How Low Can You Go?
By Douglas Repetto
GERMAN ARTIST WOLFGANG LAIB LIVES in a remote village in the Black Forest. Each spring and summer he wanders the fields
and forests near his home, patiently collecting pollen from dandelions, hazelnut trees, and other local
flora. He uses the deep orange and yellow grains,
stored in glass jars, to create powerfully simple,
The Five Mountains Not to Climb On is a row
of five small piles of hazelnut pollen sitting on
the floor. Pollen from Dandelion is an enormous
glowing square of, well, dandelion pollen. Laib’s
works are about as low-tech and DIY as possible; he
hand-gathers ubiquitous, but seldom seen (if often
sensed!), materials in enormous quantities, and
then presents them in unexpected contexts.
British artist Andy Goldsworthy works with
similarly simple, unprocessed materials, although
his creations are even more labor intensive. He often
creates temporary, site-specific works from color-sorted leaves, stacked and ordered rocks, masses
of twigs, and so on. While Laib collects materials
and transports them to new contexts, Goldsworthy
typically reorganizes them in place. (The documentary Rivers and Tides is a great introduction
to his work.)
The force of these works derives largely from
the friction between their simplicity and their
striking physical presence. Laib’s pollen is luminous;
it smells good, and even in very small quantities
it seems like a mysterious, precious substance.
Goldsworthy’s materials often seem highly unlikely,
out of place, yet clearly they’re literally of the place.
There’s something subtly disconcerting, but thrilling,
about seeing a rock completely covered with a
smooth gradient of color-sorted leaves, like a physical
Photoshop filter created and applied entirely by hand.
Aside from their physical strangeness, there’s
46 Make: Volume 12
another aspect of these works that makes them
even more compelling to me: Laib and Goldsworthy
seem to have reached a kind of DIY nirvana. They
use nothing purchased, nothing manufactured,
nothing shipped from halfway around the globe.
They literally walk into an environment, collect
their materials, and get to work. Both have various
conceptual and aesthetic reasons for working as
they do (Laib is broadly concerned with spiritual/
ritualistic questions, Goldsworthy with environmental
issues), but in practical terms they’ve spent their
lives taking the DIY ethos to its limits.
There is something about the DIY spirit that often
leads to a wonderful kind of infinite descent into
extremism. There’s always a way to take things a bit
further, to cut out another middleman, to make things
just that much more difficult for yourself, but also that
much more fun. Some people spend months hand-collecting pollen, others make their own metals by
smelting ores in a homemade furnace, or spin their
own yarn from tumbleweeds and dog fur.
Doing things entirely yourself isn’t a negation of
technology, or some sort of Luddite accusation;
it’s more of a thought experiment made real. It can
help clarify what, exactly, the technologies we’re
using are good for (and many of them are, of course,
very good), or when they’re simply wasting resources
and adding unnecessary complexity or cost.
Now, to someone trying to build, say, a self-replicating 3D printer, collecting grains of pollen or
stacking some twigs and then calling it a day might
not seem like such a glorious DIY achievement.
(And I bet Laib doesn’t even fire his own glass jars,
the lazy sod!) But don’t underestimate the difficulty
you can face, nor the satisfaction you can feel, when
working at an extremely base level with manual
techniques and simple materials.
MAKE mycology maestro Philip Ross has recently