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

Personal Reflections on the Wax Room: Part 4

In celebration of the Laib Wax Room‘s first anniversary as a permanent installation at The Phillips Collection, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern Rhiannon Newman, who was one of four assistants in the preparation and installation, describes her experience in a four part series.

Rhiannon pics_wolfgang laib_part 4

Photos: Rhiannon Newman

The first time I saw Wolfgang Laib’s work was during a lecture somewhere in the art department of UC Santa Cruz. It was spring, and as the professor talked about Laib’s milkstones I remember the back door was open, and the heady scent of the rain dampened redwood forest drifted in on the breeze.

The first time I worked with beeswax was in a beginning sculpture class in college a week after I called my parents and said, “Fine, be angry with me for not getting a business degree, but I’m majoring in art because I want to be happy and create for the rest of my life.” I was in that state of euphoria that you can only feel when you’re young, absurdly confident, and think you know everything. As far as I was concerned, I had traded hours of revision and dreary, crowded lecture halls for making art all day in the open, airy studios nestled above an expansive meadow that overlooked Monterey Bay on campus. I was living my dream. Our professor had given us a small project to cast something in beeswax and showed us the old discarded crockpot that she used to melt it. I remember working on a project, lying on the ground looking up through the expansive skylight at the canopy of the redwood forest, smelling the beeswax melting across the room, and feeling incandescently happy.

Now Wolfgang Laib is not on a projector screen; he is standing in front of me and softly smiling in the catering kitchen of America’s first museum of modern and contemporary art. The dinky crockpot has been replaced by a state-of-the-art stainless steel double broiler that comes up above my knees. It’s not summer in Santa Cruz—it’s February in Washington, DC and freezing rain is pouring outside. Despite all of this, the heavy scent of beeswax and the profile of Laib’s face create a bizarre sense of déjà vu.

I brought my camera to document my experience for my own personal memories. Suddenly, Curator Klaus Ottmann asks me to photograph Wolfgang working. Then, the Director of Marketing and Communications asks if they could use my photographs for media. They want to submit my photos in press kits, for articles, for promotional materials and collateral, to The Wall Street Journal, and I can’t stop pinching myself. This is the definition of Maslow’s Peak Life Experience. This is better than a dream. I take the elevator up from where the assistants have been camped in the catering kitchen with my camera to where Wolfgang is working upstairs. It’s quiet, he’s silently plastering the wax on the walls, and I make a few photographs of him in the space. There is a small part of me that is absolutely terrified of the pressure to make portraits of a famous artist, a part of me that’s jubilant at the realization that all of these amazing opportunities are happening simultaneously, but I can only think one thing.

I am creating. I am happy. I will do this for the rest of my life.

Rhiannon Newman, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern

Personal Reflections on the Wax Room: Part 3

In celebration of the Laib Wax Room‘s first anniversary as a permanent installation at The Phillips Collection, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern Rhiannon Newman, who was one of four assistants in the preparation and installation, describes her experience in a four part series.

Rhiannon pics_hammer_part 3

Photo: Rhiannon Newman

You would think that, with practice, breaking the wax into little bits would become easier, but in fact it still remains an awkward act. Unlike the other assistants working on the Wax Room, I am not an active individual. I am not a carpenter like Tyler nor live and work on farmland like Jeremiah. I don’t know very much about Rachel, but in the few conversations we’ve had she gives me the impression that she eats kale by the organic-hemp-farmer’s-market-totebag-full and probably has an exercise repertoire to match (Bikram yoga, or something). I once impulsively bought a set of dumbbells, intent on having biceps like Michelle Obama, but they now luxuriate in a dusty corner under the bed alongside a bacon-bowl maker and other impulse buys that didn’t work out. I am not strong. I am not used to manual labor, and maintaining hours of hammering takes a toll.

In the morning, I can maintain about an hour of consistent hammering before I start to fatigue. I try to maintain positive mental motivation to keep consistent and try a variety of methods. One go-to method is aggressive hammering, (i.e. picturing that one time my housemate came home from the gym, peeled off her socks and deposited them on the kitchen table, and channeling the anger that follows) produces some fantastic rage-induced results. Unfortunately, this furious wax block abuse leaves me exhausted a few short hours later. You’ve got to pace yourself with this stuff. Music almost works (two words: hammer drumsticks), but earbuds are isolating in an environment in which you want to be aware and present.

Rhiannon pics_breaking wax_part 3

Photos: Rhiannon Newman

Despite this initial difficulty, halfway through day three I am settled in. I have a favorite hammer and I let the repetitive motion of my hands keep a beat. My favorite photography professor and advisor in college assisted Ansel Adams for a number of years. He told me a story once about an evening in the darkroom while they were packing up after a long day of printing photographs. At the last minute, Ansel decided to make one more print. As a photographer and piano player, he preferred to use a metronome instead of a timer. The metronome had been packed away, but he effortlessly moved this print through the fixer and stop bath, through his process of dodging and burning, until it was drying with the others. It looked exactly like the other prints. “That’s because he kept the beat internally,” my professor said as he gestured towards his heart. I understand. I work with my heart too, in everything I do, and that’s how I keep going.

Rhiannon Newman, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern