I went to the Guggenheim this morning to experience 'PSAD Synthetic Desert III':
"For PSAD Synthetic Desert III (1971), Doug Wheeler has altered the structure and configuration of a museum gallery in order to control optical and acoustic experience. He has transformed the room into a hermetic realm, a “semi-anechoic chamber” designed to minimize noise and induce a sensate impression of infinite space. Wheeler likens this sensation of light and sound to the perception of vast space in the deserts of northern Arizona. While Synthetic Desert is deeply grounded in the artist’s experience of the natural world, the work does not describe the landscape. Its form is strictly abstract." (guggenheim.org)
Only 5 people at a time are let into the space. A cool blue glows up from below the central platform the seamless white wall slowly fades from blue to a whiteness. The fact that there are no railings and everyone (all of the people in my group) chooses to sit, gives the space a much larger feeling. Wheeler achieves a sense of the vastness he found in the desert in 1977.
Doug, what was your first experience in the desert that led to thinking about trying to base a piece around that environment?
WHEELER I once landed my plane on a dry lake bed in the Mojave. I wasn’t thinking I was going to land there for that experience. I just wanted to try to land in a place like that. When the plane engine stopped ticking, there was no breeze of any kind and it was really silent. In about 10 to 15 minutes I started to be able to hear things far away — tiny, different frequencies hitting me from a great, great distance. When you’re that far out, the mountains are just hazy shapes — they could be 60 miles away or hundreds. And the sounds — you can’t tell a human voice from a car door closing or an eagle screaming more than a mile up. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/23/arts/design/desert-silence-transposed-to-the-cacophony-of-new-york.html)
Another observation that I made was that the blue foam pyramids (used to dampen the sound to create this "semi-anechoic chamber") look like monumental objects in the still light of the room. There's something otherwordly about the architecture of the space. All of this is heightened by the silence. Which he estimates to be about 10-15 decibels (70 is NYC traffic). And that is probably the largest takeaway most people will get from this experience. Observing the people around me, all eyes eventually were closed as we sat just taking in the quiet which we really never get in the city. The otherwordliness, the sacredness of the space, comes from its silence.