Many people scoff at artists who use odd materials or stage eccentric performances. They are usually right to do so. Art today is rich in witless posturing, philosophical boilerplate, ostentatious anger, and conventional shock. But there remain artists who are significantly strange, with lives and work that warm the imagination and set contemporary culture into sharp relief. The most interesting rarely work the fashionable ground of sexual and political confrontation, which now yields an arid, ungenerous art. Instead, they offer a more radical and mysterious critique of modern culture. Among them is the German artist Wolfgang Laib, now the subject of a small exhibit at the Sperone Westwater Gallery in SoHo. Laib is a contemporary emanation of an ancient vocation: the hermit who withdraws from the world in order to clarify his spiritual understanding by concentrating upon the essential. Among other things, he spends each spring collecting pollen.
Laib originally planned to be a doctor and qualified to practice medicine in 1974. However, he found the scientific view of the body that was presented in medical school shockingly limited. “So I began to search for something else,” he once said, ” – for another body.” Not surprisingly, he began serious study of Eastern and pre-modern religions, among them Buddhism, Jainism, and medieval Christianity. In 1975, he made the first of his many “milkstones,” in which he carved a slight indentation into a piece of brilliantly white marble and filled the cavity with milk. The milkstones were astonishing to look at. (I had never seen such a white.) But Laib did not want to aestheticize the work, as if the milk were paint and his milkstone a kind of white-on-white Robert Ryman painting. He did not want, in short, art that was just art. Pouring milk on stone took on the sacramental air of ritual; the milk itself evoked intimacy, nurture, purity, and the beauty of first things. It was, as he said, at once “chaste and sensual.” Joining milk to marble, soft to hard – the two became inseparable in these works – reflected the Eastern aspiration of harmonizing opposites.
Shortly after making his first milkstone, Laib began forming a ritual around another essential element of nature – the pollen. He would gather it from the meadows around the rural village where he lives, sifting it carefully through muslin. To fill a few small jars each year takes months. (The repetitive process, however, has a meditative quality.) Like milk, pollen is a material that is also a first principle. It has an inner light. Laib sometimes forms the pollen into radiant rectangles on the floor that look as precise – and evanescent – as Tibetan sand paintings. He also forms it into mounds. The show at Sperone Westwater doesn’t have any milkstones, but it does contain a small work made of hazelnut pollen. Just 2 3/4 inches high, the pollen resembles a mountain.
Is it strange to spend one’s days collecting pollen in a meadow? Of course. Is it fundamentally stranger, however, than turning oneself into a worker bee in a corporation? Is it stranger than talking to birds, as St. Francis did? (Laib is particularly fond of that saint.) Although Laib is not a satirist, his gathering of divine dust in the meadow represents among other things a wonderful satire on human greed. He gathers the lightest form of gold; others mine money. Like most other visionaries, Laib dislikes compromise; he is interested only in an absolute transformation of human consciousness. Milk and pollen symbolize potential and the creative energy of transformation. “Society is aware of the ecological argument,” he has said. “You don’t need an artist to say it. The discussion in our society is more about repairing things. That’s not enough for me. I want a total change.”
In recent years, Laib has also been working with beeswax – often making what look like houses. In his last New York show, he made a series of boats in beeswax that were raised into the air. “If you turn a house upside down,” he says, “it is a ship to travel away.” The main piece in the current show, Nowhere – Everywhere, is two large forms built of blocks of beeswax. This piece evokes ancient architecture, in particular the ziggurat of the Assyrians. The stepped forms suggest, as all Laib’s work does, a voyage or passage to a spiritual plane. Laib reveres empty spaces; he hates furniture and the clinging clutter of things. Any object he makes must rest lightly in space. Beeswax is not a human material; like the pollen, it seems infused with light. It also has a pungent scent that fills the gallery – a transporting aroma like that of incense.
Laib’s art looks very uncomfortable in a SoHo gallery. It was made, after all, by an artist who believes that the striving for fame and individuality in Western culture tragically separates us from the natural world, dividing the body from the mind and the material from the spiritual. And SoHo, bless its shiny heart, does not talk that kind of talk. (The artist is currently thinking of siting a beeswax piece in a cave in the Pyrenees.) But Laib also does not come on too strong, damning this environment in any obvious manner. He has not signed up with any particular religion; he finds them all too “historical.” Nor has he taken up with a New Age movement. He does not burden the present with dogmas. To serve the future, he keeps alive aspirations lost in the past.