Touching the substance of the matter
I first came across German Artist, Wolfgang Laib’s work in an exhibition catalogue some years back. For me, it drew visual references to the works of Mark Rothko’s colour field paintings, Anish Kapoor’s fascination for pigment and intensity of pure colours, and not forgetting life of Joseph Beuys — breathing the myth of the artist. This exhibition at Institute of Contemporary Art, Singapore (ICAS), Earl Lu Gallery featured some of Wolfgang Laib’s more endearing works that transcend material cultures, and evades a definitive eastern or western philosophy perspective of nature. His works are simple, yet profound if one chose to imbue the reading of his work as such. The simple, un-altered state of the natural matter echo a sense of timelessness as if he merely extended nature’s creative processes into the realm of man-made art.
At the heart of Laib’s work must be the intrinsic qualities of the material used, and the potent symbolism they hold in different cultural contexts and exhibition venues. Milkstone (1977) consists of a slab of marble, a vessel to a thin surface of milk. Milk, could potentially be the universal symbol of life – ranked after water! – a representation of universal motherhood of animals and human beings. The work, I was told, needs to be managed everyday, emptying and refilling with fresh milk. There is no doubt that there is a certain performative aspect of the work, the test of patience and meticulous attention required. One can almost imagine the artist repeating the process of cleaning and refilling the vessel-slab daily; the gallery assistants repeating it the same way; the collector par-taking the same painstaking steps of creating the artwork, day after day. The work potentially echoes Ad Reinhardt’s black canvas, Malevich’s White on White, or a certain ‘natural’ rebellion against the man-made, politics driven art establishment, like Daniel Buren’s stripes are to Museums.
Laib’s work seems to contain deliberated contradictions. In Passageway – Overgoing (1996), 7 chunks of beewax are placed on wooden scaffolds, which the viewer may walk under as they walked through the gallery. The ship-like beewax seem to be heading in one direction, but in reality, heading nowhere. The weight of the beewax is manifested in the spiritual journey it potentially represents and the physical weight the wooden platform is sustaining. The contradiction is necessary. Just like ricehouse (1988-99) made of marble, rice and hazelnut pollen. The piece is not made of rice, but suggests the idea of sustenance, protection given by a house; the piece is obviously not meant to physically feed the hunger of the world. This reading of the work adds a certain sense of poetry, and a fine counter balance in the ‘composition’ of meaning of the work.
The appreciation of Laib’s work seems to built on an aesthetics of Minimalism and Conceptualism, with a hint of performance art in the constructing the installations. It is minimal in it’s choice of material in it’s pure, un-altered form. It is conceptual because it employs conjuring a mental image of the artist hunched in field’s collecting pollen in Pollen from Pine (1999), and the work can be re-constructed by assistants based on a set of instructions dictated by the artist. Pollen, a potent ingredient for creation, summons the feeling of summer – birds, butterflies, bees et al.
I think some will find it hard to appreciate Laib’s seemingly minimal and simple work. The ritual behind his work is easily mistaken as a simple process. The concept of ‘ritual’ may seem to be an over-statement in our eastern cultural context. Our daily lives are so imbued with spiritual ritual – Taoist daily offerings to our ancestors, or Kavadi laden men during Deepavali (Dewali). By considering Laib’s work as a ‘ritual’ almost seems a sacrilege. The aesthetics of this lies in the western existentialist belief that art, in it’s purest act is almost ‘religious’. And the ritual of art seems be a demonstration of our existence – in artefacts of culture that are often hailed as artefacts synonymous with culture itself. The processes that Laib conceals in his work, and only revealed in the video-documentary is almost like a call for us to appreciate simple natural matter. The effort it takes to harvest a jar of pollen by one person, and to scatter it meticulously with a sieve on a totally flat surface! This I suspect may be alien to Singaporeans who live in a concrete jungle, who has probably never fully realised the literal phrase ‘stop to smell the flowers’.
In conversation with June Yap – deputy director and a curator with ICAS – during her guided tour on a Sunday, we concluded that Laib’s work shared certain aesthetics and appeal with Beuys’. In a way, Beuys was the extroverted maker while Laib was the introverted projection of that same artistic concerns and persona. The life of the artists seem important stepping stones to understanding the works. The histories of the artists blend into the understanding of the works. Both believed in the healing nature of the materials and their presentation and context as art. Both participated rituals with the construction of their works. Both, I suppose, will be remembered for using beewax. Laib’s work will also be remembered as being extremely delicate, meditative, fragile, nature-sensitive, transient, peaceful looking, transcendental and remarkably quiet. And that is the truth of the matter.
3 stars of 5
Transit – Transition by Wolfgang Laib
Mar 30, 2006 – May 7, 2006