Doug Wheeler’s Synthetic Desert Shrouds the Guggenheim in Silence

Installation view: Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 24-August 2, 2017. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.


American artist Doug Wheeler has opened PSAD Synthetic Desert III, an immersive installation, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. A veteran of the Light and Space movement of the early 1960’s, Wheeler conceived Synthetic Desert as an anaechoic chamber that creates near-silent conditions.
 

Doug Wheeler in the installation. Installation view: Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 24-August 2, 2017. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
 
Doug Wheeler. PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1968 (detail). Ink on paper, 61.1 x 91.4 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Panza Collection, Gift, 1991. © Doug Wheeler.


First conceived in 1968, the installation achieves an impression of empty space and utter silence—much like the Northern Arizona deserts where Wheeler traveled in his formative years. Five visitors at a time enter the chamber via a platform, which is surrounded on all sides by gray pyramidal spikes. In front, a blank wall with curved edges, lit with a hazy glow, nods to the neon “light encasements” that distinguish Wheeler’s oeuvre.
 

Doug Wheeler in the Painted Desert, Arizona, ca. 1970. Image courtesy of the artist.


Wheeler designed PSAD Synthetic Desert III to suppress all but the lowest levels of ambient sound. To achieve this, Wheeler and the Guggenheim collaborated with engineering firm Arup, who specializes in the acoustic properties of built space. The team then sourced Basotect®, a sound-absorbing foam manufactured by BASF that eliminates noise in both subway cars and high-speed elevators. The material, over 99% air by volume, forms Synthetic Desert’s spikes and covers the chamber’s walls.
 

Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1968. Ink on paper, 61.1 x 91.4 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Panza Collection, Gift, 1991. © Doug Wheeler.


PSAD Synthetic Desert III will be open on the Guggenheim’s Tower Level 7 until August 2.

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