Orbituary for Peter Weibel, by Jürgen Claus | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Orbituary for Peter Weibel, by Jürgen Claus

By Nick Cronbach

It is said: The birth of a human being is embedded in cosmological determinations. The born is predetermined by genes. By whatever - the German poet Gottfried Benn blamed this on the remotely determined You Must in a much-quoted poem: “Just two things remain / emptiness and your cursed self, branded like Cain.”[1] Peter wanted "the marked by destiny". Born into an insane war, which in the spring of 1944 also raged in his native city of Odessa. 800 000 soldiers mourned the "Red Army" for the liberation of Crimea and Ukraine. In Odessa, occupied by the German army for 900 days, 82,000 people had died and 78,000 people had been taken to Germany for forced labor.[2] Peter had internalized that, his Russian-German mother's flight with him and his brother, chaotic, across war-torn lands to an Austrian idyll, to Ried, 80 km west of Linz. The family, if one can speak about that, was destroyed apart, the father (Wehrmacht officer) was no longer "available", the children were taken from the mother and put into a home. That's where the conscious reappraisal or recollection begins, as Peter occasionally described it, including in a film.[3] He knew that he could hold his own in such an environment only if he was "the strongest" and "the smartest”. So he did physical exercises, sports to survive against a hostile school class and read books. His intellectual curiosity was the other part of the survival strategy. That was, in short, the humus he had to leave. His career began, led him to study in Paris and again and again to Vienna, where he unfolded his "curved self". Through actions that later entered art history. In Munich, I remember, he stood on the stage of the Municipal Gallery in the 1970s, had blood drawn, visible to all visitors via live video, scandalized them by dialing the numbers of prostitutes via telephone circuit from the city newspaper and bombarding them with absurd questions. Did he want the scandal? Did he want to inscribe himself in the history of artistic performance? Peter, 1984: "In a world that is a hotel, where everyone knows only a cold exit, the fake passports (of survival-fantasy, of play, of escape, of love) are still perhaps the only chance to escape reality." Yes, he scandalized. His personality, the tendency to sprawl, the conscious recourse to history, to positions of science (Viennese School), of film (Surrealists), of theater (Piscator's Raumbühne), built into his own work in a multifaceted way, now came into focus. He knew everything, began to teach this at academic schools. For a while, Weibel held three professorships. In Vienna at the "Angewandte", later University of the Arts, in Kassel at the Gesamthochschule between 1979 and 1985, and at the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York in Buffalo, between 1984 and 1989. He said he had to pay for it with a first heart attack. Did he limit himself? How could he have? His eyes were multifocally focused on the future. When he was invited to Karlsruhe for the jury on a successor to the ZKM founding director, he had one candidate in mind: himself, surprisingly for the others, not for himself. Did the ZKM become a homeland for him over the years? I think the word and what is meant by it was not familiar to him. He had in mind what Michio Kaku gave as the title of his book The Future of Humanity: Immortality, and our Destiny Beyond Earth. Peter did everything he could to live on after his death on March 1, 2023, beyond his physical departure from ZKM. He looked into the ugly grimace of history: there he saw the murderous war in the Ukaine, in his native town of Odessa.[4] He was not spared to see the beginnings of his life in the distorting mirror of violence at the end of his life. His friendliness, his warm "humanistic" character, his support for others, all that characterized Peter Weibel as a person from midlife onwards, positively counteracts this image of the distorting mirror. For those who knew him, this will survive, as will the voluminous results of his books, catalogs, films, songs, sculptures, installations.


Jürgen Claus

Leonardo Honorary Editor



[1] Gottfried Benn (1886-1956), „Just two things”  (Nur zwei Dinge, 1953)

                    “There's just one thing--you learned late--/
                        endure--mind, madness or myth--/
                        your 'You must' determined by fate.

English translation by Thomas Dorsett, cf.: https://thomasdorsett.blogspot.com/2018/10/favorite-poems-vol-ll-just-two-things.html

[2] https://www.vtnvagt.de/index.php/grosser-vaterlaendischer-krieg/111-der-grosse-vaterlaendische-krieg-im-jahre-1944

[3] Peter Weibel, Mein Leben (My Life). Dokumentarfilm (Documentary Film) by Marco Wilms. 2011. https://zkm.de/de/event/2010/09/marco-wilms-peter-weibel-mein-leben

[4] I remember the delightful book Liebesgrüsse aus Odessa. For Peter Weibel. Berlin: Merve, 2004.