"You take a cheesecloth rag and fold it and soak up the milk, and wring it out, and then refold it and lay it down again. It’s very ritualistic. A beautiful process, actually. It’s rather like the Japanese tea ceremony."
Several different teams of people helped maintain the exhibition, many of them artists, and to me the fact that they all took to the work so easily was the key to understanding Laib’s philosophy that art should be an ongoing, participatory process.
Just what statement is Laib making with his simplistic materials? I read his work as a paean to nature and spirituality. The artist earned a degree in medicine, then rejected the profession because he felt it overemphasized the study of the body and ignored the soul. With his shaved head, slight figure and the saffron robes he sometimes wears, his connection to Eastern religions is obvious.
Why milk? Buddhists and Hindus revere milk as a basic nurturing substance and ritualistically pour it over temple sculptures. And rice? Rice is considered a staple food around the world. In many Eastern cultures it is also a shrine offering. And the purity of its whiteness and its simple shape are elegant design elements. Some see the piles of rice as crowds of miniature people swarming around the little wax houses.
Pollen, to Laib, is another symbol of a pure, elemental substance of nature. But that glowing patch of hazelnut pollen that I saw at the Hirshhorn eventually had to be removed from the floor, rather unceremoniously, with a spatula and a brush once the show closed. Because the pollen had started to clump, Hirshhorn conservator Clarke Bedford dried it overnight in the conservation lab, then laboriously sifted it through cheesecloth to get rid of dirt and lint, and finally packed it in jars for the journey to Seattle. Bedford estimated that he put in at least five hours to conserve the eight to ten cups of pollen.
The exhibition is sponsored by the American Federation of Arts, a nonprofit organization that specializes in taking original artworks on tour. It has made possible the elaborate preparations needed for this installation, allowing the artist to visit the exhibition cities, approve the museum spaces, train the local staffs and help set up the show.
Such a huge effort over little things, piles of rice and pollen, walls of wax, milk. Laib has been called a minimalist, and he is that for sure, but to be able to turn simple objects into a profound meditation, even a spiritual experience, well, that’s the whole point of art, isn’t it?
By Michael Kernan