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An immersive, completely silent “desert” has been installed at the Guggenheim

Written by
Howard Halle

Last year, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum captured the public’s attention with a working, solid gold toilet installed in one of its restrooms. This year, they're are going for something a little more subtle: A “desert” that’s acoustically soundproofed to prevent anything but the lowest of ambient sounds. PSAD Synthetic Desert III, as the installation is formally titled, is the creation of West Coast artist Doug Wheeler, who originally conceived the idea nearly 50 years ago. Working in collaboration with the museum, Wheeler is finally realizing the project after all this time.

Study for Doug Wheeler PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971, detail
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © Doug Wheeler

The work consists of a viewing platform jutting into floor covered with rows of steep pyramids made of sound-dampening material (the piece is basically a high-cultural version of those semi-anaechoic chambers used by scientists and manufacturers to conduct acoustical experiments). Special lighting fools the eye into thinking the gallery is an endless space. Wheeler likens experiencing his work to wandering the Arizona desert where he’s spent time.

Doug Wheeler PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © Doug Wheeler

The ephemeral nature of PSAD Synthetic Desert III is a hallmark of the rest of Wheeler’s work, which has had a long association with the California Light and Space movement of the ’60s and ’70s. A left-coast spin-off of Minimalism, the Light and Space movement was notable for a wow-man aesthetic most familiar to New Yorkers through the work of James Turrell, the most famous name among the Light and Space artists. Turrell himself transformed the Guggenheim back in 2013 with a gossamer exercise in visual legerdemain similar to Wheeler’s, though Turrell’s piece took over the entire Gugg rotunda while PSAD Synthetic Desert III takes up one gallery. Nonetheless, it bound to attract visitors looking to bliss out—and lord knows, we could all use a dose of tranquilty

Doug Wheeler in the installation
David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

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