Wolfgang Laib

Wolfgang Laib on Mark Rothko and his concurrent museum exhibitions

Wolfgang Laib installing Wax Room (Where have you gone–where are you going?), 2013, at The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (Photo: Rhiannon Newman)

The German artist Wolfgang Laib is well known for his meticulous installations. Pollen from Hazelnut, 2013, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until March 11, 2013, and the permanent Wax Room (Where have you gone–where are you going?), 2013, opens at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, on March 2, 2013; for more information click here. In addition, some of Laib’s output will also be on view in two overlapping solo exhibitions in New York: “Without Beginning and Without End” at Sperone Westwater, March 1-30, and “Photographs and Other Works” at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, March 15–May 4.

I FIND IT VERY BEAUTIFUL that these two very different projects, Pollen from Hazelnut and the wax room, are happening so close to each other. The work at MoMA is in a very public space, where many people can see it—at the center of the museum, in the biggest city of the world. It radiates throughout the whole institution, like the glowing sun, and it can be seen from all the floors. The pollen piece in a public space is always an incredible attraction and stirs up emotions and inner feelings in people’s hearts, which is very moving. It is always like that.

At the Phillips, it’s the opposite. The strength of the Phillips is its intimacy and privacy, and here the wax chamber will be in a very small room. What attracted me, especially, was their Rothko Room. In the United States people often say that my pollen pieces are like a Mark Rothko on the floor, but that is much too simple. Over the past two years I have read quite a bit about Rothko. My work is very different from painting, but I was not surprised when I discovered that our interests are similar, and we have the same favorite paintings by Fra Angelico and Giotto. Somehow, we have a close relationship that is much more than the visual similarities between our works. I said to the staff at the Phillips that if we could make a wax chamber near his room, that would be my real relationship to Rothko.

I have made beeswax chambers over the past twenty-five years or so, and more recently I have felt that I would not make them for temporary exhibitions, one after the other, but only if they could be permanent. A wax chamber is something like a house, anyway: You build a house and you don’t take it down. A wax chamber is also something that you could never explain, and it would be a pity to try to do so, because it’s so simple and also very complex.

For instance, people always think that pollen and wax are natural materials, which is true, but they are also more than that. These are materials that of course I did not make, and that is a major difference. The pollen and the beeswax are not mine; they are much more than myself. This is a very important issue. These materials exist beyond the individual. In Western culture there is an emphasis on the individual doing something and it belonging to him. But while that has an incredible power, for me it also has its limits, because then you are not connected to the rest of the world. Something like pollen, it’s not me—it is something bigger.