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Indepth Arts News:

2000-10-26 until 2001-01-22
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Washington, DC, USA

Feather-edged rectangles of yellow pollen on the floor, a precisely carved slab of white marble with a layer of shimmering milk on top, and dwellings-in-miniature surrounded by rice are among the works to be included. These pollen fields, milkstones and rice houses, as the artist calls them, established Laib in the late 1970s and early `80s as a singular presence in contemporary sculpture. He continues to create them today.

Also on view will be large-scale structures in beeswax that Laib introduced to his work in the late 1980s. The honey-scented, amber-colored compositions include a pair of 13-foot-high ziggurats, an illuminated chamber that can be entered, and a procession of wax vessels installed above head height on weathered-wood scaffolds.

Rarely exhibited oil pastel and pencil drawings, created by Laib between 1983 and 1997, enhance the presentation with diaphanous renderings of related themes.

Raised near Munich by well-traveled, progressive parents, Laib (rhymes with vibe) went regularly as a child to south India, where his father, a doctor, did field work; Laib continues to return there for part of every summer. Although he studied to become a doctor, the younger Laib ultimately chose art as a way to express a spiritual response to the world molded by his Indian experiences, as well as a view, engendered by his family, of nature as transcendent. Among Western artistic influences, the materials-driven visions of Joseph Beuys and Constantin Brancusi have also been guideposts.

Laib’s earliest sculptural efforts, begun soon after he earned his medical degree in 1972, were Brahmandas, rocks carved into egg shapes inspired by a Hindu-creation myth. His notion of art as an ongoing, participatory process soon solidified, and in 1975, he made his first milkstone, fusing a durable sculptor’s material -- marble -- with a perishable liquid food that Indians often pour in temple rituals.

To be created, a milkstone receives 4 to 5 quart-size cartons of fresh milk at the beginning of each day. The artist carefully works a thin layer of the white liquid to the raised edges of the carved marble’s surface; the milk eventually becomes sour and dusty so must be sponged away at day’s end. The milkstone at the Hirshhorn, which dates from 1987-1989, will be renewed daily before public hours by staff members whom the artist -- traveling to Washington, D.C., for the exhibition’s launch -- will train.

Fascinated by nature’s regenerative cycles, Laib began harvesting and collecting pollen outside his rural studio in southern Germany in 1977. He sifts, stores, uses and reuses dandelion, hazelnut, pine and other pollens to create installations of varying color intensity, texture and configurations. Accompanying pale-to-bright-yellow pollen fields in the Hirshhorn show are a tableau of pollens in glass jars and a delicate floor composition of mounds, titled Five Mountains Not to Climb On, 1984, allegorizing life’s journey. Laib never tires of pollen, calling it a detail of infinity.

Rice, an essential food in Indian life -- as well as Tibetan, Turkish, Japanese and other cultures the artist has explored -- entered Laib’s repertory in the early 1980s. In the exhibition, a pathway of rice-filled brass plates and rice houses in red-sealing wax, white marble, tin and silver invoke Minimalist sculpture on one hand, and, on the other, Indian temple offerings, Muslim grave markers and medieval European reliquaries -- sources cited by the artist.

Themes of spiritual passage and an enlarged scale have occupied Laib in recent years. Using beeswax, his newest material made from purified, melted honeycombs, Laib creates panels at a local candle factory and fixes them against plywood armatures to complete the structures. Monumental and altar-like, they invite self-reflection in such titles as You will Go Somewhere Else and Nowhere–Everywhere.

Laib’s retrospective is accompanied by AFA’s fully illustrated, 120-page catalog containing Ottmann’s and Rowell’s essays, an interview between the artist and Swiss curator Harald Szeemann (also the Hirshhorn’s Mordes lecturer on Nov. 5), and a detailed chronology. The catalog, co-published with Hatje Cantz, will be available at the Hirshhorn Museum Store for $46.95. The museum’s Web site ( lists the many public programs in conjunction with the show.

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