The Patient Artist

The natural and spiritual worlds intersect in Wolfgang Laib's meticulous, contemplative art

| Utne Reader July / August 2007

As Catholic monk and author Thomas Merton observed, the contemplative life has fallen out of fashion. We may give lip service to the idea of stillness, but we do little to cultivate it. A person who refuses to make efficient use of time, who is not practical, who does not actively pursue some concrete goal is somehow disturbing to the modern psyche.

One such iconoclast is the installation artist Wolfgang Laib. First of all, he is slow. Deliberately slow. He spends entire summers in fields near his home in the Black Forest of Germany filling small jars with pollen. He'll devote long winter months to sanding a depression into a thin piece of marble. In the fast-paced, achievement-minded art world, his methods seem more than a little eccentric, and to the modern view of time, they are almost perversely meticulous. But it is integral to his projects that a single person completes every task. A three-inch pile of pollen on a museum floor speaks of intense care, love, and devotion.

Laib's work resists labels. It includes elements of performance art, photography, and conceptual art. It also exhibits the influence of Buddhism, Jainism, and Christianity. At the point of overlap among multiple categories, Laib finds a unique voice. Using exquisitely simple everyday materials like milk, rice, and pollen, he manages to create a viewer experience that is new.

In Pollen from Hazelnut, pure pollen forms a glowing sheet of yellow pigment on a stone floor. Visitors hold their breath, partly for fear of disturbing the powdery veil, partly out of wonder. The pollen squares make no direct allusion to landscape; one is not transported to the grove where Laib collected it, but instead one is left with a tangible meditation upon light, color, and smell. The materials in their purest form become cryptic metaphors, intangible and ephemeral. Though his work is typically installed in galleries and museums, Laib has chosen at times to install it beneath the vaulted ceilings of European cathedrals. There it projects a reverent stillness that resonates in the ancient sacred spaces.

For 30 years, Laib has worked and reworked only a few series, exploring subtle variations on a few chosen themes. He continues to make the same 'milkstones' with which he began his career in 1975. Over months, he'll painstakingly sand a thin slab of Macedonian marble, creating a slight concavity over the surface. When the slab is finished, he carefully fills the cavity with milk. Held by surface tension, the milk covers the entire slab without spilling over the edges, creating a clean, geometric shape with a reflective surface. The resulting object is something entirely new: a piece of marble with properties never before seen in marble. The choice of materials is central. The durable stone, with its venerable place in the history of art, is juxtaposed with the cloudy, perishable, nourishing liquid.

Laib began working with pollen in 1977, and it has become one of his signature forms. He hand-collects varieties that occur naturally near his home, including pine, hazelnut, and dandelion, and stores them in jars. A season may yield two jars of one type and a mere half jar of another. In most of his pollen installations, Laib sifts a single type of pollen (he doesn't mix varieties) onto the floor of a gallery or church. Upon entering the room, one is immersed in a large field of intense primary yellow--and in the smell. The work creates an intensity and purity of reflected light that is unique.

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