photo from https://www.phillipscollection.org/collection/laib-wax-room

“Control? Code 3 – Wax Room.” 

Code 3 is code for an artwork emergency. Wax Room is a closet-sized room lined with about 400 lbs. of beeswax inside the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. “Code 3 – Wax Room” might conjure an image of wax melting from the walls, mold building a film on top of layers of dust adhered to the walls, or a climate activist with their hands superglued to the wax. These would all be incorrect guesses. 

In 2013, Wolfgang Laib cast Wohin Bist Du Gegangen – Wohin Gehst Du? (Where Have You Gone – Where Are You Going?) into the walls of the Phillips Collection. Laib, a German conceptual “new-age” artist, designed the room as a continuation of the Phillips’ Rothko Room, an installation that forces visitors into a state of “mental suspension.” The room is the first site-specific exhibit installed at the Phillips since the Rothko Room, and it is meant to carry the spiritual weight of non-Western meditative spaces and Western historical-conceptual art ideology.  It exists at the halfway point between spiritual health, canonical art historical thinking. For artists and art historians, the Wax Room represents a canonical theme of manmade meditative spaces in which viewers can share experiences, inhabit far reaches of their minds, and undergo social and spiritual change.

For the museum’s patrons, the Wax Room is a place of mischief, a place where on any given day they may go to get married, scream at the top of their lungs, or carve names into a priceless piece of art. 

And thus, for the Museum Assistants who watch over it, the Wax Room is a constant source of Code 3s.

I was a Museum Assistant at the Phillips Collection for a year. Standing in gallery after gallery in my black polo, embossed with a rainbow Phillips100 logo, I repeated my three-word mantra: “Please step back.” Fresh out of college, I was itching to use my Art History B.A. and show off a little. I loved to share the history of the museum, the story of the son of a rich industrialist who gave his all to build “America’s first museum of modern art.” It was a treat to be seen as I recited the history of the museum and its people. 

I was often at the Wax Room. Each time I was stationed in front of the closet, visitors approached me with looks of bewilderment, their hands slightly outstretched, ready to touch the walls, and asked, “What is this?” Each time, I jumped into my rehearsed script: “This is the Wax Room by Wolfgang Laib…it’s meant to emulate our Rothko Room… It is covered with 428 lbs. of wax … Please don’t touch the walls … Please step back.”

 I would watch the visitor enter the room, sniff, and look at me. I’d heard stories of the weird things that took place there. The room with yellow walls that look uncannily like Swiss cheese has a Loch Ness Monster vibe. Most days it’s just a smelly closet with cakey walls, a creepy light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and a cold wet-looking concrete floor. But there’s always a chance you’ll catch a Code 3. 

One day, two months into my tour of duty as an MA, I witnessed my first Wax Room Code 3. 

Four teens. One room. Lots of wax. Looking innocent enough, they walked up to me chatting and laughing. Per the conservator’s guideline, I told them to enter the room two at a time, and I watched as they took turns gawking at the walls. I knew to keep my eye on them—you can never fully trust teens—but I was distracted for a few seconds by an interesting conversation about the Gucci Spring 2021 collection among a couple of other patrons. After a few minutes of eavesdropping, I looked back and noticed that all four teens were huddled in the room, three of them filming a TikTok, as one of them stuck her tongue out and licked the dusty, earthy, slightly hydrophobic wall. 

“YOU CAN’T TOUCH THE WALLS!” The teens looked at me slightly confused and responded with a clear statement of denial as if I’d believe them. They hastily left as I pressed my finger to my radio and said “Code 3 – Wax Room.” 

My story of the licking TikTok teens became part of the lore of the wax room. 

Isabel – The Man with No Family

Isabel is a caring friend, a former educator, and a soon-to-be graduate student at the University of London. She also looks great in purple, a color she defiantly wears as she supervises the halls of the Phillips as a Security Supervisor and former MA. We all hate the black polo. 

When I reached out to Isabel about this piece she talked about how the room can mesmerize unsuspecting patrons. She told of how people who go into the room sometimes become almost lost and melancholy. 

One afternoon she was covering a break at the Wax Room, and a father, his wife, and their two older teen sons walked up to the installation. The wife and kids walked past the room, seemingly uninterested, but the father stopped and went inside. Once there, he began talking about leeches. The man then looked Isabel in the eye, and, with little inflection in his voice, said, “Never have a family.” 

It’s as if the man’s discomfort was magnified by the discomfort of the space. His comment echoed the many others likening  the Wax Room to a serial killer’s murder closet. They are oddly dark and isolated, much like the room they reference. 

With this in mind, I asked Isabel what she thought of the room and whether she thought the room was dark, or if it inspired dark thoughts. In her words: 

I very much enjoy the wax room. Not because I like the concept. I think it’s a tad far-fetched to connect it to the Rothko Room. No, I enjoy everyone’s visceral reaction to it. Not one person has had a neutral reaction and honestly people’s general disdain for it makes the long hours and cloying sweetness of the room bearable. In my head, I like to imagine that there are wicks hidden in the wax room, and one day, when the Phillips decides they want to close their doors for the last time, the wicks will be lit and the entire Wax Room will burn. I like the impermanence of art, and thinking of it as a performance piece makes it more interesting to me. 

Isabel’s reaction to this question makes me think it was destiny that she crossed paths with this man and his unhappy family. 

Isabel’s understanding of art and her understanding of people allows her the chance to consider weirdness as a symptom of being. For me, my TikTok-ing teen encounter was isolating and belittling; for Isabel, her annoyed dad encounter was a look into the hidden intricacies of art and public spaces. Talking to Isabel reminded me that art is more than the way I see it, and people are more than their words and interactions. It reminded me that being an MA allows us more freedom than we think; it allows us the time to think and consider our thoughts and our fantasies for what’s next. 

Sydney – The Scream, Wax Room Edition 

My friend Sydney is a funny, kind, and dedicated person. With a master’s degree in Museum Studies from George Washington University, Sydney is trained to see what most people in museums cannot. She focused her studies on collections management and has told me many times, stars in her eyes, about her love of history and material culture. 

That being said, modern art is not her thing. Like me, she notices the irony of this as she has spent three years of her life at the Phillips, America’s First Museum of Modern Art. While I chose Sydney as a subject for this story due to her museum studies and collections background, it is this discomfort with modern art that makes her a particularly interesting subject for this project. 

Her story is weird. Weirder than Isabel’s, which is saying something. Sydney described the day as an ordinary one. She was covering the Wax Room as a break-guard, the best assignment because of the extra 45-minute break right before closing. Her hour there was almost finished when a guy went inside the room. He looked back at her with a “demon-like look” and told her the room had weird acoustics. She responded, “Yeah… it does.” Turning around, he screamed at the top of his lungs like he was being murdered. And then said, “Yeah, you were right.”

I remember this day. I heard the scream. It echoed through three stories of a dozen galleries. 

After bouncing ideas back and forth and wondering why a man decided to drop all sense of decorum and scream his head off in a museum (drugs, genuine curiosity about sound quality, or another TikTok prank?), we decided this was unknowable. The Wax Room makes people do crazy things. 

I asked Sydney whether she thought there was anything about art that fuels the weirdness of the Wax Room. She took a long time to think, and answered:

Sometimes when I look into The Wax Room I do question what’s considered art. This is coming from a person who is not hugely into modern art, so something like the wax room, which is so different, makes me think about how we define art. Going through this question by question: as far as how I feel when I am watching it, it’s always a weird feeling like I am missing something. There is a feeling there that there is a deeper meaning or feeling I should be having but it’s like having a word you can’t think of on the tip of your tongue and not being able to come up with it.

Art history conversations usually end in a conclusion, and if not a conclusion then a well-informed argument. Even though we live in a world of gray, we tend to see things as black and white. “This is what you are and aren’t supposed to feel.” Hearing Sydney’s answer, I can tell she is battling this pressure, feeling nothing. Interpreting her words, I feel as if she is making a brave point: art doesn’t always move. Sometimes it’s just weird. 

Giving credit to Wolfgang Laib, The Wax Room moves people. Sydney’s feeling of missing something is an interaction with the work of art, and one as important as the primal scream story. I can’t help but wonder if her feeling of discomfort comes from the reality of being an MA. After years of watching it rot, has she become desensitized to the Wax Room’s will? Is it just peer pressure? 

At the risk of sounding too theoretical, Sydney’s story reminds me that all artistic interaction is weird because art is weird, numbing, and subjective. The same smelly closet that inspired a man to scream leaves Sydney feeling like she’s missing something. 

MA #3 – Four Wax Walls and a Weird Wedding

The last story I am going to tell you is the strangest one yet. Based on the heading, I hope you are hearing wedding bells. Imagine instead the agitated beeps of a dozen walkie-talkies. 

I heard this story from my friend Taylor, who heard it from his friend Nicole, who heard it from… I don’t know the origin. I’m not sure any of us know who served as a witness for this story. But what they witnessed has become legendary among the MAs at the Phillips Collection. In the same way the curators tell my licking story, we tell the story of the wedding to each other. I’m sure many of us tell it to visitors during our Wax Room docent moments–I know I have. 

The wedding took place right after the Wax Room opened. One day, a group of three, two men and a woman, came into the museum. According to Nicole, it was winter. According to Taylor, it was summer. Either way, the group went straight to the Wax Room. According to Taylor and Nicole, the MA welcomed them, and one of the men and the woman went into the room and clasped hands. With a peering MA standing over them, the couple sped through vows, were pronounced man and wife, and fled. 

To my knowledge, this story was not captured on video, but I can only imagine what it looked like, let alone what it smelled like back before the beeswax scent faded into the museum’s aged walls and was still pungent. 

The mythologization of this story fascinates me because it is infused with the identity of the teller but also so removed from it. You can picture the MA here, standing with them in the moment of matrimony, but the story also excludes their presence. Just as easily as you can stand with the MA, you can ignore them. This story is told as if it were a scene in a rom-com: 

They ran into a taxi moments after they were reunited at Regan airport, rushed to their first meeting place, the Wax Room, and got married right on the spot!

At the same time, this MA is infamous. If not in name than in experience. This story gives a little bit of humor, respite, and even hope to a group of people who very often feel marginalized in the museum world. 

The Wax Room and Its Watchers

The stories of the Wax Room speak to a hidden culture of experiences in museum spaces. There are so many more stories like the ones I’ve shared that are all around strange and completely unexplainable. The room’s mystique drives patrons to the fringes of their personalities and inhibitions. It pushes you into “mental suspension.” If you want to get technical, it pushes the separation of your ego and your id, forcing you to scream when all you want to do is be silent. Art compels us towards interaction, both internal and external.

Dozens of patrons interact with the Wax Room everyday, their compulsions ranging from silent to explosive. But, the patrons aren’t the only ones compelled to interact with the yellow walls. And the Wax Room isn’t the only thing deserving of interaction in that narrow hallway. Bringing back the voices of the Museum Assistants who witness the stories that have come to define the Wax Room gives us the chance to appreciate the universal and experiential nature of art. 

The next time you go to the Phillips Collection, stop by the Wax Room and go inside. Do whatever your heart feels you should. Just don’t touch the walls. And, before you go, say thank you, hello, or even better share your thoughts with the Museum Assistant watching you. After all, they are the ones making you famous if you decide to lick the walls.

If you’d like to share your story or compliment the MA who made it happen, contact the Phillips Collection educational and visitor services team at their main line, (202) 387-2151.



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