Wolfgang Laib, Pollen from Hazelnut (photo courtesy NY Times)
A softly glowing rectangle on a raised platform is now a quiet space within the bustle of the Museum of Modern Art's dramatic atrium. The artist Wolfgang Laib gently sifted eighteen jars of hazlenut pollen, gathered over many years, making a simple, soft edged rectangle. When I saw this piece I thought it was very beautiful, and the pollen, which for Laib is an "essence of life", seemed to carry light within it. After watching the brief video on the exhibition website, and this video at ArtInfo, I am even more impressed with the quiet, patient process of gathering and sifting pollen.
I hadn't intended to write about this installation, but then two interesting, nearly heated discussions about the work took place on Facebook, hosted by artist friends, Ravenna Taylor and Chris Ashley. Prodded by the review of the piece in the NY Times by Ken Johnson, which you can read here, they questioned the very premise of the work, worrying that collecting pollen might damage the bee population. The other question, emphasized in Johnson's review, was does the work depend too much upon a cult of the artist, on his myth? do we have to know the story of the work to appreciate it, and if so, does this diminish the work? I personally found the Johnson review mean spirited and way off base, but then, I liked the work and he found it boring. All I needed to know was in the title, Pollen From Hazlenut; it told me that this gorgeous granular substance was pollen, containing male sperm cells, essential for pollination of plants. It was not pigment, or any other material; its meaning is inherent in the material and does not need further explanation, but it is of extreme importance that this is a stuff of life. Life that Laib calls "very ephemeral" but also "very eternal". I don't feel a great question coming from this work, of human beings' relationship to nature, but just a request to notice life as it is.
The form of the work is minimal: a thin coat of material, a rectangle upon a rectangle. The color of the platform is gray, slightly tinted to red, which I thought worked well with the yellow of the pollen, increasing the contrast with its surroundings and adding to the luminous quality. In this detail, I see a reference to Mark Rothko's glowing paintings.
This is a screen shot from one of the videos linked above, showing Laib collecting pollen from pine, shaking a branch so the pollen drops into the cup. He has been collecting pollen, spring to early summer, from various plants around his home for over 30 years, saving the pollen in jars and reusing it over and over. Since he works alone, in the quiet of the fields, gathering small amounts at a time, I am certain that there is no harm to bees or plants. It is definitely not exploitative of the environment; plants produce much more pollen than they need, and because Laib works so slowly, there is plenty for the wind to carry or for bees to gather; since he is not pollinating plants, there will be no odd hybrids produced. This part of the work is very important to Laib, but I believe that even without knowing this part of his process, the piece at MoMA has presence, power, and meaning. I do not see him being a necessary part of his work, as opposed, for instance, to two other artists mentioned in the review by Johnson: Marina Abramovic and Joseph Beuys. Abramovic makes herself, her body, the center of her work, and it is often a tortured center; Beuys made his personal history essential to his. For me, Laib is a modest person, simply working away, paying attention to the world around him, inviting us to do the same, while producing beauty.