Wolfgang Laib

Metzingen Germany 1950, lives and works in Hochdorf

Far from the entrance to De Pont is Wolfgang Laib’s Wachsraum (Wax Room), a space which was constructed with slabs of beeswax. An opening in the wall provides access to a narrow corridor, which curves sharply to the right after several footsteps and takes the viewer away from the main exhibition space. The passageway is closed off at the end by a slab of wax which is much larger than those of the side walls; it creates the suggestion of a closed door. The space is lit only by a small, bare lightbulb, and the air is filled with the smell of pure beeswax. 

In creating spaces such as these, Laib is influenced by the architecture of ancient cultures. His work is generally explained on the basis of his interest in non-Western cultures, particularly with respect to the philosphy and religion of India. As a boy he made trips with his parents to India, but also to Islamic countries; these were formative experiences to which Laib himself refers. The mosques, for instance: ‘empty rooms... not crammed full of unnecessary junk, a sensibility of the space and especially of the floor, which is not even known in European culture.’ Laib’s work cannot be reduced, however, to a clearly defined principle. He also feels tied to certain Western mystical traditions and to the utopian aspects of art from the early part of this century – especially that of Mondrian, to whom he alludes with some degree of regret. As Laib sees it, the potential of this art diminished when it became disconnected from everyday life.

With natural materials uncommon to art, such as beeswax, milk, pollen and rice, he produces work that has an almost sacred aura. His oeuvre is cyclical in character: each type of work is made over and again, but the circle of works continues to expand.

Despite their fragility, the works of Laib possess a timeless and enduring quality. They allude to the beauty and preciousness of things that are simply there and, at the same time, to primary, unexcessive necessities of life. The rectangles of  pure pollen, which he makes by sifting this onto the floor, seem to be a sheer celebration of the inconceivable intensity of the color. Simple tin bowls with small heaps of rice grain, placed in a row on the floor, suggest that the little which is needed for subsistence is abundantly present.

The rice is also strewn around small, archetypally shaped sculptures reminiscent of houses, sheds or reliquaries, and the pollen is also sometimes poured into small, fragile piles by Laib. The floor, the most direct and simple place of action for Laib, affects these modest and lowly situated works as an immense space. The scale of the works becomes, as it were, imaginary: ‘Unclimbable mountains’ is how Laib refers to his little heaps of pollen. In more recent works as well, he allows the space to influence the imagination. He places, for instance, primitively shaped boats made of beeswax high on a wooden structure – like a convoy of distant ships carrying unknown cargo across the horizon.

Laib leads a somewhat secluded life in the southern part of Germany. Gathering pollen by hand is a time-consuming job, and due to the anticipation of the blossom of various plants and trees (such as dandelions, buttercups and pines), he is bound to the surroundings for a good part of the year. But just as the rhythm of the seasons is both recurrent and new each time, the elementary procedures that are needed for the making of his works continue to have meaning: ‘I have poured out the milk and have sifted the pollen so often, but the experience always remains new. It is something that you’ve never seen before, a reality which you cannot believe is real.’