A few alternate titles come to mind for Without Place — Without Time — Without Body, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's tantalizing but ultimately inert rice-and-pollen meditation by the hermitic German minimalist Wolfgang Laib. Perhaps Without Spoon — Without Fork — Without Butter, for example, or maybe Economies of Scale. Or: Without Laib.
The Nelson-Atkins' exhibition notes read, "In the gallery, each mound of pollen and rice is carefully distributed by hand. Slight irregularities in the placement of some mounds of rice and scattered grains reveal the artist's hand at work."
That explanation turns out to be a bit coy. The small piles of blandly off-white uncooked rice — hundreds of them, each ringed by a corona of wayward grains — were indeed put there by hand. So were the five neat hillocks of radiant yellow hazelnut pollen that glow under white light at the center of the grid. But Laib, who splits his time between southern India and a small farming community in Germany, left Without Place's installation to an assistant, who followed detailed instructions and had some help from museum staff members.
Of course, it's heretical — why, it's downright provincial — to cavil over this hand or that hand providing the art. It's not the artist's hand, after all, but the artist's will. So it's no secret and no crime that name-brand gallery attractions today have untold teams of skilled fabricators and apprentices to effect the artists' visions. And it's nothing new. Michelangelo had a dozen or more assistants working with him on the Sistine Chapel's vault, a grueling task even for a full crew.
But painting God is different from playing god, and from its labored title to its labor-intensive layout, Without Place — Without Time — Without Body means to evoke the hand of a creator. Whether that creator is holy or even spiritual is one of the questions Laib leaves unanswered. The program notes quote the artist's view of repetition — "the most beautiful thing that exists" — and explain that these dittoed mounds address the concepts of expansion and infinity: "It has to do with ritual, timelessness and the eternal recurrence of the same, a Hindu and Buddhist notion that accounts for vast cycles of the cosmos. ... The magnitude of the installation transforms the gallery into a secular shrine."
To what, exactly? The idea of eternity offers plenty of magnitude, but this installation is less a shrine than a modest offering for one. These philosopher's knolls — which, setting aside the pain of counting, contain a finite number of morsels — channel the thrum of repetitive beauty with about the same force as a walk among autumn's gathering leaves or a Van Morrison song.
All of which are quite pleasant, especially — absent the rhetoric — Without Place. The piece builds on an earlier Laib assembly, a pollen-only work from 1984 with the playfully admonishing title The Five Mountains Not to Climb On. His trick here is to surround these hypnotic, otherwordly golden cones with a whole lot of plain rice. Before all the interpretation is leveraged against it, it's a fine trick.
At first look, Without Place summons a child's fascination with scale — how would it feel to be as minuscule as this? what does it mean to be so much bigger than that? — and holds the gaze with its sun-drenched purity. One might see cities or clouds or galaxies and sense movement in the discernible contours of the inexact grid.
At one time, Laib wanted his artwork to be anonymous. But in the 35 years since he abandoned medicine in favor of arranging stone, milk, pollen, beeswax and rice into mandalalike sculptures, he seems to have tapped into an inner showman to go with the honeyed shamanism of his work. It's a side of the artist and his work that might be more appealing than his core of dour pronouncement, the part of him that all those years ago ruled the human body too literal an object to practice on as a physician.
In Wolfgang Laib: A Journey, Clare Farrow's 1996 book, Laib told Farrow: "I am not afraid of beauty, unlike most artists today."
Oh, boy. He goes on: "If you only believe in the individual, in what you are, then life is a tragedy that ends in death. But if you feel part of a whole, that what you are doing is not just you, the individual, but something bigger, then all of these problems are not there anymore. Everything is totally different. There is no beginning and no end."
Meanwhile, the program's photos of Laib — who appears slight and deliberate, yogilike in a uniform of loose, milk-colored clothing, and who seems resolutely alone not just in his work but in the universe — reinforce the false impression that he interrupted his solo pollen collecting to journey here and show us the Big Bang, one handful of Minute Rice at a time. But no, Laib is out tweezing beautiful spores in the Black Forest while we're in a climate-controlled space contemplating his visualization of endlessness, one he won't see for himself. The moment that thought arrives, the boundaries of Without Place go up, limiting it and rendering it, finally, passive.
The placard outside the installation might offer the truest assessment and the most fitting alternate title: "This exhibition contains hazelnut pollen."