With blue tape outlining the corridor, the installation of the Laib Wax Room seems akin to a messy home renovation, not the creation of permanent art at the Phillips Collection. German artist Wolfgang Laib, known for his use of natural, life-giving elements such as milk, pollen, and in this case, beeswax, often creates works that evoke oneness with nature through solitude, ritual and methodical workmanship. His latest project, the installation of a small room coated in beeswax, opened Saturday at the Phillips Collection.
“Such a room is an atmosphere, and if you go into such a space, you are in different world with your own body,” Laib said. “And that’s something extremely beautiful.”
The room’s solemnity contrasts with the messiness of its application. Laib used nearly 700 pounds of beeswax, sourced from a candle factory in Southern Germany, to adorn the walls with a layer of wax approximately one-inch thick. When heated, the beeswax takes the consistency of plaster and must be rushed into the room before it cools. Laib applied the wax with spatula and spackle knife, and he smoothed the coat with warm iron and other common tools of domestic renovation. Wax is applied inch by inch, wall by wall, until a uniform covering of the golden-toned beeswax coats the space. While precise in his execution, Laib’s method leaves room for serendipity — not unlike nature’s enduring, perpetual creation.
1More than 900 pounds of beeswax were shipped from a candle wax factory in Southern Germany for the project. Phillips Collection curator Klaus Ottmann estimates that 660 pounds were used in the making of the wax room. Because the wax arrived in large 40-pound blocks, four Washington-based assistants — two from the Phillips Collection and two students from the Corcoran College of Art and Design — used sledgehammers, ice picks and other utensils to break the wax apart before it could be heated and spread.
When heated, the wax took the consistency of plaster. An assistant arrived at 6:45 a.m. each day to prepare and heat the wax to the proper temperature. Laib began his work each day at 10 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m.
3Jeremiah Holland, an art student at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, removes hardened wax from a bucket. The assistants heated the wax and carried it to the room in buckets. They estimated that Laib and his assistant Bjorn Schmidt, center, had only 20 minutes to apply the wax before it would harden.
4Laib applies the wax to one of the walls in the 6-by-7-by-10-foot space. It took four days for Laib and Schmidt to complete the work. After applying the wax, they smoothed out the lumpy surfaces of the walls with an iron.
5The wax room is the first permanent installation at the Phillips since the Rothko Room in 1960. Laib says he was greatly inspired by the Rothko Room on a recent visit to the Phillips. “People sometimes compare my pollen pieces to Rothko,” Laib said. “The wax room has a much greater connection to the Rothko Room . . . an understanding of what the deep feeling of art is.”