Wolfgang Laib’s ‘Wax Room’: Enigmatic permanent installation at the Phillips

The opening to what was once a small storage closet has been narrowed to better frame views of Wolfgang Laib’s “Wax Room,” a new and permanent installation at the Phillips Collection. The old door has been removed, as well, so as visitors pass by, they see directly into an enigmatic space, with glowing amber-colored walls and a single, naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

The Phillips doesn’t have a lot of room even for temporary exhibitions, so the decision to give forever space to Laib demonstrates remarkable commitment to the German artist’s work. Laib, who has been working with beeswax since 1988 and whose work (including a temporary installation currently on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) often deals with raw natural materials, has created temporary wax rooms for museums around the world. The Phillips installation is the first permanently installed wax room in the United States.

The narrow portal through which the wax room is entered has a surprisingly big effect, rather like the frame around a painting. It is a signifier, a promise that what is inside is indeed art, rather than a random act of odd decorating or one-note joke on the gullibility of the art world. It converts the closet into a chamber, gives it a sense of being somehow archaic, as if what lies inside is a primitive burial site, or space for worship.

It also puts the wax room into dialogue with architecture. We are so conditioned to think of indoor space as having a purpose, as a place to eat or sleep or wash or gather for entertainment, that it is striking to encounter a room that is purposely not about having an obvious purpose. Form follows function, we are told, so what happens if there is no function? At the very least, it frees form to do strange things.

Laib’s work is intimately connected with nature, and ritual. In 2011, the Phillips hosted one of his Milkstones, a slab of white marble with a subtle indentation into which milk is poured on a daily basis. Like “Pollen from Hazelnut,” a brilliant yellow field of flower pollen installed in the atrium of the MoMA until March 11, the Milkstone uses raw, organic material, and the ritual of its creation or maintenance (the milk is refreshed on a daily basis) is integral to the work’s impact and meaning. For the wax room that now sits opposite an elevator door on the third floor of the Phillips, Laib used almost 700 pounds of beeswax, applied by hand with a trowel and smoothed with spackling tools and heating elements.


German artist Wolfgang Laib, background, and his assistant Bjorn Schmidt, foreground, work melted beeswax onto the walls of a permanent installation wax room at the Phillips gallery on Feb. 21. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

For all of its natural associations, however, the wax room comes with some ominous associations, especially given the unadorned dangling light bulb that feels just a tad film noir. Perhaps because it’s in Washington, where wars are launched and Orwellian policies of interrogation, torture and assassination have been implemented and justified as essential to security, the wax room doesn’t look so innocent. It is a small space, 6-by-7 feet with a 10-foot ceiling and a floor of gray concrete. The wax gives the walls the look of having been painted a few dozen too many times, like so many drab institutional rooms where paint is used in a vain attempt to renew and refresh what will always be a sad and inert space.

If you don’t know it’s wax, if you’ve missed the cue offered by the door and aren’t quite ready to accept the room as art, your first response may be to think the space is a bit dungeon-like, a windowless cell with a crude floor and walls that lack the smooth, industrial finish of most contemporary architecture. Turn around, and a beam above the opening to the room looks a bit rough-hewn, as if it’s a simple slab deployed before builders had discovered the arch. You can imagine Edmond Dantes holed up in this room, lost to time and memory, before making his way to freedom as the Count of Monte Cristo. Less romantically, you can imagine a man from Iraq or Afghanistan lying naked on the floor, shivering in the cold, awaiting the next bloody round of “enhanced interrogation.”

These dark associations are far removed from most interpretations of Laib’s work, which is generally seen within a context that views nature as nurturing and ritual (especially self-imposed) as a form of liberation in the Eastern tradition of discipline and self-abnegation. Laib’s room should be womb-like and enfolding. One should notice the musty, earthy smell of the wax and enjoy the brief retreat from the world. One should admire the hand-crafted feeling of the walls, which retain a sense of liquidity. One should notice the seemingly accidental abstraction of how darker, more translucent patches of wax create a mottling effect against the yellow ground.

One can do all that and still feel the ominous import of Laib’s space. “The mind is its own place,” John Milton reminds us, and can make a heaven of hell and vice versa. Part of the wax room’s power, and much of what justifies it as art, is its goad to our mental sense of space. By removing any obvious purpose from what was once a storage closet, Laib turns this room into an open question for visitors. Like a painting of an empty room, it carries with it a certain moodiness, a sense of memory, perhaps even a sense of being haunted.

Although you’re not allowed to touch the walls, they are a bit sticky, given the ductility and low melting point of wax. Stickiness is a decent metaphor for the space and, in a sense, for any man-made space. As we look into and examine the rooms we make for our lives, things adhere to them, things we project and imagine. This curious addition to the Phillips reminds us how much effort, and how little provocation, it takes for an old broom closet to bring us into a new relationship with architecture and ideas of habitation.

Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room

is on permanent display at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. www.phillipscollection.org.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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