The Phillips Collection has transformed a small storage closet into one of the most unique rooms in the world.
The Laib Wax Room, which opened to the public on Saturday, is the first permanent room made of beeswax at any museum in the United States.
“We had six people working on it for four long days. It went quicker than we anticipated primarily because we had so much help,” Klaus Ottmann, curator at large for the D.C. museum, told The Hill.
The room itself is small, measuring 6 by 7 by 10 feet, but its walls and ceiling are covered in pure beeswax.
Laib melted 20 blocks of beeswax — totaling 882 pounds — and then applied the warm beeswax to the walls like plaster, smoothing it with an iron and a hot air gun.
“It looks a little bit like an alfresco. And it has a speckled look because there are little pieces of beeswax in it that didn’t melt. The melted beeswax is very yellowy-orange in color and the pieces that are not melted are a little darker, more like honey, so it has a beautiful texture,” Ottmann said.
Visitors, who can only enter the room two at a time, will likely smell it before they see it.
“The aroma of the beeswax is quite strong and it will be strong over the next few months and then it will settle into a level that won’t change. It will always be kind of aromatic,” Ottmann noted.
The room is illuminated by a single, low-watt bulb, to create a soothing, comforting light.
It took about three months to prepare the space for the beeswax: the existing walls were removed, as were some electrical cords, and then the museum put in strong plywood walls and a ceiling.
That process began at the first of the year. Laib arrived in Washington a few weeks ago and added the wax, which was purchased from a candle factory.
Laib, a native of Germany, is known for his work with natural materials, such as milk, beeswax and marble.
He first came to attention in art world in the 1970s with his milkstones: pieces of polished white marble sanded to created depressions that were filled with milk, creating the illusion of a solid object.
Ottmann, also a German native, has been friends with Laib for years.
“I have known Wolfgang Laib for over 20 years. Twelve years ago I collaborated with him on a retrospective he had. It opened at the Hirshhorn and then traveled for two years and so we’ve become pretty close friends,” he said.
Ottmann said part of the inspiration behind the beeswax room was the museum’s famous Rothko Room.
The room contains four paintings — one on each wall — by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, and a single bench, meant for visitors to have a meditative place.
The Laib Wax Room has a similar function.
“The idea was to create a space where you can kind of step into and then step out of your life,” Ottmann said. “It’s hard to describe. It’s best to experience.”
He added: “It has almost a chapel-like quality. It’s a perfect compliment to the Rothko Room we have.”
Ottmann joined The Phillips Collection about two and a half years ago as its first curator at large.
He praised the museum and its board of directors for allocating the space for a permanent exhibit, given that the Phillips doesn’t have a lot of room to spare.
“It is a permanent exhibit, so it’s a pretty big commitment,” he said, adding “it is quite miraculous and it says a lot about The Phillips Collection that we were able to do this.”
Ottmann was there when Laib finished the room and saw it for the first time, standing there with his longtime friend.
“It was a very, very moving. For me it was the culmination of a 20-year-long friendship,” he said. “It was very meaningful that it was in Washington, D.C., because our friendship really began with that show at the Hirshhorn.”