Thursday, August 2, 2007

Utne, Schmutne

One of the perils of modern American medicine is that, for want of anything else to do, one might find oneself reading The Utne Reader while waiting in the doctor’s office. The other day I was leafing through the magazine for the first time in probably 15 years, when I came across an article on German sculptor Wolfgang Laib (The Patient Artist, July/August 2007), which starts out on shaky ground with a quote—well, it doesn’t seem to be a quote exactly, perhaps an interpretation of something?—from Thomas Merton talking about the contemplative life in our times and how one “who is not practical, who does not actively pursue some concrete goal is somehow disturbing to the modern psyche.” The author, one Brenton Good, is talking about the artist’s practice of hand-collecting the pollen he uses in his work, and I was surprised to find out that making art to install in galleries and museums is not a “concrete goal” (has he been talking to my parents?). Also no mention of the fact that Laib surfaced during a period when a number of artists (Ann Hamilton immediately comes to mind) considered accumulation, repetition, and tediousness of execution a significant aspect of their work.

Then this bit:

At first glance, it seems natural to classify Laib as a minimalist, but his work strays far from minimalist ideology. Minimalist sculpture deals with intellectual investigation of space. It’s about ideas. Once the artist has determined the concept, the making of the artwork can easily be passed on to assistants….


To stress again that there’s no aesthetic experience to be had in minimal art (and, I suppose, therefore, no investigation of space in Wolfgang’s work) Good continues:

The difference between Laib’s work and most minimal art comes out in the viewer’s reactions. A cavernous room that houses minuscule works composed of pollen is arresting to more than just the intellect. It demands thoughtful reflection and meditation. As viewers enter and leave the space, rarely can a whisper be heard….

Good goes on about the artist, the artist’s background, what the artist thinks, how he lives, what the work looks like, sounds like, smells like even, talks about how the full impact is "hard to believe until one experiences it firsthand" (like most art?) yet cites no sources nor mentions any specific exhibitions to indicate what work he might have seen. Appearing to have been culled from unidentified secondary material, the piece reads like a high school report:

…Laib has chosen at times to install [his work] beneath the vaulted ceilings of European cathedrals. There it projects a reverent stillness that resonates in the ancient sacred spaces….

Really? The writer was there? Where? What cathedral? Is he taking someone else’s word for it? Or, perhaps, fantasizing about what it might be like?


For some artists, the choice of medium is more or less a neutral decision. Deciding to paint in oil or cast in bronze hardly draws extra attention. When an artist selects sifted pollen or poured milk, however, the work is charged with special meaning before he begins.

Damn! I knew I should have held onto that squirrel shit.

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