Minding the "Milkstone"

When works of art are pollen and rice, and even milk, the Hirshhorn Museum gives them extra-special care


In the old days, an artist would paint a picture, get it framed and send it out into the world. Or, if it went to a gallery or museum, the staff would usually frame it, hang it and take care of it. In any case, the work would be out of its creator’s hands for good. But today many artists produce installations, often complex arrangements of objects, sometimes entire environments, that sprawl across a room and perhaps beyond.

So just how much control does the artist have in such situations? And what if the show goes on the road? Most museumgoers have seen exhibitions that consist of stones artfully laid out on the floor, or a stack of bushel baskets, or even a pile of dirt. How can the artist be sure that everything is placed just so, to achieve the intended effect?

An elegant case in point is the retrospective of Wolfgang Laib, a German artist whose work was recently exhibited at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The show went on to Seattle and will eventually travel to Dallas, Scottsdale, San Diego and Munich, not far from where the 51-year-old artist was born.

 Laib’s chosen mediums are natural materials—milk, marble, rice, beeswax and pollen. Installed in exhibition spaces at the Hirshhorn that spanned more than halfway around the circular second-floor gallery, the 20 objects and 26 drawings evoked a minimalist effect. There was a quiet, poetic aura about the arrangements.

In one room, a pair of amber-colored ziggurats stood 13 feet high, their steps climbing almost to the ceiling. They were made of beeswax, and the dry, sweetish aroma of the wax recalled the meadows where the bees did their work. The rounded risers bore the nicks of fingers and knuckles. Seemingly constructed from large, solid blocks of wax, they were actually hollow, built on armatures of wood.

The eight polished egg-shaped stones titled Brahmandas, and laid out in a pattern on the floor, were inspired, I was told, by a Hindu creation myth. In the next room, a square of brilliant yellow hazelnut pollen had been meticulously dusted onto the floor; its fuzzed edges reminded me of Mark Rothko’s rectangles.

And in a chamber guarded by a Plexiglas screen sat a three-foot white square, a slab about an inch high. It was marble, but the surface shimmered with a coating of milk. Farther along I found six wax boats, each about five feet long, ranged on a scaffold high in the air. There was a little house made of wood and red sealing wax and filled with rice. Rice was everywhere, in bowls, sprinkled around brass cones, in 17 dishes, lined up in a row, among which was, mysteriously, an 18th dish filled with yellow pollen. On the walls were some early Laib drawings of triangles and squiggles, equally laconic and baffling.

What was it all about? I figured we would get to that later. The immediate problem for me was: How do you take care of all these perishable things, and how are you going to move them from city to city?

"Well, it’s really very labor intensive," said Olga Viso, the Hirshhorn’s curator of contemporary art. Because the beeswax had to be softened to affix it to nail-studded plywood walls, a special room was set up with space heaters to bring the wax to 98 degrees Fahrenheit. It took three days to build the armatures. Only then did Laib appear, to bring everything together. He and the staff spent four days applying the wax panels, which are an inch thick.

Wood floors don’t work for Laib’s pollen installations because of the tiny cracks, so some museums are actually putting in temporary flooring just for his exhibition. The Hirshhorn repainted all of its floors for the show.


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