Wolfgang Laib: Frieze of Life at Sean Kelly Gallery
October 29 through December 5, 2009
528 West 29th Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues,
New York City, 212 239 1181
It has been 23 years since New York has last experienced the luminous yellow of one of Wolfgang Laib’s marvelous pollen installations. Laib’s environments are the rarified product of hard work—the current piece, Pollen from Hazelnut (2002-05) represents several years of gathering the precious material by hand. As ethereally beautiful as this piece may be, it also possesses a ritual or social dimension in which the process of gathering takes on a sacramental element, fulfilling a rite whose spiritual dimensions echo in the installation itself. One has the sense that Laib works out of a Beuysian precedent, in which the action of gathering the hazelnut pollen belongs to a process of sharing—not only the exquisite beauty of the material but also the daily work, even the drudgery of collecting it. In any case, the pollen functions as an example of raw pigment, except that its implications remain interactive and participatory. It is rare to find art whose aura is both public and absolute, and as happens so often with Laib’s art, the idea of the piece lingers just as long as our memory of the ethereal hue.
Laib’s show is titled “Frieze of Life,” after the installation of the same name that occurs in the second gallery. This latter work is the artist’s most recent piece; it is composed of 400 hand-thrown clay pots, which hold ashes collected from temples in India, close to Laib’s studio there. The pots are supported on a wooden frame placed high up in the gallery—hence the title Frieze of Life. As an installation, Laib’s work suggests the ash of the cremated dead, which may in turn participate in the Hindu cycle of death and reincarnation. The pots are exhibited at a height that forces viewers to look up at them from below, but the ash can just be seen rising to a point an inch or two above the clay containers. Laib, an artist with a penchant for common materials such as rice, milk, stone, and wax, finds meaningfulness in the ash coming from the burned incense of Indian temples. To understand the subdued synergy of the pots and ash, we must know where the ash comes from, as well as its ritualized meaning.
The pollen work emphasizes the startling beauty of nature, which speaks to the beginning of life and a collection of ashes whose mythic associations are primarily those of death. Rice Meals(1988) perhaps forms a bridge between the beginnings suggested by Pollen from Hazelnut and the closure intimated by Frieze of Life. A work more than twenty years old, Rice Meals consists of 12 brass cones, casually placed in a group on the floor, that hold rice, which spills out from within each cone. If the pollen field orients the viewer toward the start of life and the ash-containing clay pots are linked to death rituals, the rice might well substantiate the process of life as it is lived. One hesitates to read heavy symbolism into the relations of the three works—Laib himself suggests that his art brings up rituals and emblems only by way of indirectness and intuition. At the same time, however, he has a strong interest in Indian religions and Christian mysticism, encouraging us to make spiritual connections between his processes and the art produced by them. Additionally, and strikingly, Laib sees his art as having a political dimension, in the sense that the production of cultural artifacts change people and institutions over the long run, effectively competing with the harsher dynamics of contemporary social change. The three pieces in this show correspond to the origins, process, and mortality of a life lived across time. Their subtlety underlines Laib’s visionary creativity. He is that rarity, an artist with religious feeling in a predominantly secular art world.