Lois Weinberger



Belvedere 21, Vienna

1 July – 24 October 2021




The man on the catalogue cover wears a piece of seashell jewelry under his nose as though he were a member of an Indigenous community. He also wears glasses and a shirt; his gaze is downcast and serious. The face belongs to Lois Weinberger, and he has painted it green. Why does he present himself in this manner? Is he trying to provoke us with a stereotype of the Civilized Savage? Or does he wish to embody a Gregor Samsa, who one morning “found he had turned into a large verminous insect”?[1]


Franz Kafka’s character is crushed by the contradiction between self-perception and how others see him. He feels human yet is treated like a beast. He appears to be the “other” even though a self akin to those around him is hidden within him. As an ostensibly instinct-driven bug, Gregor Samsa is the personification of nature in contrast with rational humankind and its culture.


The same stigma—that he is at the mercy of his urges—is attached to Aristaeus in Virgil’s ‘Georgics’.[2] He tries to rape Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus; fleeing him, she is bitten by a serpent and dies. Her sisters avenge her by killing Aristaeus’s bees. Seeking to regain the favor of the gods, Aristaeus sacrifices four bulls and four heifers at Eurydice’s tomb. Nine days later, bees swarm forth from the cadavers.


Kafka used the animal form to manifest his character’s nonconformism, his failure to comply with his community’s expectations. Gregor Samsa withdraws from society and its conventions of behavior, so much so that he eventually perishes. The story of Virgil’s Aristaeus, by contrast, comes to a more comforting end. He reflects on his misdeed and demonstrates his return to civilized behavior with a sacrificial offering, which is transformed in turn into the bees that Aristaeus had previously lost due to his actions.


Nature and culture collide in both stories; clear boundaries are drawn and transgressed. There are parallels here with Weinberger’s oeuvre, albeit ones that no more than touch on the thematic core of his self-portrait. Unlike the two narratives, the latter is not about morality but about relations. Still, it has more to do with Virgil’s bees than with Kafka’s bug: the notion that bee colonies originate from the cadavers of cattle was widespread in antiquity. Such nascence of new life out of the passing of the old bears a resemblance to what Weinberger embodies in the photograph. For he is impersonating neither an insectoid nor a Civilized Savage—and certainly not a “little green man”—but the Green Man.


The Green Man is a recurring figure in Christian ecclesiastical architecture.[3] The motif of the face from which leaves sprout melds human and plant in a hybrid creature. Scholars locate its likely provenance in the pre-Christian area. As an expression of polytheistic religious beliefs, the Green Man might have ancestors in Persian, Celtic, and Roman symbolism. Leafage with human figures appeared as a decorative element in Roman temples; Christian churches may subsequently have adopted it to visualize their claim to legitimate succession. Alternatively, such cultural appropriation may have integrated existing local beliefs into Christian iconography. Hence the archetype’s amenability to a range of interpretations: from an echo of the pagan imaginary of a forest deity, a representation of a symbiotic relationship between humans and nature and symbol of growth and prosperity; to the sylvan sprite, an embodiment of dark, untamed, and dangerous nature and antagonist of the light of Christian revelation; to the head overgrown with vegetation, a memento mori reminding the beholder of the impermanence of all existence.[4]


Just as the head of the Green Man stands pars pro toto for the human being, Lois Weinberger’s self-portrait encapsulates the major thematic complexes of his oeuvre. The latter probes existential questions concerning the relationship between subject and world: What constitutes my being? How do formative cultural influences, my own history and that of my family, and geographical circumstances both empower and constrain me? What are the implications of rationalization and the consequent alienation from nature? Are nature and culture actually opposites? Is culture not part of nature? Can I even conceive of my being outside of nature?


Weinberger’s answers reflect his eclectic readings, synthesizing ideas from philosophy (Roland Barthes, Gregory Bateson, Emil M. Cioran, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Martin Heidegger), sociology and cultural studies (Stuart Hall), ethnology (Hans Peter Duerr, Hubert Fichte, Michel Leiris, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Aby Warburg), art and cultural history (Kathleen Basford), biology (Rupert Riedl, Erwin Schrödinger, and Edward O. Wilson), and literature (Jean Genet, Peter Handke, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Laurence Sterne, Henry David Thoreau, and Vergil). As his book recommendations illustrate, he is usually most interested in works of a Post-Structuralist bent that cross disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of holistic approaches (which he also finds in Eastern thinking). He developed a personal ecological philosophy, “an ethico-political articulation […] between the three ecological registers (the environment, social relations and human subjectivity),” as Guattari sums up his own project of an ecosophy.[5]


Weinberger, too, was “tired of trees,” just like Deleuze and Guattari, who propose to discard the tree as the model for systems of knowledge structured by hierarchies and dichotomies in favor of the rhizome.[6] In contradistinction to the rigid organization of the tree, the rhizome does not exert a regulative authority over interpretations, instead representing a complex ensemble of cross-connections that knows no dependencies but only interrelations. The goal is to shift the focus of interest from categories and states of affairs to vectors in a performance of information. In the same spirit, Weinberger, instead of modeling his oeuvre on the bildungsroman, in which one follows thing from another, grew it as a heterogeneous organism in which a complex coexistence of diverse equipollent narratives can continually engender novel interconnections.


Weinberger’s exhibition lends expression to this anarchic interrelationality. It is the last presentation for which he personally compiled a selection of works; it is not a retrospective that divides his oeuvre into creative periods or tries to spell out its evolutionary logic. Although ‘Basics’ gathers works made between the 1970s and 2020, it puts the focus on reciprocities within this artistic ecosystem. Which currents, then, can we trace in the exhibition’s meandering circular flows?


The “basics” on which most of the works build convey Weinberger’s understanding of nature. Mankind’s use of nature and its symptoms, like environmental pollution and climate change, are increasingly discussed as problematic, suggesting an existential need to subject this relationship to critical scrutiny. Weinberger does not subscribe to those proposals for practical solutions that seek to restore the natural environment, implying an ideal vision of a pure and pristine nature. To his mind, the problem is rooted in much more profound questions concerning humankind’s self-conception. Culture and nature, he believes, are not opposites; man is neither nature’s ruler nor its steward but part of it. Rather than seeking a reconciliation with and return to nature, he aims at a paradigm shift in which the anthropocentric model of this relationship and the projections onto the “environment” bound up with it are supplanted by a holistic perspective, one in which humans come into view as one phenomenon among others of equal value and nature’s autonomy from our projections is recognized.[7] ‘Skulptur La Gomera’ (La Gomera Sculpture), for instance, a shrub with shoe soles hanging on its branches, might be interpreted as Surrealist. But it is actually a realistic representation, one in which human products are self-evidently borne by a plant as though they were leaves or fruit. The same applies to ‘Baumskulptur’ (Tree Sculpture), though this one wears a bucket like a lampshade. ‘Roter Faden’ (Red Thread), too, is a visualization of an all-embracing nature. Birds use the product of culture to build a nest that the tree eventually grows around. In ‘Invasion’, fungi pervade the space of culture that is the exhibition room; in ‘Raum’ (Space), meanwhile, a plant is isolated in an improvised architecture—or, as Franziska Weinberger puts it, the artist “dreamed” himself and the plant “into the white cube.”[8] The grasses plaited together like strands of hair in ‘Zopf’ (Braid) read as a transgressive gesture, as do the watercolors in the series of ‘Wildniskonstruktionen’ (Wilderness Constructions), which expose the idea of the “wilderness” as a human construct and (de)valuing categorization.[9]


By transforming a landfill into a leisure park, Weinberger’s ‘Hiriya Dump’ aims to let the visitor experience the repressed remains of our consumerist dreams as though in an excavation site that presents itself to the eye as a kind of cultural landscape. Culture as nature—that is also the essence of the garden, whose history is as old as human sedentism. The latter was one prerequisite for horticulture and agriculture and gave rise to the concept of property as well as the cultivation of green spaces, which underlies the idea of ordering nature. Order eventually turned into subordination, and the first great civilizations devised suitable ancillary structures such as fences and walls within which they laid out gardens.[10] Gardens were an expression of fertility and prosperity. They were not only retreats from city life but, as representations of empire, also symbolized the ruler’s sovereignty over everything within its bounds. Weinberger counters the metaphoric connotations of the garden with ‘Gebiet I’ (Area I): he collected wild plants growing in urban environments and propagates them on an unused piece of land he has leased for the purpose to resettle them on brownfields, from which he extracts other plants that he releases into the city in turn. By cultivating this “ruderal society,” he accelerates migration flows and negates habitat boundaries arbitrarily imposed on nature. Such efforts to remedy marginalization carry distinct political overtones, as his ‘Portable Gardens’ underscore, PVC bags he filled with soil and set up as refuges for seeds scattered by the wind and animals. Not coincidentally, immigrants often use just such bags to carry all their worldly belongings with them.[11] For his ‘Wild Cube’, by contrast, he draws boundaries of his own. The work is the opposite of the white cube, a literal hortus conclusus.[12] Only this time it is not nature that is locked up in a cage but the human being that is held at a distance, locked out of an asylum for flora and fauna that demonstrates the untamed force of nature.


‘Laubreise’ (Journey of Leaves), meanwhile, draws our attention to processes. It was created in collaboration with Franziska Weinberger, who has been a coauthor on several projects for public settings since 1999.[13] And such cooperation is inherent to the installation: foliage, lop, and algae are piled up in a rectangular block that is slowly decomposed by soil organisms. Crammed into a small space, the quasi-alchemical transformation of “waste” into nutrient-rich humus exudes an air of the abject. The sensually vivid metamorphosis illustrates the transitoriness of all existence—the cycles of becoming and passing away that we, too, are subject to.


A situation of transit is also rendered in the works in the series ‘Wege’ (Paths). Paths are a kind of barrier between tracts of land, but also a connective element. In prefacing the collected edition of his writings with the epigraph “ways—not works” and equating thinking with traveling along paths, and hence with the process of self-knowledge within the world, Heidegger gestures toward a web of movements that limn existence as an act of differentiation.[14] Weinberger here addresses the same structure of vectors, although his prototype are the tunnels carved by bark beetles rather than road networks or veins. The functional logic of these sinuous trajectories eludes us. The function of wayside sheds, by contrast, is readily comprehensible. Weinberger encountered them in Greece, where they serve not only as memorials to victims of accidents, but also to store provisions offered by locals to wayfarers who might need them. The artist reprises this philanthropic idea in his ‘Wegrandhaus’ (Wayside House), which he supplied with poems on pieces of paper on which the visitor can print bark-beetle tunnels (in analogy with the hiker’s passbooks in which stamps earned on the summits document the distances they have covered).


Weinberger’s ‘Hochhaus für Vögel’ (Skyscraper for Birds) is his take on a different kind of dwelling. Transposing the human rationalization of residential real estate into the animal kingdom, he articulates a trenchant critique of the indignity of living conditions subjected to the pressures of efficiency enhancement. Heidegger has characterized dwelling as the essence of being and building as the portrayal of its processual quality.[15] Weinberger, too, takes an interest in this nexus between dwelling and being within the built reality of a house, exploring it in his multipart work ‘Debris Field’, which gathers around seven centuries of history in the form of countless found objects he retrieved from his parents’ farmhouse in Stams, where he grew up. In his psycho-archaeology, he does not just return to his roots, he unearths them: his excavation maps the “debris field” of his personal origins, while also charting a referential system of the everyday lives of peasants.


Weinberger wore a filter mask during the work in the dusty environment that he subsequently gave to his sculpture ‘Bischof’ (Bishop). The figure, whose rootstock face moreover echoes the Green Man motif, emblematizes religious piety—another integral part of peasant life in Stams—as a common ground across cultural differences. Agrarian societies’ dependency on nature forces them to be attentive to it. Observations of inexplicable phenomena used to be explained by religious beliefs or, failing that, by magical powers; a way of thinking not fundamentally different from what Claude Lévi-Strauss has characterized as the “savage mind” in cultures living in close touch with nature, which, instead of rationalizing their fragmentary perceptions, weave them together into a patchwork of stories that let them make direct sense of observations. Inducing or averting certain situations requires the performance of rituals that are said to be immediately effective. Weinberger enacts just such a ritual in ‘Home Voodoo I’, which amalgamates local traditional customs and family mythology with voodoo, Catholic, and pagan practices in a humoristic ceremony: a ritual of purification and liberation whose modus operandi he describes as “chthonic—arising from the Earth.” Something similar is at work in ‘Basics—die Idee einer Ausdehnung’ (Basics—The Idea of an Expansion). The seven sculptures, resting on their backs like unfinished golems awaiting morphogenesis, were molded out of an earthen mix around pieces of wood. The loamy primeval forms suggest both the developmental process and the pleasure of creation, visualizing becoming as the rhythmical performativity of nature and fundamental condition of being.


The principle behind these repeated changes of direction that many of Lois Weinberger’s works retrace is a model that conceives of the essence of being as permanent change: nothing is, everything is becoming, or to put it with Heraclitus, “everything flows.” The exhibition ‘Basics’ may likewise be seen as a scrollwork of interwoven vectors that define possible ways of navigating oneself and one’s thinking through the artist’s oeuvre. This sprawling rhizome was created by one who set forth from a farmstead to become an ornamental blacksmith and metalworker, an actor, and, finally, a visual artist. One who was socialized in a time of cultural upheavals—the 1968 protests were making headlines—and took inspiration from Minimal and Land Art, the Wiener Gruppe, Surrealism, and the Junge Wilde to forge the singular path of his own conceptual art. One who, unlike Joseph Beuys, did not mean to undertake a controlled greening of the city, but embraced rank growth and allowed the marginal to come to the fore. Lois Weinberger was one who became—also becoming a Green Man, adroitly embodying becoming and transience in their inevitability. And he was one who left in order to stay: “When all the plants will have moved away from my / place I destined for them / which happens anyway / I will no longer be the gardener / but innocently use their variety. The essence of my gardening has condensed into a single / flowerpot outdoors / filled with poor soil / a portable garden / to be taken along on inspections in the field and forgotten somewhere. But maybe by planting plants outside my territory in the open I have already foreseen and anticipated / that the concern with plants and gardens can only lead beyond them. Toward the sky / Toward the ground.”[16]


[1] Franz Kafka, ‘The Metamorphosis’ [1915], in ‘The Metamorphosis and Other Stories’, trans. John R. Williams (Hertfordshire, 2011) opening sentence.

[2] Virgil, ‘Georgics’ [29 BCE], in ‘Virgil: Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid’, trans. H. R. Fairclough, Loeb Classical Liberary (Cambridge, Mass., 1916), book 4, verses 281–558.

[3] Lady Raglan coined the term in her essay “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture,” ‘Folklore 50’, no. 1 (March 1939), pp. 45–57. ‘Blattmaske’ (“leaf-mask”) is the more common designation in the German-speaking countries.

[4] Cf. also Kathleen Basford, ‘The Green Man’ (Ipswich, 1978), pp. 9–22.

[5] Félix Guattari, ‘The Three Ecologies’, trans. Ian Pindar/Paul Sutton (London/New York, 2000), p. 28.

[6] Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari, ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis/London, 1987), p. 36.

[7] In this respect, Weinberger’s standpoint is akin to positions of speculative realism, which postulate a reality that is independent of man and autonomous, existing without relation to human thought and reason. Yet it also evinces an affinity to the thinking of Heidegger, who, as Hannah Arendt put it, “never thinks ‘about’ something. He thinks something,” Hannah Arendt, ‘Heidegger at Eighty’, in ‘Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding’, 1953–1975, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York, 2018), p. 422.

[8] Around 1978–79, when this work was made, Lois Weinberger was still living in the Tyrolean countryside; he did not start showing his works in exhibitions until 1980.

[9] It is evaluative in the sense that the idea of “wilderness” makes sense only from the vantage point of culture.

[10] The term “paradise”, for example, derives from the Avestan pairi-da?za, which may be literally translated as “walled enclosure” and was the name for Persian royal gardens in antiquity.

[11] Similarly, ‘Stein mit Federn’ (Stone with Feathers), a literal “flying stone,” is an unmistakably political work.

[12] Latin for “enclosed” or “closed garden.”

[13] The public interest in their respective roles in making the works eventually leads them to the decision to desist from subsuming what remain shared intellectual processes under a shared authorship in order to eliminate the distraction from the essential substance of the works.

[14] “Time and again, thinking follows in the same writings, or goes by its own attempts on the trail where the Fieldpath passes through the field […] The expanse of all grown things which dwell around the Fieldpath bestows the world.” Martin Heidegger, ‘The Fieldpath,’ trans. Berit Mexia, ‘Journal of Chinese Philosophy’ 13, no. 4 (December 1986), pp. 455–58.

[15] “Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope, looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it its wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and which, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter-nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the ‘tree of the dead’—for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum—and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time. A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse.” Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking,’ in ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York, 1971), p. 160.

[16] Lois Weinberger, ‘Notes from the Hortus’ (Ostfildern-Ruit, 1997), p. 19; translation modified based on the original: ‘Lois Weinberger, Vienna 1996,’ in ‘Lois & Franziska Weinberger,’ exh. cat., Kunstverein Hannover; Villa Merkel, Esslingen (Hannover, 2003), p. 85.


Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson


Exhibition catalogue:

Lois Weinberger – Basics

Edited by Stella Rollig and Severin Dünser

Including texts by Pierre Bal-Blanc, Catherine David, Severin Dünser, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Stella Rollig and Philippe Van Cauteren

Graphic design by Astrid Seme, Vienna


Hardcover with paper changes, 24 × 31 cm, 232 pages, 256 illustrations

Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, Cologne, 2021

ISBN 978-3-903327-22-1


Quick tour through the show (video)