|Wolfgang Laib: Transcendent Offerings
Art in America
1 March 2001
With a few carefully chosen natural substances--beeswax, stone, milk, pollen--Laib constructs simple but potent monuments to being and the nothingness that forever brackets it.
A life summed up in art is a beautiful thing, and the work of Wolfgang Laib--the subject of a retrospective that opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and travels this month to the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle--is made up of objects in which the man and the art are deftly melded. In Laib's sculpture, the mystical rituals of the East are recast in the language of modernism and executed in materials found near his rural home in southern Germany: beeswax; stone and marble; and the rich, yellow pollen of flowers and trees. A singular statement eclectically arrived at, this work is rooted in the rich intellectual milieu provided by the artists' parents, exceptionally thoughtful and well-educated people who combined their desire to heal--his father is a doctor--with strong interests in Eastern cultures and Western art.
Laib, who was born in 1950, today lives in relative isolation with his wife and teenage daughter on property he shares with his parents outside a small farming village. While Laib has taken over a couple of ancient outbuildings for living and for his studio, his mother and father still occupy the house in which Laib spent his adolescence. In 1960, despite Germany's strict zoning laws requiring that houses be clustered in towns and villages, and specifying every detail of a building down to the size of the windows, Dr. Laib, together with a young Swiss architect, built a modernist glass house in the middle of a vast meadow surrounded by forest. As the family began to take extensive trips throughout Europe and later to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Mesopotamia and India (where Dr. Laib ultimately undertook to develop and support an entire village), the house became a reflection of their experiences. Over time it was emptied of furniture until almost nothing was left in it but a few well-chosen Eastern religious sculptures; the Laibs slept on futons and ate their vegetarian meals sitting on the floor. This extreme simplicity and orientation to the floor would later become important elements in Laib's work.
On a trip to Paris, the 15-year-old Laib was introduced to the work of Brancusi, whose rebuilt studio, then in the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, became a place he would visit again and again. That same year the family made a pilgrimage by car to Romania to see Brancusi's Endless Column, Table of Silence and Gate of the Kiss. A loner, Laib had only one friend at the time, a local landscape painter who was his grandfather's age. This man, a friend of the family, was influential in their adoption of a pared-down lifestyle, and he also introduced them to Lao Zi and Chinese philosophy.
When it came time for Laib to go to college, a choice had to be made. He had wanted to be an artist, but the artists he had met, except for his older friend, were uninspiring. Responding also to a certain pressure from his father, Laib rejected art school to study medicine in the medieval city of Tubingen, augmenting his medical classes with lectures in a range of humanistic subjects including Indian language and culture. He spent six months in rural southern India writing his thesis on its drinking water; when he came back to Germany, he did not return immediately to school. Instead, he spent half a year chiseling away at a boulder he had found in the countryside near his home, shaping it until it was long and rounded like a giant watermelon, its surface smooth, black and polished. When he finished the sculpture, he placed it in his parents' living room, where it remains today.
Although Laib completed his studies, he found the medical view of the body too limited, too literal, and he never became a practicing doctor. The stone, which he named Brahamanda, a Sanskrit term meaning "Egg of the Universe," became the physical embodiment of his decision to become an artist. The next year the family traveled for the second time to Konya, Turkey, where Laib made another Brahamanda to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the death of the poet Rumi and placed it near the entrance to Rumi's tomb. Taken for a meteorite with the potential to make barren women fertile, it was visited by so many hopeful females that the stone had to be moved to a more protected place.
Because the second of these works was unavailable and Laib feared damage to the first, neither is in the current retrospective. Instead, that significant period is represented by eight other shaped and polished stones of various sizes and colors, each small enough to be held in the hand, which Laib arranges on the floor in a loose circle. Although described in the museum literature as egg-shaped, they are actually longer and narrower than an egg--more like gelatin capsules in form--thereby serving as a literal representation of Laib's transition from doctor to sculptor. That association aside, there is something almost unbearably perfect in their form. At the same time, they project the sense, which permeates Laib's work, of activity internalized. It's not surprising that the Rumi Brahamanda was seen as having special powers; the stones are like pellets of contained energy.
In 1975 Laib realized his first Milkstone. A series he continues to explore, the Milkstones are large square slabs of marble in which a shallow indentation has been hollowed out from edge to edge and then filled with milk. The result is a shimmering white square of the substance that sustains new life. This work often does not show up to advantage in the museum context; it requires the reflection of natural light to make it come alive. Actually, for the complete experience, one must watch Laib fill it: a slight man with a shaved head and tiny wire glasses, wearing slippers and loose, softly colored cotton clothing, kneeling on the floor next to the piece, patiently emptying each carton with the concentration of a priest performing a rite. Much art derives its potency from the merging of opposites; in Laib's work it is generated by the collision of geometry with natural substances that one never expects to see in the forms he has chosen for them--the square of milk, for example, or the later works he created by sprinkling pollen, the intensely golden germ from which plant life begins, evenly onto squares of glass laid out on the floor.
The pieces he creates from pine, dandelion and hazelnut pollen--each with its distinct yellow hue--are Laib's most powerful. More recently, he sifts the dry yellow powder--an extremely time-consuming material to collect and handle--directly onto the floor, forming it into squares of up to 12 feet on a side, with edges that remain wispy and feathery, like an aura. The first thing that comes to mind is the softly bordered rectangles in a Rothko painting, except that the yellow of pollen is a much more vibrant color than can easily be attained with paint. In this respect the work is closer to that of James Turrell, whose extraordinary Meeting, permanently installed at P.S. 1 in New York, provides a geometric frame for the changing hues of the sky. As opposed to milk, pollen is a compelling medium for art precisely because it does not reflect light to any significant degree. Reflection is what, to the human eye, defines a surface. These pulsating yellow squares, so fragile we dare not breathe upon them, are mesmerizing and draw us near.
The small houses that Laib hews out of rough, unpolished white marble, however, are icy, with grains of rice nestled around their bases like heaps of snow. Or perhaps we are meant to see the buildings as filled to bursting with this nourishing grain, and the mounds as overflow, a sign of abundance. Regardless, the effect is of containment, of things being compressed. Muffled by drifts, with no perforating doors or windows, as long and narrow as coffins, the buildings appear mute, recalling Joel Shapiro's early house sculptures or Joseph Beuys's piano with its suit of felt. (Laib also makes other similar houses without rice, of rich burnt-red sealing wax, a material whose function is to protect communication and keep it private.) As simple as Monopoly pieces, with no distinguishing architectural features that would attach them to a particular time or place, the Rice Houses are archetypal in form, as are the pyramid and boat shapes Laib is continually exploring. Beginning with the first Brahamanda, he purposely chose forms that did not reflect him as an individual; rather, he has borrowed shapes that have already been invested with meaning by various cultures. This use of universal themes allows Laib to tap into the well of associations each viewer brings to an encounter with his work, and together the pieces could be seen as artifacts of an ancient place that never existed.
Beeswax, from which church candles are made, is another material Laib uses lavishly, building chunky, honey-brown slabs of it into ceiling-high ziggurats, forming it into casketlike boats elevated above our heads on slender wooden supports, or lining the walls and ceilings of crypt-shaped rooms. The beeswax infuses the containing spaces with a rich, warm fragrance that becomes almost overwhelming when one enters Somewhere Else (La Chambre des Certitudes), 1997, and is completely surrounded by it. Meant for only one person at a time, it is a short corridor, narrow and high-ceilinged, such as might be found under an Egyptian pyramid; like a sarcophagus, this enclosure becomes narrower toward its blocked-off end. The atmosphere is close; the illumination provided by a single bare bulb is mostly absorbed by the amber beeswax, heightening the eerie effect. Gently ironic, Laib has created a feast for the senses in the guise of an enclosure for death, a theme that he reiterates in his rows of beeswax boats on their silent journey to the netherworld.
Yet there is nothing grim about Laib's work. More about surrender than sorrow, it's a celebration of life in all its sensuous richness, with death accepted as an integral part of nature's cycle. The perishable and ephemeral materials Laib employs indicate his comfort with impermanence; he cultivates the moment. The labor that goes into Laib's art is a form of meditation, its own reward; he is content to spend countless hours collecting pollen (it can take months to fill a few small jars) and then shaping it into tiny cone-shaped hills for a piece, such as The Five Mountains Not to Climb On (1984), that a single sneeze could blow away. Requiring a form of labor that would be impossibly tedious to most of us, Laib's work with pollen, in particular, embodies an intrinsic awareness that it will exist only as long as its creator is available to make it happen.
Laib, who follows no particular religion or spiritual practice, believes in the transcendent power of art and its ability to heal. Viewed this way, his pieces are like offerings, modest and simple enough that they require the viewer to look at art differently, slowing down to Laib's pace. Once one is acclimated, however, it becomes momentarily difficult to look at anything else; nearby works in the museum--Gustons, de Koonings--appear ego-driven and overwrought. "The more you complicate things, the more you lose," Laib says. "In renouncing you achieve more."
- Carol Diehl