A late career artist known for sparse installations where visitors confront the ethereal beauty of light, Doug Wheeler considers ‘perception’ his medium. This opinion is driven home with particular clarity in PSAD Synthetic Desert III, a recently opened exhibition at NYC’s Guggenheim Museum that brings an unrealized 1968 installation idea to life — and takes advantage of the gains that have been made in architectural acoustics and materials in the (almost) half-century that has elapsed since he conceived the work through drawing. This spatial environment offers visitors the chance to sit in a (semi) anechoic chamber and stare out into a quasi-horizon that gives the impression of empty space – like a horizon stretching into the distance. Making themselves comfortable on a tiny platform that juts out over a field of triangular sound-dampening baffles, visitors have little to do but sit and soak up the silence.
Wheeler cites his time spent in the deserts of northern Arizona as the inspiration for this environment, and it was realized as part of the Panza Collection Initiative, an ongoing study devoted to questions around fabrication and installation of minimal, post-minimal, and conceptual art that has reviewed and revived work by noted minimalists including Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman and others. The venture’s mandate ensures “material integrity, historical context, and conceptual terms” of works that are executed under it are realized to their full potential; for Synthetic Desert this saw Wheeler work in collaboration with Raj Patel and Joseph Digerness of the engineering firm Arup to get the acoustic qualities right, or as ‘right’ (read: silent) as possible.
For the Guggenheim installation … the artist’s ambition is to produce a hermetic environment based on a radical reduction of optical and acoustical sensation. To protect the quality of visitor experience, which achieves its fullest potential only with as few extraneous sounds and distractions as possible, each visitation group for Synthetic Desert will be limited to five people. A timed ticket that allows visitors to spend either ten or twenty minutes in the gallery is required.
It would be romantic if the fact you have to book an appointment to spend time in the space spoke to the seriousness with which visitors arrived in it, but really its just small. Just the same, it is encouraging you don’t have to encounter Synthetic Desert alone, as contemplating the void is best enjoyed with a few trusted friends.
“Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III” is up at NYC’s Guggenheim through August 2nd
All images courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / photos by David Heald