New York

Wolfgang Laib

Wolfgang Laib’s recent installation You Will Go Somewhere Else, 1995, is yet another instance of the artist’s exceptional ability to close the gap between the material and the spiritual, stillness and movement, internal and external space. Six large vessel-shaped solids, which varied slightly in size, were placed in a row on an almost ceiling-high, freestanding wooden scaffolding, and illuminated by both natural and artificial light. The crudeness of the supporting structure was accentuated by the exposed metal bolts that held the wooden beams in place. While each carefully modeled boatlike form, cast from opaque, yellow beeswax, was characterized by an obdurate materiality, even a static quality, as a whole they suggested quite the opposite: they seemed to defy their material support, to float in the air. This ephemeral quality was reinforced by the strong scent of beeswax that permeated the gallery, which had to be kept at an unusually cool temperature.

Formally these pieces recall some of Laib’s earlier works, particularly his variously sized aluminum, marble, and beeswax pitched-roof houses. As Laib himself recently observed, “If you turn a house upside down it is a ship to travel away.” But if Laib evoked the possibility of an actual journey in this installation, he did so only to point to its ultimate impossibility, one underscored by the fragility of his beeswax forms. Horizontal wooden beams attached to the window frame almost pierced the glass, as if they were trying to reach the space outside, a space which in fact ended abruptly in the brick wall of a neighboring building located some thirty feet in front of the gallery windows.

Laib’s aborted gesture returned the viewer to the confines of the gallery—to the strange game the artist plays in which he simultaneously creates a space of subjective projection and establishes an uncrossable distance between object and viewer. The beeswax forms were located out of reach; according to Laib, they had to be protected from being “taken, grasped; used up, destroyed.” It was this refusal of tactile contact, combined with his colonization of the entire space with the smell of beeswax, that transformed the gallery into a transcendent realm. Self-contained and austerely beautiful, You Will Go Somewhere Else almost suggested the interior of a cathedral: the beeswax forms might have been scaled-down, inverted naves, while their amber coloring recalled the gold of reliquaries. His boatlike forms, arranged in a processional formation, read as symbols of the kind of journey to “another world” that in ancient civilizations was often associated with death. Asked by Clare Farrow, an English critic, about the meaning of this kind of passage, Laib explained that it should lead to “another world.” “I mean this very literally,” he continues in his letter to her, “but then also in a very different sense, mainly [it is a question of] transcending this reality and this world, [of] questioning everything that seems [to constitute] the only reality to which our culture is referring—it is an ‘Umwertung aller Werte’ [reevaluation of all values].” Thus to convey the sense of something both timeless and newly discovered, Laib, in this installation as in many of his earlier works, eschewed making reference to a particular religion or sacred rite in favor of creating an atmosphere of seductive, polymorphous spirituality.

Marek Bartelik