Organic perspective on lifeDoes food have cultural meaning? Does what we eat say anything about who we are? Certainly, there are cultural associations we make about food, like chocolate with sensual pleasure, oysters as aphrodisiacs and cocktails with elan.
But how do we define our identity in this aesthetic context? Contemporary artists continue to bring personal interpretations of food to their work.
Felix Gonzales Torres, a Cuban artist, piled stacks of mints as a metonym for gay desire. Claes Oldenburg produced a monumental sculpture of ice cream and chocolate cakes to reflect Americans’ overindulgence.
It seems that a viewer needs something beyond a theoretical observation to understand the work of Wolfgang Laib, a German artist who employs items like milk, beeswax and rice to form geometric shapes resembling medieval Christian reliquaries or Islamic mosques.
In his current retrospective at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, titled “Passage-Overgoing” ― also a title of one of his works ― Laib takes an intuitive approach through the use of marble stones, rice houses and ziggurats to represent the cycles of life, a notion that the artist describes as having originated with his yearning for an organic worldview of the orient.
Several factors make Laib’s art stand out among his contemporaries in minimalism. One thing is the scent on each of his works, which overwhelms the visual experience. The pollen levels at the galleries are so strong that labels in each room include a warning sign for visitors who may be allergic to pollen. At the beeswax ships visitors may be tempted to lick the surface if they are carried away by the fragrance of honey infecting the gallery space.
Perhaps one of the most distinguished parts of Laib’s works is the ritualistic aspect. The intensive labor involved in Laib’s works ― gathering buttercup pollen from a flower, filtering it through a fine mesh and spreading it across the gallery floors in perfect squares ― relied heavily on meditative principles.
In “Milkstone,” the artist poured fresh milk into the hollow square of a marble block every morning while the work was on exhibit.
One startling photo in the gallery shows the artist brushing pollen with his fingers in a wild dandelion meadow near his house in Germany. It shows the artist in dark-rimmed glasses, hunched forward, about to grab the flowers to place them in a jar. The thousands of dandelions surrounding the artist enmesh him in nature, which Laib said he admires, so much so that he abandoned a career as a medical doctor, aiming to embrace the world beyond the natural sciences, which largely determine our experiences in the physical world.
In a sense Laib’s work, which was represented at the Venice Biennale a few years back, reflects the sensual ideals of art, which often look to ancient myths and non-Western traditions for answers. The artist often borrows his references from Eastern philosophy and mystics of the 12th century, which makes the works vague, not providing a clear entry point for the viewer.
Nevertheless the works on display are blissfully poetic, visually evocative. Even the dead fruit flies floating on a white bed of milk seem to suggest something, but what? Perhaps that is the beauty of such ambiguity.
by Park Soo-mee
“Wolfgang Laib: Passageway-Overgoing” will be on display at the Main Hall, National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi province, through Sept 12. For more information call (02) 2188-6000.