A general description of Minimalism is that it takes a theme and repeats it with subtle variations; minimalist works may also seek to reduce an object to its bare essentials and put the focus on the structure over per say the ornaments; with minimalism, narrative isn’t completely lost but can/is subverted behind a veil of abstraction. Minimalism may be a piece of music by Philip Glass (a composer whose minimalist works are known to not be the preferred music of some) or a painting by Piet Mondrain. Land Art, while not always nor solely minimalist nonetheless uses many elements of minimalist art, may also be minimalist as well as transient: the work is a part of a landscape or place where the interaction between the work and the environment (which may over time break down the piece) is allowed to continue apace. (See Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty for a further example.)
Contemporary artist Wolfgang Laib is not solely a minimalist or a land artist, though his work fits comfortably within both schools of thought. Presently on display through the middle of January, Laib’s “Without Place – Without Time – Without Body” is a divisive work which is either topical or lazy. Occupying a large space in the Nelson Atkins, the work consists of a group of repeated groups of rice spread equally across the floor. Laib, who is known for being a fan of Eastern philosophical and religious thought, attempts to link his work to something boundless and infinite, to something meditative and quieting. Title aside, it is difficult to view the piece as much more than an extension of egoism and lack of rigor. Because rice is a food staple to so much of the world’s population, its inclusion in the piece may be Laib’s comment on that which nourishes so many, i.e., political; because rice is also a food stuff which many in the world neither get enough of or can afford (as the food riots of the recent past have shown in Asia) it necessarily has political connotations when placed within a context of world poverty, climate change, and political instability, suggesting Laib has either suggested more than he’s ready to work through or is simply creating facile work. Or to put it another way, Laib’s choice of materials is necessarily political while the piece, at further inspection, is not up to the rigors and/or provocation that a political work of art necessitates: it dares the viewer to ask questions and while it is, in this way, worthy of the space in the museum, one gets the impression that the viewer may be doing more work that the creator himself. One feels that the title of the piece is directly proportionate to the lack of ideas behind it.
It is easy to be hard on the piece because it rests on simple in place of what should be challenging and to be brief, many others have done it (minimalism/land art) better. Some will find Laib’s work worth contemplation but many of those observed in the gallery shuffled past it indifferently: perhaps this is Laib’s intention though the effects couldn’t be more damning. On display at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art through January 17, 2010.