Desert Silence, Transposed to the Cacophony of New York
The artist Doug Wheeler is known for creating simple-seeming but titanically tough to achieve environments in which light and space are experienced in a manner usually reserved for the realms of mystical vision or psychedelic drugs: as things in themselves. “Voids,” as he once said, “have matter.”
But he has also long dreamed of work that incorporates another sense, sound — or the near absence of it — for the same purpose, based on solitary desert sojourns in Northern Arizona, where he was raised, and elsewhere in the West. He tells one story about how it feels to experience such profound and “elating” silence in the middle of the Sonoran Desert — the existential opposite of New York City, where his latest work, “PSAD Synthetic Desert III,” opens on Friday and runs through Aug. 2 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
“I watched a great horned owl sitting on a saguaro cactus,” Mr. Wheeler, 77, an amateur pilot, said last week at the museum. “And when it took off, it was just amazing. There was no sound, at least nothing I can describe as sound, but just a kind of almost imperceptible percussiveness in the air.”
The work, based on the desert’s quiet, its vanishingly distant sounds and the ethereally dim light of dusk or dawn, has been under construction for several weeks in a Guggenheim tower gallery, requiring a kind of floating room-within-a-room to be built, resting on gaskets so that the chamber absorbs as little sound as possible from the structure of the museum itself. Using timed tickets, groups of five will be allowed to enter the room through a series of sound locks and may remain inside for as long as 20 minutes.
During time spent inside on Thursday morning with four other visitors, I quickly understood Mr. Wheeler’s insistence on small groups. (If he’d had his way, the piece would have been limited to one person at a time.) The room is so silent that any footfall or coat rustle or stomach gurgle, even the sound of swallowing, registers as a kind of thundering violation. After a few minutes, what sounded like an immensely distant low rumble came to me, though I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just my circulatory system. I wanted to sit down and stay for a few hours, but my visit lasted only 10 minutes before other people needed to enter.
Mr. Wheeler’s environments are often so costly and difficult to build, and his standards so exacting, that many have existed only in drawings and conceptual form since the late 1960s. “Synthetic Desert,” conceived in 1968, is one of those, sold to Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, a visionary Italian collector of postwar art, in 1971 and acquired by the Guggenheim in the early 1990s along with five other Wheeler works, only two of which have been realized before now.
The piece, whose cost is not being disclosed, is the first exhibition to emerge from the work of an unusual, ambitious multiyear conservation project that has focused on the groundbreaking Conceptual, Minimalist and Post-Minimalist artists in the museum’s Panza collection.
These are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Wheeler and the show’s organizers, Jeffrey Weiss, senior curator at the Guggenheim, and Francesca Esmay, conservator of the Panza Collection:
You’ve waited almost 50 years to see this piece realized, a long time even for an artist with your kind of patience. Why is it such a difficult undertaking?
DOUG WHEELER The thought of being able to isolate a museum from the sound around it and in it is really a challenge. This is my first real opportunity to do it — a real sensate experience of sound and vision. When I first walked in here, even before construction, I knew that it was going to be a very hard thing to do.
JEFFREY WEISS The process has been very laborious and slow and incremental. And the effort to get this right has been quite intense.
FRANCESCA ESMAY We’ve been calling it an Egyptian effort. The sound engineers Doug is working with (Raj Patel and Joseph Digerness from the firm Arup) can identify things utterly imperceptible to us. They identified an electronic buzz from a panel on the eighth floor, a floor above us, coming through a concrete slab.
Doug, what was your first experience in the desert that led to thinking about trying to base a piece around that environment?
WHEELER I once landed my plane on a dry lake bed in the Mojave. I wasn’t thinking I was going to land there for that experience. I just wanted to try to land in a place like that. When the plane engine stopped ticking, there was no breeze of any kind and it was really silent. In about 10 to 15 minutes I started to be able to hear things far away — tiny, different frequencies hitting me from a great, great distance. When you’re that far out, the mountains are just hazy shapes — they could be 60 miles away or hundreds. And the sounds — you can’t tell a human voice from a car door closing or an eagle screaming more than a mile up.
I’ve read that a whisper is 30 decibels and New York Midtown traffic noise is about 70. (Decibels are logarithmic, meaning a noise 30 decibels is 10 times louder than one 20 decibels.) How silent do you hope “Synthetic Desert” will be?
WHEELER I’ve almost never experienced real silence — it’s just certain degrees of quietude. I think if we’re really lucky we might be able to get this to 10 but probably more like 15. 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. I think you will experience a sense of expanse and distance. Probably, for some people. But I think only when we’re young do we have a kind of open receptiveness to this kind of experience. As we get older, too many of our associative experiences get in the way.
WEISS To a certain degree this really is an experiment, so there’s a definite level of risk.
ESMAY A lot of the early conversations we had with Doug about this piece weren’t even about the research resulting in a public exhibition.
The work is based around your conceptual — and strikingly beautiful — drawings beginning in the late 1960s. But how did you know the idea would work in the real world?
WHEELER Well, it wasn’t only drawings. I had all this figured out once. I had a black metal box and I had just incredible research in that box, of all the things I wanted to do and the technical specifications of how to make them work. [Asked once by the art historian Shirley Hopps what he’d create if he had all the money in the world, Mr. Wheeler responded that he’d send a rocket 200 miles up and release barium oxide, to create a temporary aurora borealis around the earth.]
Having interviewed you before, I know you’re not constitutionally given to satisfaction. But are you pleased that this piece is finally out of your head and in the world?
WHEELER It is very gratifying for me. Instead of just saying over and over, as I’ve done for a lot of years, “Well, I won’t ever be able to do that,” now I’m doing it. I don’t think I expected to feel the exhilaration I felt yesterday just being in the space. Sometimes you can surprise yourself.