Installation view of “Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 24-August 2, 2017. Photo by David Heald. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
Tucked away on the Guggenheim’s seventh floor, in a tiny room accessible only to visitors who pass through a red stanchion and three heavy doors bearing industrial locks, lies one of the museum’s most mind-bending shows in recent memory.
It’s not imposing or loud like some of the big, buzzy exhibitions that have occupied the museum’s spectacular Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda in the past. Doug Wheeler’s PSAD Synthetic Desert III, up through August 2nd, is a different kind of sensory experience: one decidedly quieter and altogether more transportive.
The morning I visit, it’s bright and noisy outside the museum, and the queue for timed tickets to enter Wheeler’s show is growing fast. Patient museumgoers pull out sunglasses as cars honk down Fifth Avenue in rush-hour traffic and street vendors set up shop. To most in line, these are sights and sounds so typical of a New York day that they barely register. Not for long, though; Wheeler’s installation would soon throw them into high relief.
PSAD Synthetic Desert III is a tricked-out semi-anechoic chamber, or a space almost completely void of sound. Rooms such as these—heavily insulated and covered floor-to-ceiling in pyramid-shaped sound absorbers—are used to hone the voice recognition capabilities of computers or test noise levels for audio-sensitive equipment, like microphones. Microsoft famously built one in 2015 that the Guinness World Records has since deemed the quietest room in the world.
But Wheeler, an enigmatic artist who founded the Light and Space movement, along with Larry Bell and Robert Irwin, isn’t out to beat any records. Instead, he wants to transport people out of their everyday rigamarole and into an unrecognizable, mystical void.
The environment I enter—past the stanchion and three doors—indeed bears no resemblance to New York. At first, the extreme silence feels heavy and tangible—like the wet air of a humid day. But the body acclimates quickly, and soon a sensation of weightlessness sets in that’s enhanced by the room’s physical attributes: an otherworldly blue glow that emerges from imperceptible corners and a carpet of triangular forms resembling a landscape from the fantasy video game Monument Valley.
I forget about my body. At least until my stomach gurgles awkwardly—a sound that might normally go unnoticed, but here sounds like thunder. I’m reminded of my physicality and, even more acutely, my ego, as I worry about disrupting the experience for the four other people in the room. (The Guggenheim allows five people into the room at a time, though Wheeler would have preferred that visitors enter alone.)
Inside, time stretches and fades away. Before entering, we were told that we’d have 10 minutes in the installation. But instead, it feels like blissful eons of silence and calm.
Wheeler grew up in the Arizona desert, began his artistic practice in Los Angeles, and these days forges installations and objects from light and sound out of a studio in arid New Mexico. So perhaps it’s no surprise that PSAD Synthetic Desert III was inspired by the artist’s transcendent experiences in the Southwestern desert. Wheeler spends his free time flying planes, gliding over open expanses of dusty landscape.
In a conversation with Guggenheim curator Jeffrey Weiss, Wheeler explained that there, in the breezeless, disorienting environment, “you can’t tell a human voice from a car door closing or an eagle screaming more than a mile up.”
At the Guggenheim, Wheeler powerfully invokes those surroundings. And that’s what makes returning to the real world—in this case, the clamor of New York—so overwhelming.
As I move from the soothing silence back into the luminous, crowded museum rotunda, the aura of calm produced by Wheeler’s installation evaporates. But the keen awareness of my body, and its sensitivity to the world’s many intense, stimulating sensations doesn’t. The sun feels warmer, the city sounds more nuanced, and the faces of the people that pass me more detailed, expressive, and—thanks to 10 minutes in Wheeler’s alien landscape—more human.