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Wolfgang Laib: ‘Pollen from Hazelnut’ (detail), view of installation in 2013: Museum of Modern Art, Atrium, New York, 2013 © Wolfgang Laib.
Photo: Carolyn Laib
Quietly powerful in a noisy age
‘Art has the ability to propose and design something for the future. That’s why I consider art to be the most important thing in the world.’
In the subtle works of the globally active artist, born in 1950 in Upper Swabia in Germany, this aspiration towards universality and timelessness, already present in nature, becomes apparent. Respect for and participation in nature are the driving forces within Laib's work, which are shaped by time, rhythm and spirituality and successfully reject the seemingly ineluctable pressure towards increased efficiency and speed.
Art as a remedy
His upbringing as a doctor’s son in an art-loving, cosmopolitan family brought Laib into contact with Far Eastern philosophies from childhood, and sparked his enthusiasm for art at an early age. Nevertheless, in 1974 he graduated from medical school as a fully qualified physician – and became an artist: ‘I wanted to heal, but not as a doctor. I wanted to involve people in all-embracing processes. In my work as an artist I have achieved what I wanted to do as a doctor, but could never do in the hospital.’
So, ever since the mid-1970s, Laib has been creating unique artefacts such as ‘milkstones’, ‘wax rooms’, boats of stone ,brass and wax, squares of pollen and houses of rice that seem to point towards both humanity’s ancient past and its future beyond the passage of time. His drawings and sculptures intend to express something universal – something that extends beyond time, beyond humanity. With natural materials and working in seasonal cycles, Laib steps back as an individual artist and becomes a tool, letting the great whole within which Man is integrated take precedence.
‘It has a lot to do with healing. But it goes much further than that: it’s about the world in and of itself – what the world is, what our existence with life and death is, all that.’ Having arisen from this holistic notion of life and the world, the minimalist works of Wolfgang Laib dive deeply into a small number of materials, inviting the viewer into a slowed-down level of awareness that speaks to both body and mind.
Photo: Roman März
Photo: Ion Casado
Photo: Gustav Laib
Working with the changing seasons
Whether on his land near a village in Upper Swabia, where an all-embracing architectural oeuvre grows in harmony with the natural topography, or in the tropical abundance of his studio garden in South India: for Laib, nature is simultaneously a place of work and of meditation, supplying ideas and materials in the rhythm of the seasons.
Thus the time-consuming collection of pollen has become a considerable part of his life: he has been tenderly gathering it from dandelions, hazelnut catkins and pine trees in the immediate vicinity of his Upper Swabian home ever since 1977. Scattered out into vivid, shimmering ‘pollen squares’, Laib gives the pollen a new form that shifts between immediacy and timelessness, symbolising the significance of this material for the natural cycles of coming into being and ebbing away. ‘Pollen is not only important for the 21st century – for the present day, politicians are enough.’ He spends up to 20 years gathering the pollen before he has enough of it to dust over the floor into one of his seemingly floating squares of colour; at the end of an exhibition the precious primordial substance is collected up, cleaned and stored away.
In the warmth of the summer, Laib shapes pyramidal sculptures, ships’ hulls and entire rooms out of beeswax. These pieces are reminiscent of sacred buildings; they symbolise the connection between heaven and earth, this life and whatever comes afterwards. Bees are among the oldest animals in the world, and the wax they produce has been prized by humans for centuries for its beneficial properties. For Laib, this ‘spiritual’ material has a very special dimension: ‘The smell of beeswax is very enduring; it brings with it a non-rational, emotional experience that is very important to me as an artist.’ Laib’s ‘Wax Room’, an empty room completely lined with beeswax panels which radiates gentleness and warmth, allows visitors to experience this with all their senses.
In winter, Laib moves to his workshop in Madurai, South India. Here he works on sculptures in stone, rice and metal, entering into a dialogue with the surrounding landscape, its inhabitants and their spiritual culture. His fascination for sacred and cultic places, in which faith manifests itself in a dimension that reaches beyond our earthly lives, runs through Laib’s works just as strongly as does the fascination and beauty of nature.
Photo: Elisa Müller
Photo: Wolfgang Laib
Transformation coming from the future
Mountains made of pollen, stones made of milk, pyramids made of beeswax: Wolfgang Laib’s gentle art radiates quiet. It inspires contemplation of the fundamental things in life – and that means everything. He exposes himself to reality in order to transform that reality. He encourages us to examine our dealings with natural resources – which could not be more topical. ‘I want my work to be much more than environmental. I want to concentrate on what is possible in this world. And to show that completely different things are possible – for each and every individual.’
The exhibition ‘Wolfgang Laib: The Beginning of Something Else’ was developed in close collaboration with Wolfgang Laib and will be running until 5 November 2023 at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart. A documentary on the exhibition portrays Laib during the course of a year while working in Upper Swabia and South India.
TEXT: Ulrika Bohnet