On ViewSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum
March 24 – August 2, 2017
Sounds of life fade away as you, along with four museumgoers and one museum guard, pass through three successive off-white chambers separating the Guggenheim’s rotunda from Doug Wheeler’s PSAD Synthetic Desert in the topmost tower gallery. A room shrouded in dim gray-blue neon light reveals itself beyond the third and last chamber, as visitors proceed up a slightly inclined ramp to a small rectangular platform in the center of the space. Gray foam pyramids line the surrounding walls, floor, and ceiling except for one expanse of white confronting the viewer: an unadorned wall, with no discernible edges, corners, shadows, or dimensionality is lit from below by the same neon glow. Casting a diminishing gradation up the wall, the light evokes the illusion of an infinitely receding, horizon-less expanse, unfolding a sort of abstracted landscape before you from this scenic overlook.
Enveloped in near absolute silence, except for the rustle of a jacket, the squeak of a shoe, and the practically imperceptible addition of pink noise (a lower frequency than white noise), the magnitude of sensory deprivation intensifies over time, as you are made aware of your body, its audible workings, and its primacy within Wheeler’s metaphorical sea of nothingness. While the foam pyramids possess a practical function, absorbing all sound within the installation that hadn’t already been extricated by the semi-anechoic chamber that encases Wheeler’s environment, they also serve an illusory purpose: combining the appearance of linear perspective with atmospheric perspective—the impression of depth intensifies.
“Synthetic” accurately classifies this environment, as everything from the carpeting to the ambient noise has been meticulously designed and calculated by the artist and his team. However, the synthesis of man-made space, light, sound, and, most importantly, perception, rather unexpectedly tread the line between naturalism and artificiality, infinity and confinement, real and illusory space.
Conceived by Wheeler in 1971, his vision for Synthetic Desert has only now achieved actualization through collaboration with senior curator Jeffrey Weiss and conservator Francesca Esmay, of the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection Initiative (PCI). Launched in 2010, the PCI tackles questions of conservation, re-creation, and authentication relating to these works which are the result of a transitional moment in history.
During the ’60s, the practice of art-making largely shifted from objects created by the hands of the artist to ideas conceptualized in the mind of the artist. Much like the work of Flavin, Judd, Andre, Morris, and other Minimalists, Wheeler’s works often existed as diagrammatic illustrations or detailed installation instructions. Consequently, Synthetic Desert—whose diagrams were obtained by the museum in the ’90s along with the vast majority of Minimal, Post-Minimal, and Conceptual Art from the collection of Giuseppe Panza—has lived on paper and in the mind of the artist for the past forty-six years, until recently plucked from the archives and resuscitated by the PCI.
Doug Wheeler, Synthetic Desert Sound Map, 2017. Ink and colored pencil on drafting film. 33 x 28 inches. Working drawing for Mapping Sound Program in PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1968. © Doug Wheeler. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Notions of absence and an emphasis on phenomenological sensory experience present within Synthetic Desert embody the concerns of Minimalism and its general disavowal of content other than that which can be immediately observed by the viewer. As a member of the West Coast Light and Space subset of Minimalism, Wheeler’s work parallels the conceptual engagements of the larger movement, yet executes them through different means and media. In experimenting with (semi-)anechoic chambers that practically removed all sensory stimulation, the Light and Space artists, such as Turrell, Irwin, and Eric Orr, obviated the need to place formally simplistic art-objects like those of Judd, Morris, and Andre, in a predetermined gallery or museum space to activate and heighten the viewers’ perceptual acuity. Instead, they eliminated the object altogether, altering space itself and exemplifying the fact that literal nothingness, as opposed to objects espousing a conceptual nothingness, would always contain something.
John Cage’s groundbreaking composition, 4’33”, similarly employed silence as medium and highlighted the presences and nuances within its supposed absence. Thus, as Cage effectively reconceived of sense perception, so too did Wheeler, who as noted by Jeffrey Weiss, spoke volumes about the tangibility of light, the weight of sound, the feeling of empty space. By describing senses with the terminology of other senses, he rhetorically intertwines all perceptible modes of experience and in doing so, does not merely employ light, sound, or space as his medium, but perception as a whole and totemic force.