Known for working with pollen and other natural materials, German sculptor Wolfgang Laib has spent almost half a century making spiritual installations and sculpture. The Praemium Imperiale award-winning sculptor represented Germany at the 40th Venice Biennale in 1982.Read More
Born in Metzingen, Laib was influenced by early travels with his family across Europe, East Asia, and particularly South India. His parents came to support a whole village in South India and passed on their interest in Indian art and culture to their son. Today, Laib maintains a studio in Tamil Nadu, South India, as well as in Hochdorf, Germany and New York.
Following in his father's footsteps, Laib studied medicine at the University of Tübingen from 1968 until 1974, when he became dissatisfied with modern medicine's dependence on logic and the physical at the expense of the spiritual. Guided by Eastern spiritualism and philosophies, and in search of the true meaning of life, Laib became an artist.
Laib's 'Milkstones', begun in 1975, set the contemplative tone of his art. Laib poured milk into a dish bored out of rectangular slabs of polished white marble and left the liquid to sour, bringing the initially gleaming white artwork to its conclusion. 'The Milkstone is about what I felt the essence of life to be. It's a very simple act, but it contains all of that,' Laib said.
Wolfgang Laib combines natural, perishable materials such as milk, pollen, rice, beeswax, and wood, sometimes also using stone and metals, to create simple forms and environments that connect with Eastern philosophical concepts of timelessness, universality, life, and nature.
Laib's pollen works are the result of a laborious ritual process. Laib began collecting pollen from hazelnuts, buttercups, dandelions, and other plants in 1977. Annually, during summer and spring, the artist collects pollen by hand from the fields and forests surrounding his home village near Germany's Black Forest.
Laib presents the gathered pollen in jars, like in Pollen Jars on a Shelf (2003), or spreads it on the floor, sometimes evenly, other times making small, concentrated mounds. The resulting works are rich in colour and scent, as well as meaning. 'I think everybody who lives knows that pollen is important,' Laib says, noting the symbolism of these life-giving particles.
One of Laib's largest pollen installations, Pollen from Hazelnut (2013) temporarily covered 18-by-21 feet of the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York with bright yellow hazelnut pollen that he had been gathering for over a decade.
Laib first began working with rice in 1983. Laib's 'rice houses' are an enduring motif, in which solid materials in the shape of a basic house are placed upon mounds of rice. Typically, Laib uses marble, as seen in Rice House (1988), Rice House (1996), and Marmorhaus (2011), but he has also made granite and wooden houses.
Additionally, Laib has placed simple brass ships on rising waves of rice for the 'Passageway' series (2013). As with the pollen, Laib also presents rice laid out in mounds, such as his temporary installation Crossing the River (2022) at the Bündner Kunstmuseum Chur, Switzerland.
In 1987, Laib began working with beeswax, creating his first wax chamber, The Passageway, the following year. The Passageway is a wooden hallway construction lined with wax panels and illuminated by two lightbulbs.
In 2013, Laib's first permanent beeswax room installation opened at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Where have you gone — where are you going? (2013), an otherworldly empty room with beeswax-lined walls, echoes the calming, meditative space of the Collection's Rothko Room. In 2014, Laib completed his largest beeswax project, an entire underground beeswax space beneath Studio Anselm Kiefer in Barjac, France.
Laib also produces smaller-scale beeswax sculptures, such as Wachsschiff (Wax ship) (1996) and Without Beginning and Without End (2005), a wood and wax stair construction.
In 1987, Laib was awarded the Arnold Bode Prize at Documenta, Kassel, and he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale award for sculpture in Tokyo in 2015.
Wolfgang Laib has been the subject of both solo and group exhibitions internationally.
Solo exhibitions include Wolfgang Laib: Crossing the River, Bündner Kunstmuseum Chur, Switzerland (2022); Without Time Without Place Without Body, Museo Novecento, Florence (2019); Wolfgang Laib, Museo d'arte della Svizzera italiana (MASI), Lugano (2017); Pollen from Hazelnut, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2013); Without Beginning – Without End, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2007); Wolfgang Laib: Durchgang-Übergang, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (2003); Wolfgang Laib, A Retrospective, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (2000); Wolfgang Laib, Centre Pompidou, Paris (1992); ARC, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1986); Wolfgang Laib, Sperone Westwater Fischer, New York (1979).
Group exhibitions include La Couleur crue, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes (2021); Black Light: Secret traditions in art since the 1950s, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) (2018); Out of Sight! Art of the Senses, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo (2017); ColorForms, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (2010); Le Mouvement des Images, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2007); Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1951 to the Present, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2004); and Être nature, Fondation Cartier, Paris (1998).
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2022