seem like misfits, too banal to be sculptures.
This is a remarkable body of works, unsettling in its rigour and insistence, in which Lois – and later, Lois and Franziska Weinberger – have entered into the society of the migrants, outlaws and cosmopolites of fauna. The S.M.A.K. is now making it accessible in a brilliantly curated overview exhibition: rhizome figures and mappings covered with the names of vegetation point the way to the fallow land and unused areas, the ruptures in urban space. Laconic, poetic commentaries written on meandering wall pictures address the contradictions between landscapes that have been ordered, cultivated and agro-commercialised, or tidied up, »cleansed« and/or put under surveillance for tourists, and that which grows rampant at their fringes, in their cracks or residual spaces.

The exhibition contains installations, material collages, text works and drawings, documentations of actions that lay out the formal wealth of the work, the »living« objects that form the basis of the Weinbergers’ locational scenarios. Also on display are a number of gardens or, to be precise, »counter-gardens«, that have been conceived and realised over the years. They are spiritually akin both to Smithson’s concept of residual space and Deleuze’s thinking in sporadic gaps. In a manner comparable with Beuys’ rhetorics, they address an ecologically extended concept of society with their references to the gestures of liberation of the beatniks and rock musicians: Born to Be Wild, Voodoo Childs. Small gardens in aluminium containers labelled with names of plants and places that can only recognised by the real locals, plant beds made of plastic buckets in which wind-borne seeds grow, tables upon which, like models, objects form surreally vegetable arrangements – the works unfold within rampant and yet conceptually ordered chains of associations.

The gaze of the photographers Weinberger comes to rest on arid steppes, is caught in barbed wire, the fences of pastures upon which the wind has once more hung up plastic banners. Or it documents actions like an incense ritual in an incinerator or »a (nearly) posthumous action« from 2004, an off-beat ritual in which a small snowman, a candle burning on its flower-pot head, is doused with Lourdes water – consecrated and dated – that had belonged to its late, pious mother.

One of the Weinbergers’ gardens once even entered, like a gift, a project I curated, because the architects wanted Weinberger as an artist: a sculpture on the square in front of the Faculty of Social and Economic Science at Innsbruck University. A cubic space in front of the building, surrounded by a cage made of rebars placed close together: a quote of minimalist sculptural gestures, yet a garden completely shaped by its non-space/surroundings, a garden that lays itself out and whose inhabitants – a society of plants and objects – are so to speak washed up by the wind, animals and people. Refuse that finishes up lying behind the bars is not removed, but seen as the time-based part of the work. With this garden, Weinberger illustrated his concept of nature, which does not define the social construction as being external: as a kind of second-hand nature in which plant societies that are otherwise excluded, repressed and pushed to the side as inferior are allowed to spread out as they will - in which, indifferent to municipal horticultural nationalism, identity politics based on the cultivation of landscapes and local agricultural pride, everything can complacently grow until it – growing self-confidently – will bend out of shape the cage that keeps it out while at the same time protecting it.

It is no coincidence that one of the loudest protests against the work came from the tourism officer at the Innsbruck University. In the Weinbergers’ native Tyrol, where landscape (and the cities as well, for that matter) are read almost solely under the aspects of leisure and tourism, this garden object formed a contrast that can also be seen as ironic: this civil society of plants and objects goes against the idea of floral Heimatschutz by giving equal treatment to everything that comes to settle in it.

This steel-protected space is not only a poetic laboratory in which the idea of a garden as a cosmopolitan palimpsest made up of random inscriptions from nature and society can be realised, but also an arena of possible antagonism and an »aviary« for wind-borne seeds. It seems to confirm – and at the same moment to contradict – the emergence of that world without borders whose unlimited trade opportunities allow commerce to spread unhindered, while the cultural, mental, social and ethnic border fences seem more and more closely reinforced. In this garden, something is growing – not only metaphorically – against the cultural definition of borders until it breaks them open.

Lois & Franziska Weinberger
S.M.A.K. Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent; 28 May to 18 September 2005


Translated by Timothy Jones