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For one artist, 2,500 lbs. of rice is food for the soul

German sculptor Wolfgang Laib favors materials that are ephemeral and natural, like beeswax and pollen. Sometimes they are natural materials that are also foods, like rice and milk.  His pieces are usually placed on the ground, giving them a humility, but also a monumentality. Previous works include his milkstones: slabs of while marble with a layer of poured milk hovering on the surface. Or his giant pollen squares, which sit dusted onto the floor, so bright and intensely golden-yellow that they hover, shimmer, and vibrate there, like a Rothko painting transposed back into its elemental pigments.

Laib describes the making of these works like a ritual. “People ask me if I meditate,” he told WBEZ in an interview last week. “I have to say, my work is my meditation.” His practice is quiet, explicitly spiritual, and invested with the kind of patience it takes to, say gather enough pollen by hand to create a 10x10 ft. square, or to build a series of nearly 24,000 tiny “rice mountains” with seven tiny mountains of pollen in the center.

The latter is a description of Laib’s new installation, Unlimited Ocean, which opens today at the Sullivan Galleries at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The piece was made with just over 2,500 lbs. of rice and the help of 13 assistants. Laib says the work is like a giant table set for humanity, but with food meant to feed our spiritual selves rather than our physical bodies.

Unfortunately, Laib’s show suffers from the space it’s in. Columns interrupt the visual span of the gallery (an expansive room in the old Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building) making it impossible to take in the whole piece at once. The room’s low lighting flattens the color of the rice against the slate-colored floor, and loud air ducts in the ceiling disrupt the kind of absolute quiet one wants when taking in a piece that was made as a meditation.

Still, 24,000 rice mountains is a sight to behold, especially from the vantage point of a small pathway, carved through the center and leading to the seven mountains of pollen. Go during the week, when it’s likely to be quietest, and check out the making of the show in the video above.

Wolfgang Laib’s installation Unlimited Ocean opens Tuesday and is on display at the Sullivan Galleries at 33 S. State Street through December 23.

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