The third in our series on meditative art – Glass profiles Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room at The Phillips Collection

Glass presents the third in our online series on meditative art installations from across the world.

WOLFGANG Laib has been making quietly resonant works out of organic materials such as milk, pollen, rice and beeswax for over four decades. Born in Metzingen, Germany in 1950, Laib was the son of a doctor and studied medicine in his early 20s. He began to make artworks in the 1970s, after a three-month residency in India. Of this transition from medicine to art, he has said, “It was a direct response to what art can do where medicine can’t. People often ask, “What do your medical studies have to do with art?” I feel I never changed my profession; I just put in my artwork what I wanted to do as a doctor. But I realised in medicine, which is mainly natural science, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do as an artist.”

Inspired by daily life and religious rituals of India and Asia, in 1975 Laib began his seminal series of Milkstones. These were marble slabs with discrete concave hollows into which he poured fresh milk on a daily basis. This series set the tone for a distinctive oeuvre of artworks created from materials with symbolic and life-giving associations.

“I was always very careful in my choices of materials. It took me a long time to choose each material to work with, simply because I would explore it for a few years. I began the first Milkstone in 1975; worked with pollen in ‘77; rice in ‘83; beeswax in ‘87 … I find each material has its own beauty and nurturing elements, which relate to the cycles of life and death, and the ephemeral and eternal. Each requires a ritual of intense labour.”


Wolfgang Laib, Wax Room, 2013, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

In 2011, Wolfgang Laib visited the Rothko Room (1960) at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. This encounter inspired him to propose a site-specific chamber lined with beeswax for the museum’s permanent collection. Of the chamber, which opened to the public in 2013, Laib has said, “a wax chamber has a very deep and open relationship to Rothko’s paintings … for to enter a wax room is to be in another world, maybe on another planet and in another body.”

The wax room measures 6 x 7 x 10 feet and is lined in some 400 pounds of beeswax, liquified at a constant temperature to ensure that the colour of the material remained consistent. Using a putty knife, spatula and warm iron, Laib applied an inch-thick coat of wax to the the room’s walls. A single lightbulb is installed in the chamber’s ceiling. The closet-like dimensions of the space and warm glow, honey-scent and acoustic- dampening properties of the beeswax combine to create a nurturing environment for visitors.

The space is somewhat reminiscent of a waiting room, a meditation room or a confessional box. Speaking of the chamber’s transitional qualities, Klaus Ottmann, Chief Curator at the Phillips Collection, has described the wax room as having the “ability to temporarily suspend reality.”

Laib began working in beeswax in 1987 and has previously created wax rooms for exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1988); the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, Germany (1989); the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, The Netherlands (1990) and the Kunstmuseum Bonn, Germany (1992).

From 2000, Laib went on to create several outdoor beeswax chambers on sites which include a mountain in the French Pyrenees that is accessible only by foot and on his property near Biberach in southern Germany, situated between Munich and the Black Forest.

Speaking on his practice, Laib has said, “I think that in most cultures, artists were not considered as individuals who had to invent or create something. They were participating in the whole, in the universe. So, for me, the sky is much more important than trying to make a painting that is a symbol for the sky. For me, it’s the [material] itself—that is the miracle in which I participate in my daily life when I collect it. It is not mine.”

by Rowena Chiu

Wolfgang Laib’s wax room is on permanent display at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.