Artist Wolfgang Laib: “My work is a challenge”


The Praemium Imperiale, awarded annually by the Japan Art Association, is considered the Nobel Prize for art. This year it goes to German artist Wolfgang Laib. He creates art from very special materials.

Wolfgang Laib’s artwork is made of pollen, wax and rice. Laib trained as a doctor. He has never attended an academy of arts. On Wednesday, the 65-year-old is to receive the world’s most prestigious art prize: the Japanese Praemium Imperiale. In an interview with dpa he talks about collecting pollen and why it has never been easy for him to be part of the German art scene.

dpa: How did you come to be an artist?

Laib: I studied medicine until 1974. I completed my medical degree and then started doing art – first using milkstone, then using pollen.

dpa: How did you get the idea to use these materials?

Laib: It was a direct response to my medical studies, with which I was very dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction provided great stimulation. There was this incredible tension in my life. I couldn’t believe that human existence could be reduced to the body as defined by science.

dpa: So you discovered what it means to be human through art?

Laib: I don’t think I have changed my job. I have done with my artwork what I wanted to do as a doctor, but wasn’t able to do in hospitals. It was a real relief. This is why it happened immediately, without taking the long way round via the art academy.

dpa: Is art a form of healing for you?

Laib: Yes, that as well, but even more than that. It is incredibly complex. It’s about the whole. Pollen is the essence of plant life, and milk is more than a white liquid.

dpa: What does it feel like to be awarded the Praemium Imperiale, the Nobel Prize for art?

Laib: The nicest thing for me is that this prize is about the significance of art and culture for humanity. This is hugely ambitious, but I already had this ambition when I was still a young artist going to work with Konrad Fischer. Many parts of our society don’t see it like this. For them art is just an optional extra. If you look at the history of humankind, art and culture have always led them elsewhere.

dpa: In today’s art market, art is often only there to make money. That must sicken you, mustn’t it?

Laib: From that point of view I’m a very old-fashioned artist who works on his own. Other artists employ up to 100 people, I don’t. I’m all alone in my studio.

dpa: You don’t just live in New York and in your old home town in Swabia, you also live in India. Where does your relationship to India come from?

Laib: I have maintained a close relationship to India since my childhood, and I’ve had a studio there for around 10 years. My parents used to be very interested in Indian art and culture and supported a village in southern India. This has influenced our family a lot. This is why I studied Indology and Sanskrit alongside my medical degree. This way I have developed a very intense and complex relationship to the country.

dpa: Had Indian philosophy influenced your art as well?

Laib: Yes, of course – but in very complex ways. I’m not a Buddhist. I’m very free, I’m an artist, this is very important. I think historic religion can be very nice, but art has a certain openness and a certain freedom, also for the future.

dpa: Do you still collect pollen today?

Laib: Yes, every spring. It is physically very demanding. Dandelion has very little pollen. When I collect a glass full, then I [can cover a space] 60 by 80 centimetres. Pines have a lot of pollen. In a good season I can collect two glasses full in one month. In a bad season, I can maybe only get half a glass. The biggest thing I have ever created was at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York. It was an area of 7 by 8 metres. I had collected 20 years’ worth of hazelnut pollen.

dpa: Does that keep?

Laib: Yes, from the beginning of the 90s until 2010. I still have it. This is so much work and takes so much time that I can only this for the best museums in the world. And even then I can only do it if I know that I’ll get the pollen back – and almost as much as I’ve brought.

dpa: I get the impression that you are better known in the US than in Germany…

Laib: It hasn’t been easy for me in Germany. My work is a really big challenge for many in Germany because it is so different. Many think they are tolerant. However, when it comes to the crunch then pollen and milkstone are a great challenge. I haven’t come from an academy, and then I’m also from a place in southern Germany.

On the artist: Wolfgang Laib was born in Metzingen, Baden-Wuerttemberg, on March 25, 1950. After graduating from high school he studied medicine at Tuebingen University and completed his doctorate in 1974. Dissatisfied with his work as a doctor, he started to experiment with milk and pollen in the mid-70s and later with wax and rice. His work has been on display in the most famous museums worldwide.