This generously illustrated book chronicles Laib’s 2009 exhibition at the Fondazione Merz, which featured a site-specific installation of his trademark rice and pollen “mountains” paired with a towering ziggurat of beeswax intended to symbolize “the bond of the sky with the earth.” In an effort to demonstrate the belief systems underlying Laib’s work, the foundation invited 33 Brahmin priests from various South Indian temples to perform their rituals at 33 altars placed in an open-air courtyard. Twice daily for seven days, they lit 33 fires and burned various herbs, fruits, and spices as part of the 1,000-year-old mahayagna. This ritual, which comes from Hindu Vedic traditions, explores both sacrificial and spiritual sentiments. Things from material life are consumed and surrendered so that the continuing cycle of new beginnings remains uninterrupted.
The exhibition catalogue offers extensive documentation of this outdoor spectacle, as well as of Laib’s installation and its creation; it also features his photographs of Brahmin priests conducting the same rituals in their original context. While the artist’s Indian inspirations are frequently discussed, it is enlightening to see the originals side-by-side with Laib’s sculptural interpretations. Several texts (all supplied in both Italian and English) interpret the visuals, including an interview with the artist by Klaus Ottman, as well as short essays, by Guy Tosatto and Federico Squarcini, exploring the performative aspects of Laib’s work and his previous explorations of spirituality and the history of the mahayagna, respectively. Fragments of Hindu scripture (in the original Sanskrit and translated by Giovanni Ciotti) and reproductions of manuscript pages adorn the pages as well. Laib’s choices of mantras and images (there is also a reproduction of an allegorical fresco from Paestum that alludes to the limits of human knowledge) contribute to a rich layering of cross-cultural juxtapositions.
For anyone looking to understand more of Laib’s motivations and approach to spirituality, this book is a useful resource. Featuring his own words and photography, it not only serves as a comprehensive overview of one particular exhibition, but also illuminates the general concepts behind the work. As Laib notes in the introduction, “I myself have had this dream for the whole of my life.” He explains that since 1983 he has spent several months in Southern India, even establishing a studio near Madurai in Tamil Nadu in 2006, but only recently has he begun to incorporate materials closely connected with the region’s religious rituals into his own spiritual works. Laib concludes of his experience, “It was no longer a Hindu ritual, but something for every human being and very universal. It has its background in a culture and a religion that is thousands of years old, but here in Turin it gained a universal message and beauty.”
Catalogue of an exhibition at the Fondazione Merz
With texts by Beatrice Merz and Maria Centonze, Klaus Ottman, Federico Squarcini, and Guy Tosatto.
Torino: Fondazione Merz, 2009
Hardcover; 136 pages. $45.00