looking down into heaven

– apropos art’s potential to heal

Is it a banal idea to believe art can have healing qualities? Adrian Searle and lots of nameless online commentators seems to believe so. Wolfgang Laib on the other hand, original educated as a medical doctor, has a different kind of view. Laib understands art as possessing a spiritual healing function and, thus, being the answer to what medicine should be.  In the excerpt below you can read his take on the question – “so art has the potential to change the world…?”


Photo from The Wall Street Journal


Photo from The Wall Street Journal

Every year since 1977 Wolfgang Laib collects pollen from the forests and meadows surrounding his home in a small village in southern Germany. The artist harvests this pollen one plant at a time, in a ritual that is part art-making, part meditative. Laib then sifts pollen directly onto the floor for vibrant, massive-scale installations.


Photo from The Wall Street Journal

Wolfgang Laib in conversation with Darren James Jorgensen (excerpt)

DJJ: Tell me about the process of collecting pollen. Could it be compared to a spiritual practice?

WL: Other people might think it’s a spiritual practice, but it’s also something very, very simple and very straightforward. But it’s also something else. If you collect pollen from a meadow or in the forest for day after day for one or two months and afterwards you have a jar that’s not even full, this is something completely different from what everybody else does. It’s even beyond spiritual practice. You don’t need a name for it. For me, it’s something that challenges everything else; what I do or what I could do. It enables a totally different idea of what a day is, or what your life is about, or what work could be or what you would like to achieve.

DJJ: How do you feel about the word artist or the idea of producing something that’s called art?

WL: Art? I do not know if you know but I studied medicine before and I have a full doctor’s degree. Some people think that has nothing to do with my art but I think that it has a lot to do with my art. What I searched for in medicine and what I couldn’t find, I hope to find with my artworks, with my life. I think that I never changed my profession. I just did what I’m now doing, what I wanted to do as a doctor. But I also feel (and most people think that this is very naive) that art has much more power than medicine. I mean, medicine is very important for us, but it’s just about the physical body, and it doesn’t stretch far beyond that. If art is really good it can include everything. It’s the most important thing. That’s why I became an artist and didn’t become a monk or work as a doctor. Art is most important and therefore I would call myself an artist and what I do art.

DJJ: So art has the potential to change the world?

WL: Yes. I strongly believe this, as naive as it might sound. If you think of the history, and if you look back at culture, it has alway changed mankind. From day to day or year to year it may have been the politicians who marched into another country or did this and that, but eventually it was culture which somehow brought mankind to somewhere else.


Born in 1950 in Metzingen, Germany, Wolfgang Laib originally studied medicine. Disillusioned with Western medicine, he came to view the natural sciences, as well as most other modern thinking, as limited for their dependency on logic and the material world. His search led him to Eastern spiritualism, philosophy and pre-Renaissance thought. Since 1975, Laib has worked exclusively as an artist and has built an international reputation.

The artist spends the spring and summer months every year gathering pollen from the fields and meadows around the rural village in Southern Germany where he lives. He speaks of this repetitive and meditative process as a way of participating with natural materials rather than as a means of creating art. Laib works in time with the rhythm of the seasons. His four to five month process begins with the hazelnut tree and continues with the dandelion, buttercup flower, and pine tree. His method is simple: he collects the pollen with his hands and shakes it into a small, glass jar in which it is stored and sometimes even exhibited. He is known for his luminous, site-specific, rectangular installations of pollen, which sit directly on bare stone or concrete floors. Laib always performs the action of collecting, as well as sifting the pollen through muslin, himself. The pollen is recollected and cleaned at the end of each exhibition for utilization in future installations. As such, Laib’s pollen pieces are themselves cyclical.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Harold Rhenisch says:

    He has done a beautiful thing, but has he insured the survival of a full insect community? How has his activity changed the pollination of plants in the meadow? It’s powerful work, dealing with death and resurrection, but that’s not exactly healing, if the earth is included in the equation, is it?

    1. Sigrun says:

      I think he is healing himself in doing this, and maybe also opening the world for some of us, seeing what he has done, making us aware – wonder, shift our attention, and our speed. Making us see the pollen as pollen (for the first time?)

  2. I, too, wondered about how the pollen-gathering affects the micro-environment. I suppose the process of pollen dispersal can be done by wind or insects, so why not by humans? Few insects consume pollen, so that’s probably not a big concern. The process does sound very quiet and meditative.

    I could not help but imagine what would happen if a pollen-allergic visitor were to view the art he installs! 🙂

    1. Sigrun says:

      I do not believe that one persons pollen-gathering is a problem. But I was also wondering about the allergy side of it. Maybe he has chosen less “provoking” pollen?

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