Wolfgang Laib may be German but his art incorporates many elements from the South Indian tradition, finds Ramya Sarma

At first, you are not sure what to think. There is a vast space sprawling across the gallery, punctuated by small heaps of rice — basmati, of course. Towering above on a wooden frame is a set of what looks like primitive boats of graduated sizes, made for munchkins a very long time ago and left to acquire the depth of colour that only comes with age…or ever-so-slightly softened-and-hardened-again resin. “It's beeswax,” comes the swift correction from artist Wolfgang Laib, whose show spreads across two galleries: Mirchandani & Steinrucke and Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai till January 13.

Power of prayer

Along another side of the room lie what seem to be blackened pieces of wood, resembling pieces of railroad ties covered in a thick layer of paint, perhaps? “It is actually oil,” explains Laib, a thick layer of oily soot that evokes visions of the inner sanctum sanctorum of a temple, where statues of the gods and their attendants are covered in a patina that, like the power of prayer, slowly darkens and thickens over time. In another smaller ‘room' there are groups of metal cones, like otherworldly pyramids, that “will be filled with rice with a little spilling out”, the now-rare paraphernalia of a traditional wedding, the artist says, the much-vaunted paruppu-thengai moulds once filled with sweet stuff to show off prosperity and fertility when a bride is given in marriage.

So much South Indian tradition incorporated into the works of a German artist? This is the life of Wolfgang Laib and his wife Carolyn, from Biberach an der Riss, Germany, New York and a small village outside Madurai. The couple have established a base in India, with a studio and an ambitious project that they talk about with great enthusiasm. They have been working on getting permission from the local government to make an enormous rectangular hole in the ground, excavating rock the way the ancients did to carve out temples, all to create a 60-foot long Brahmanda, the egg of Brahma or the core of the Universe, the womb from which all beings originated. They have the support of the local residents, well-known creative artists and international sponsors. But official sanctions take time, as they are wont to do in this country, the Laibs are learning.

For now, there are much smaller egg-shaped rocks, the Brahmandas, dotted through the show, their top surface streaked with grey-white as if anointed with a naamam. The ritualistic element is omnipresent in all Laib's work from the enormous multi-homam ‘installation' he created in Turin, Italy, to commemorate the founder of the Art Povera movement, or the offering of rice in heaps across the expanse of floor.

Spectacular piece

Perhaps the most spectacular piece in this particular exhibition is the Milkstone, a beautifully polished and gently kerfed slab of white marble into which Laib pours milk; it has to be whole milk, he and Carolyn explain, with great seriousness, because it needs a certain viscosity, a special quality that makes it spread in the way it does and gives it an identity as representative of what Laib sees as the universe, his sense of being, of existence. It has a purity of presence; the white stone shedding all imperfection, impurity, sin, or absorbing it into a light that cleanses and refines, whichever seems apposite. There is a similar lightness of being and purity of existence in Laib's heaps of pollen, fertile yellow dust that he painstakingly collects from a particular field of dandelions near his home in Germany; golden, giving off, reflecting and absorbing the light that is shone on each small pile carefully poured in a set of punctuation marks among the tiny mounds of rice. Like life, like feelings, like egos, these radiant heaps are fragile, sensitive to any change in breath, easily destroyed by the slightest disturbance.

The artist started his work in 1971, after training to be a doctor at the University of Tuebingen in Germany. His father was a medical man, he says, and though he was never expected to take to the same field of professional interest, he did. But six years of hard work and relentless pressure taught him more than the standard lessons of physiology and anatomy; they showed him that he wanted to do something else, to use the influences that he was exposed to when the family spent time in India every year, the creative instincts that drove him within and the spiritual, mystical, religious experiences that had shaped his character. His art finds beauty with austerity, blending modern technique with age-old sensibility. There is iconography, especially that comprehensible by the Indian ethos, with a sense of peace that can only come from understanding the dynamics of everyday existence.

Laib and Carolyn have a mission, one that they are deeply involved with, serious and earnest. Their charm lies in the belief they have that some day they will succeed, some day their message will be known by all who need to believe – in life, in existence, in a higher power, in beauty, in art.

Keywords: Wolfgang Laib