Exhibit Creates Semi-Anechoic Experience in Middle of Guggenheim

For the first time since it was conceived in 1968, Doug Wheeler’s Synthetic Desert can now be experienced at the Guggenheim.

The five of us are attentively listening to an attendant, patiently waiting our turn, as he gives us the instructions: You will be in the chamber for 10 to 15 minutes. You may not take in your cell phone—its sound will impact the anechoic nature of the space. You may look, walk around, and sit, but you may not touch.

With that, he leads us through a door; the sterile hallway seems better suited to a dentist’s office than a “momentous” exhibit, as Guggenheim senior curator Jeffrey Weiss had described it. But once the door opens, we quickly realize we are entering a space that is far from mundane.

PSAD Synthetic Desert III, by Doug Wheeler, is one of six works by the American artist recently acquired by the Guggenheim—four of which had never been actualized. This piece, first conceptualized in 1968, is the first of the six the museum has brought to life. According to the Guggenheim’s conservator, Francesca Esmay, the installation (in a small gallery on the sixth floor) is part of the museum’s greater efforts to preserve its archives of immersive works.

According to Wheeler, the space is meant to evoke the deserts of northern Arizona. Through the interplay of light and sound (this is a semi-anechoic chamber, meaning noise is almost nonexistent), the artist hopes to impart a sensate experience of distance, space, and volume, to awaken us to the qualities of weight and depth that sound possesses.

Doug Wheeler in the Painted Desert, Arizona, ca. 1970. Courtesy © Doug Wheeler

When I enter the room, however, I am reminded less of a desert, and more of a sea. A dead, motionless expanse of pyramidal spikes covering the floor and most of the walls. It’s a bit like entering a sci-fi movie set. There are no menacing thrones or alien overlords, but there is a simple stage, like a dock, that invites you to sit and ponder the wall in front of you. But it isn’t a wall. Through some trick of lighting, it feels as though I’m staring into a void.

It’s captivating, to be sure. It’s also unnerving. If the space itself were bigger, perhaps this abyss would feel more expansive, endless; as it is, it feels too close and constrained. And, for someone over-stimulated by the sounds of New York City on a daily basis, the quiet is maddening in a way. As I jot my observations in my notebook, I’m intensely aware of how very loud my scribbling is.  

This quiet was no small feat. According to Esmay, the museum is designed in such a way that it practically acts like a megaphone for sound, which, like heat, rises to the top of the famously ramped-structure. Arup sound engineers were brought in to ensure that Frank Lloyd Wright’s structure would not interfere in the exhibit, which requires almost-pure silence. And all those pyramidal spikes? They are made from a sound-absorbing foam that suppresses ambient sound.

According to Doyle Robertson, a manager at BASF, the company that provided the foam, the 3-foot spikes are far bigger than they need to be to capture sound’s long wavelengths—but that’s fine by him. BASF is hoping the exhibit will speak especially to architects and designers, who will be inspired to use the sound-absorbing foam in interesting or challenging ways in their own designs.

Back inside the chamber, with nothing but my thoughts to entertain me, I suddenly imagine breaking the rules, reaching out and touching one of those ominous spikes. I bet they’re squishier than they look, I thought, instantly breaking the fragile magic, the illusion of the space I’m in. Yes, the chamber has a few flaws—the obvious “foaminess” of the spikes, the smallness of the rooms, the small breaks in the fabric where a quotidian light switch peeks through. But these are little quibbles, details noticed because, frankly, I am a creature of the 21st century: distractible and unused to the time and quiet required to contemplate an abyss.

Which is exactly why Wheeler’s exhibit, conceived in 1968, constructed in 2017, could not be more timely.

Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III will be on view until 08/02/2017.

Doug Wheeler’s sketch for PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1968. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum © Doug Wheeler
Synthetic Desert Sound Map, 2017, a working drawing for mapping sound program in PSAD Synthetic Desert III. Courtesy © Doug Wheeler

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