Wolfgang Laib: The more I knew about the natural sciences, the more I saw that they were too narrow for me and it’s just not what this body, what all these things are all about.
Ottmann: Did you ever think of going into something like holistic medicine?
Laib: No, because that would have been too small a step, and I tried to make a big step. It’s not about homeopathy or anything like that.
Ottmann: What kind of art did you start with?
Laib: I left university and half a year later I was already making my milkstones.
Ottmann: Where did you get the idea for the milkstones?
Laib: The milkstones are the direct answer to what I left, to what I found milk and stone are about. Because milk is not what is told in hygiene. You can teach everything about this liquid but have no idea of what it is.
Ottmann: When did you start working with pollen?
Laib: That came about two years later. This, of course, I would also have never done without studying medicine and avoiding an art college.
Ottmann: Tell me about your work process.
Laib: For years I had no studio at all. I collected my pollen from early spring to August/September, and then, in the late fall, I started to be very free, not being fixed to a space. So my studio was where I collected my pollen. Then, when I was doing more and more work, I bought a beautiful space, but it’s less of a studio and more like a space where I want to see my work in and be with it.
Ottmann: How long does it take you to collect pollen for one single piece?
Laib: It’s very different from one pollen to the next. Dandelion, for instance, has very little pollen and blossoms only for about four to six weeks. So I get only a small jar of dandelion pollen during one summer, and the piece is therefore very small. Pine has much more pollen, so I can make a large piece in the same time.
Ottmann: Do you collect the pollen just around where you live or do you collect also while you travel?
Laib: No, I always thought that would take away the concentration. It wouldn’t become more, so I collect only around my studio and the village where I live.
Ottmann: Does the pollen change with the time?
Laib: You have to be very careful because of the humidity, but I have pollen that is fifteen years old. For instance, with dandelion you have to be more careful, because it is very coarse, very organic.
Ottmann: Could you say something about your recent work, the rice pieces and the houses?
Laib: The first piece is called Rice Meals for the Nine Planets and the second piece, Sixty-Three Rice Meals for a Stone. They’re close to the milkstones. For me, it’s the same, though visually they are very different. For me, it’s the most beautiful sight it opens up so much. It’s just like the milkstones where the milk is no longer food for the body. It’s something much more universal. The plates, for instance, are regular Indian eating plates, but the rice portions on each plate are not there to be eaten. It’s more about things that are very different from what is common in our culture.
Ottmann: Your work is very influenced by Eastern cultures and religions.
Laib: I like very different things from very different countries, like from Africa or India, but also St. Francis of Assisi is for me wonderful. I am never really fixed to something, not to a religion, not to a sect, because I think it’s not the point to have a new sect. That would be a big disappointment. I like things which I feel are really different from our own situation because I feel it could be very radical for us if we apply those things to our life, if we take them really seriously, not just as an exotic adventure. If you bring these things into your own daily life, they become the most radical and the most revolutionary, whether they are from the Middle Ages or from other cultures. I think that is the main point.
Ottmann: And that is also the main concern in your art?
Laib: I think so, yes. If I see other artists who feel that it is important to reflect that which is, then of course that’s not interesting for me. I feel that it wouldn’t even be necessary to make it, because it’s already there. For me that is not enough and that’s the reason why I became an artist.
Ottmann: What is more important for you, collecting of pollen or spreading it on the floor?
Laib: I think it’s both. It’s the pollen piece as a whole. But it’s not as if I’m making an art out of the collecting. It’s the pollen I’m interested in. For me the jar of pollen is as good as the spread-out piece.
Ottmann: So it’s not important for you to put it on the floor?
Laib: No, of course not. It would be beautiful if I could get more people involved in that, especially in living with it. For me that’s very important. Because if such a piece is in a space, it changes the life around it. But of course most people are not ready for that yet.
Ottmann: Your pollen pieces are for sale. If a collector wants to own one how exactly does that work?
Laib: He buys three jars of pollen and it’s his choice of keeping it in the jar or to get rid of his furniture and spread it out on the floor.
Ottmann: Would you go to his home and do that?
Laib: Yes, but of course I would be even happier if he would do it himself.
Ottmann: Do you know people who own pieces of yours?
Laib: Yes, but each person is different. There are some very beautiful situations and some situations that make no sense at all.
Ottmann: Could you tell me more about the houses?
Laib: They have the shape of a house and they also have the shape of a Muslim tomb or a Medieval reliquary, but instead of the bones of saints, they contain food. For me that’s very related, so I turn the bones into food.
Ottmann: What do the holes in the houses signify?
Laib: I can’t explain the holes but they are very important. Just last night I saw a catalogue of an exhibition of Asian art from the Metropolitan Museum. There were two containers made of clay holding the bones of human beings. The containers were in the shape of sheep, with a big hole at one end. Of course I had to go and see that because it was so close to my work, and the sheep were incredible, very abstract, nearly like a house, but they had the head of sheep and the holes were much bigger than the one in my house. These are interesting similarities. They are like sealed houses. The food is really contained in the house.
Ottmann: You live very removed from the world. How do you feel coming to a place like New York?
Laib: For me the choice is to live outside of a village. I really want to be independent from a situation, a city. I feel that living in a city makes you more or less dependent on what the actual situation and the actual thinking is, and I hope to be outside of that, to be more independent. Then when I come into the city, into different cities, nowhere really is my home. I can see and watch these things much better from the outside. I’m not really belonging anywhere and this gives me, I hope, an incredible freedom. Also, when you live in a place like New York, where you see all this art around you and you go to all these exhibitions, I think that’s very bad. I can do that for two or three days but not all the time.
Ottmann: Some of your images, especially the houses, recall the works of artists like Jennifer Bartlett or Joel Shapiro.
Laib: Maybe visually they do. There are always some visual things that are similar to this and that. There are houses made by other artists, but I think that is not so much the point. I feel much closer to Joseph Beuys, for instance, than to the houses of Shapiro.
Ottmann: When you spread out the pollen, it doesn't took natural anymore. It seems very artificial and unnatural.
Laib: Of course. It’s not about naturalism. Many people think that my work has a lot to do with nature. Yes, it has a lot do with the natural world, but not only that, it’s much more complex. I would never agree to be part of a “nature show.”
Ottmann: Doesn’t art always reflect and carry with it the thinking of its time?
Laib: Yes, but I think the better the art is you see this in history the more it really makes a change to something else. When I think of Giotto’s painting of St. Francis of Assisi, even though he is not an artist he is an important man more so than Giotto who made a painting about his life. St. Francis really changed his life and his work. For me, he is interesting. Giotto is an incredibly good painter, but St. Francis is for me the more important man. He really made changes and had an incredible vision.
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.