When the Guggenheim bought Doug Wheeler’s PSAD Synthetic Desert III as part of a large acquisition of Minimalist and Conceptual art in 1992, the piece had never before been realized. For nearly 50 years, it remained a series of drawings created in the late 1960s—ambitious blueprints that described the famed light and space artist’s first installation that would also incorporate the sense of sound.
Now, the immersive installation has finally been brought to life in a physical installation, with the Guggenheim opening PSAD Synthetic Desert III to the public last week. Tucked away in the museum’s sixth-floor gallery, Wheeler’s room is covered in white foam cones that make up a surreal and serene landscape along the floor. It offers a sense of total silence and stillness in the center of a relentlessly noise-y city—yet like all of Wheeler’s work, it is a carefully constructed illusion.
When Wheeler first conceived of the project almost half of a century ago, he sought to mimic the experience of standing in the vast deserts of Northern Arizona, where he was raised. When it came to recreating the profound silence he experienced in nature in the center of a popular museum, the process was slow, laborious, and technically difficult. “The thought of being able to isolate a museum from the sound around it and in it is really a challenge,” Wheeler said in an interview with Guggenheim curator Jeffrey Weiss for the New York Times.
The installation, which only accommodates five visitors at a time, is a multi-sensory experience that makes use of light, space, and sound to create the feeling of absolute silence.Working with Raj Patel and Joseph Digerness from the sound engineering firm Arup, Wheeler essentially created a semi-anechoic chamber in pursuit of sublime desert silence. The installation inhabits a structure separate from the museum walls—essentially a room-inside-a-room–that rests on gaskets so as not to absorb any of the sounds coming from the building itself. The industrial polymer material of the cones dampen the sound, and barely-detectable ambient noise fills the space, so as to level the sound and amplify the silence.
That it isn’t totally sound absorbent is by design—as Wheeler notes in the Times interview, the sound within the room will be at 10 to 15 decibels at minimum (a whisper is around 30 decibels). As he puts it:
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When you first walk in it will seem like utter silence. But it’s not. In a supersilent anechoic chamber, the most that most people can endure is about 40 minutes before they start going batty. I don’t want that experience. I just want you to experience something that you’ve never experienced before, and I think it will be elating.
We think of silence as the complete absence of noise, but in actuality, what we experience are varying degrees of quietude. As John Cage, who famously experimented with silence in his composition 4’33,” once said in an interview, “There is no such thing as silence . . . there’s no way to stop the reception of sound. If you stop the sound from coming from the outside, then what you hear is the sounds that are coming from the inside.”
Finding the perfect degree of silence, then, is a careful balancing act—one that Wheeler accomplishes by bringing in visual elements as well. Throughout his career, Wheeler has manipulated light and space to create ethereal, void-like environments. Now, he has finally realized his vision of vanishing sound as well.