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.

"Laib places the pollen," Viso said. She showed me pictures of the artist shifting pollen into a rectangle about 2 feet by 2 1/2 feet on the bare floor. He collects the pollen from fields near his home, a small farming village in southern Germany. After Laib’s initial installation, the care and maintenance of the exhibition was left to the museum’s curatorial and conservation staffs.

Every morning the conservators went through the exhibition, checking for scratches on the wax and minor damage. There was very little of this, however, because the museum had put on extra guards, who kept an eagle eye on visitors.

Dust collected on the pollen and had to be cleared off with an air can. And bugs were a problem. "You could see where an airborne bug landed and then took off, leaving a gouge," Viso said. "And a couple of times there were tiny tracks where an insect had walked across the pollen. We filled in the holes with the extra pollen Laib left us."

When the show opened, there was some concern about all that pollen. Would it aggravate allergies? Exhibition labels alerted visitors, and a nurse explained to the security staff that pollen lying static on the floor was nothing compared with the airborne stuff outside. To make sure that air currents didn’t waft any pollen into the atmosphere, several vents in the gallery were closed.

To me, the most fascinating challenge was the care and feeding of the milkstone. The Macedonian marble slab, which Laib had hand-polished and hollowed out ever so slightly, has a lip of perhaps an eighth of an inch. The milk must be poured onto it with great precision, and every evening it has to be cleaned off because the milk sours.

One morning before the museum opened, I watched Beth Skirkanich, an exhibits specialist, refill the stone with fresh milk. Removing her shoes, she stepped beyond the Plexiglas barrier and got down on her knees. She tilted a quart carton and, with slow, circular motions, began pouring milk into the center of the stone.

"You have to concentrate, you have to be patient," Skirkanich said, "or it will spill. It’s a deal between the stone and the person doing it. There’s a give and take."

As the milk filled the slight depression, she pulled the liquid toward the edges with her fingers, creating a sort of starburst pattern. "It’s a little like finger painting," she admitted. Adding more milk, she methodically continued the process until milk hovered right at the edge of the slab but never spilled over. Some 20 minutes and three quarts of milk later, the grayish marble had been transformed into a glistening white field.

"If you spill, you know you’re probably not concentrating enough," Skirkanich told me. "The artist trained several of us to do this, and we’ve talked about it a lot, about how it slows you down. It’s kind of a meditative thing to come in to do every morning."

And cleaning it up at the end of the day is not simply mopping up spilled milk, Viso said.

"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

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