What can nature tell us?

Edinburgh, 04.02.2023 | James Clegg

In our time of environmental crisis, this must be the most important question we can ask. But, if you want to understand what it means to ask it, you should first spend time to concern yourself with the work of Lois Weinberger (1947–2020).

We instinctively know that there is a huge difference between logical thinking and ecological thinking, given the damage caused by the former’s drive to turn the world into a machine. Yet few artists or thinkers have been able to work in the other place of ecology and reflect a way of being that is genuinely from the ground up (radical), impossible (as far as modern thinking is concerned) and diverse (impure, corrupted, hybrid).

Weinberger / does.

Let us take the Portable Garden series, for example.

In 1994, Lois Weinberger realised this work as a garden with spontaneous vegetation grown in the red and blue checked plastic bags once associated with the precarity of immigrant experience. At the time, he wanted to highlight our use of this material – and had a typically confounding relationship to it, finding it beautifully practical and colourful (the qualities that allow materials to propagate in the modern world). Now, almost thirty years later and channelling his spirit, Franziska Weinberger – his partner and collaborator – will stage new versions using recycled plastic buckets so as not to bring more conventional plastic into the world. A fitting development for a practice that, for reasons we shall explore in a moment, refuses the idea that any one material is the antithesis of nature.

Both in the long-standing aims of the project and its evolution, Portable Garden shows us that nature is provisional (arranged and existing in the present) and that plants constantly reinvent the reality in which they exist (through, as Emanuele Coccio puts it, a ‘restless immersion in the very matter they ceaselessly model’[1]). Plants (who create earth and soil in the first place) don’t need an invitation to exist.

Then the contradiction (the impossible) of Weinberger’s title, Portable Garden. The Indo-European origins of the word garden mean ‘to grasp, enclose.’ In terms of understanding or physically holding (‘grasping’) and requiring a territory (‘enclosure’) Weinberger’s practice – in its portability – breaks the rules of a tradition obsessed with trying to possess and demarcate. And – as with his famous work for documenta 10, What is Beyond Plants is at One with Them (1997) – we find that ideas about nature can reflect social and political prejudices. The belief in a ‘pristine wilderness’ (a pure, beautiful, original nature) haunts approaches to conservationism[2] and tends to mimic xenophobia: anxiety about foreign elements not deemed ‘proper’ to an environment. In Weinberger’s work, nature proves to be the ultimate immigrant, constantly integrating with everything, including the so-called ‘man-made.’

Wild Cubes are Weinberger’s enclosures: metal cages that keep people out and allow nature to do what it does. Of course, whilst sometimes defying enclosures he uses his own to show the endless contradiction of nature. As he wrote: ‘There is an outside and an inside / this intersection is however through the choice of metal bars / a limitless house for living beings – the planting is left to the wind / the birds / the seeds already in the soil.’[3] In this seemingly cut-off space, we still find the limitless creativity of nature.

When we ask, ‘what can nature tells us?’, we should realise – if we follow Weinberger – that we will simply end up talking to ourselves. Nature will not reveal answers to us because the logic of answers is of a different order to the ecology of nature. However, as we see when we look at images of Weinberger in the wastelands, we are already emerged in a nature that is constantly reinventing everything, everywhere.

James Clegg, director Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, College of Art

[1] Coccia, Emanuele (2019) The Life of Plants, Polity Press, Cambridge, p.11.
[2] Marris, Emma (2011) Rambuctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury, London.
[3] Weinberger, Lois (2013) ‘Wild Cube’, in Lois Weinberger, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, p. 196.