A Wax Room for Anselm

Last month I traveled from Paris to Barjac, a small town in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon northwest of Avignon, to attend the inauguration of a permanent installation by German artist Wolfgang Laib. Laib had been working for the last four years on an enormous beeswax room, not unlike the one he created at The Phillips Collection last year, but on a much larger scale—an underground chamber, about 40 meters (over 130 feet) long with many more lightbulbs but equally aromatic and meditative. Laib’s newest wax room, entitled From the Known to the Unknown—To Where Is Your Oracle Leading You (2014), is installed at La Ribaute, on the grounds of a former silk factory that is now the studio of the German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Laib Wax Room

Wolfgang Laib in his wax room at La Ribaute. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Kiefer began developing this complex in the mid-1990s. It spreads over 86 acres and includes three 19th-century stone buildings surrounded by fields and woods. Two of the residential buildings are now connected by a industrial-sized enclosed footbridge that Kiefer built for his two young children when he still lived on the grounds (he has since moved with his family to Paris). Kiefer’s Gesamtkunstwerk is now comprised of more than 50 separate buildings out of glass, steel, or concrete as well as a series of underground tunnels—all housing his mostly monumental paintings and sculptures.

La Ribaute

La Ribaute, France. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Laib’s wax room at La Ribaute is the first of a series of works by other artists Kiefer is planning to commission as he is starting to transform La Ribaute into a public exhibition site. The inauguration, which was attended by 300 guests including artists, collectors, and curators, took place on May 31 with a concert of music by Edgar Varese and Heinz Holliger, performed by the French Classical flutist Sophie Cherrier, a member of the renown Ensemble International, and an opulent dinner in Kiefer’s residential quarters.

One of the most impressive installations by Kiefer is an underground chamber that contains a small version of his work Les Femmes de la révolution (1992), which is comprised of lead beds, one photograph on lead, and wall texts. The work is inspired by The Women of the French Revolution, a chronicle by 19th-century historian Jules Michelet. A larger version of this installation is currently on view as part of Kiefer’s semi-permanent exhibition at Mass Moca in North Adams, Massachusetts.

Les femmes de la révolution

Anselm Kiefer, Les Femmes del la révolution (Installation at La Ribaute). Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Team Wax Room

Photo: Klaus Ottmann

The team, left to right: Jeremiah Holland, Rachel Hrbek, Wolfgang Laib, Bjorn Schmidt, Rhiannon Newman, Tyler Smith. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Wolfgang Laib created a permanent beeswax chamber at the Phillips in just four days, thanks to a team effort:

  • Laib’s assistant Björn Schmidt accompanied him from Germany and was the artist’s right-hand man throughout installation, from achieving the right consistency for the melted wax to applying it to the walls and ceiling and burnishing the surface.
  • Phillips museum assistants Rhiannon Newman and Tyler Smith were selected by lottery from a call for volunteers among qualified staff artists. They worked daily to break apart large blocks of raw beeswax and melt it in carefully timed batches.
  • Corcoran College of Art and Design students Jeremiah Holland and Rachel Hrbek were selected from their class by a faculty member to volunteer alongside Rhiannon and Tyler.

Listen to this segment on Metro Connection, a radio program on D.C.’s NPR station WAMU 88.5 for firsthand perspectives from Jeremiah and Rhiannon and to hear details about the process.

Before installation even began, numerous individuals played huge roles, from the project’s curator Klaus Ottmann–Curator at Large and longtime friend of the artist (Klaus also organized Wolfgang Laib’s 2000 retrospective at the Hirshhorn)–to Dan Datlow, director of facilities and security, who supervised preparations to the space including a freshly poured concrete floor.