Other-Worldliness: The Rothko Room, Laib Wax Room…and Japanese Tea Rooms


The Rothko Room, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Ben Resine

Intimate relationships with artworks invite us into the artist’s world, in which we are all equal.

As intimacy is essential for communication in human society, this experience is also very important for communicating and connecting with modern art; it is the intimate relationship between art appreciators and the artworks themselves that encourages viewers to think about the concepts and philosophy behind a piece.

In The Phillips Collection, a personal connection with the art is provoked by the special environment—intimate, immersive rooms. The museum also has two permanent installations which are significantly smaller than other galleries—the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room. Because these installations are set apart from the rest of the galleries—rooms entirely designed or created by the artists themselves—they evoke a unique sense of other-worldliness. Upon stepping inside, we feel the artworks and the artists with all of our senses, as if we know them very well, regardless of how much we know about the artists’ lives. This experience allows us to feel as if we are isolated from the real world and invited to the world of the artists.

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The Laib Wax Room. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

As a native of Japan, I find the experience of the Rothko Room and Laib Wax Room similar to that of a Japanese traditional small tea room. While not all Japanese tea rooms are small, some are deliberately so, for other-worldliness is the basic concept of the design. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the rooms are small in order to make people confront the tea, the teamaker, and the ritual behind creating and drinking it. The smallness of the rooms creates an intimate relationship between people and their tea.

There are also similarities in atmosphere. When a tea ceremony takes place in the small tea rooms, tension floats among the participants, which gives the ceremony a ritualistic feeling. This distinctive atmosphere can be also experienced in the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room by virtue of the closeness and the visual perception of the environments, which remind me of churches or the tombs of ancient Egypt. The solemn atmosphere often makes me both interested and hesitant to enter. My footsteps slowed as I entered these rooms—I would describe the experience as a feeling of awe.

However, there is a difference between the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms and Japanese tea rooms; the size of the entrances. Doorways into tea rooms are so small that most people need to stoop down to get in, requiring each person to bend his or her head as if bowing. As you may know, the act of bowing is the traditional Japanese way of showing respect. Performing this act upon entering shows that social class is not valid in the tea ceremony; everyone enters as equals. Although the entrances of the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms are of normal size, the same idea can be applied. Social status has no use in these artists’ worlds, as we are isolated from the real world.

Aya Takagi, Curatorial and Center for the Study of Modern Art Intern

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.

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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.

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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.

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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