On my first visit to Joshua Tree, I encountered a grizzled local with a Zen-like demeanor sitting outside on a rocking chair. “Do you know what goes on here?” he asked me. “What?” I questioned. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.” I had the sense, even then, that his answer pertained to more than just human activity. Doug Wheeler’s latest immersive environment at the Guggenheim Museum, PSAD: Synthetic Desert III (1971), only enhanced my memory of that aphoristic statement.
Wheeler’s groundbreaking experiments with perception make him one of the best-known artists of the Light and Space movement that originated in Southern California in the 1960s. He grew up in the mountains of Arizona and, following in the footsteps of his parents, earned his pilot’s license.
The inspiration for Synthetic Desert came in the early 1970s, when he landed a plane on a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert. Once the sounds of the engine were extinguished, an all-encompassing auditory experience began. “I began to hear sounds that came very disembodied,” he said, “so that there was no kind of definitive way to say what that was and how it got to you, because it came in such an unusual way. For me it was really profound, because it was like I’m hearing distance. I’m seeing distance.”
Wheeler created a series of drawings at that time, sketching out his vision for Synthetic Desert, but the Guggenheim installation marks the first time the piece has been realized. Created with support from a curator at the museum, a conservator from the Panza Collection, and sound engineers from Arup, Synthetic Desert is a monument to Wheeler’s ambitious undertakings and exacting standards.
Visiting Synthetic Desert requires an timed ticket, and only five people are allowed in the installation at once for 10- or 20-minute periods. A guide joins each group and provides strict instructions: no talking, no phones, no bags, no touching the art. After passing through a set of doors into one chamber, visitors then pass through another, ascending a ramp and emerging onto a platform surrounded by rows and rows of foam pyramids bathed in a purplish-gray light.
The traffic of New York City, the din of the museum, the chaotic noise of everyday life — it all evaporates. The enclosed environment absorbs every one of those sounds, making you acutely aware of their absence. Synthetic Desert is a semi-anechoic chamber, meaning it is echo-free. To avoid the feeling of claustrophobia, Wheeler installed a subtle sound element, so the room hums at the frequency of pink noise, which is lower than its white counterpart. Meanwhile, every small noise within the space is magnified, from the rustle of clothing to the gurgle of a belly. Within the quasi sci-fi setting of Synthetic Desert, it is the humans who feel like aliens.
After roaming around the space, I settled into a spot on the platform, alternating between sitting and lying down, gazing around and shutting my eyes, absorbing my surroundings in different ways.
The pyramids, with their rigorous pattern and distinct gradient hues, evoked the feeling of being inside a semi-abstract landscape painting of a mountain range. In an interview with the New York Times, Wheeler spoke of such desert mountains, saying, “When you’re that far out, the mountains are just hazy shapes — they could be 60 miles away or hundreds.”
But it was the “sky” that captured my visual attention most. It’s impossible to determine the actual shape or scope of the architecture on the other side of the pool of foam pyramids. It is amorphous, elusive, and gives the impression of infinity.
Synthetic Desert is an exercise in contradictions. Physically, it is completely self-contained, yet it feels utterly limitless. The sharp points of the industrial polymer pyramids have a distinctly menacing appearance, yet the atmosphere is calm, even soothing. The installation is designed to elicit a sense of being in nature, yet it is completely unnatural in materials and presentation. It is largely silent, but it made my ears ring.
Like the old man I met in Joshua Tree, Wheeler has also spoken of the sense of nothingness in the desert. “When you’re in some place that has immensity, and it has power in that, and it’s, like, foreign, because there is nothing human about it … There’s nothing moving on the ground. There’s nothing.” While visitors to Synthetic Desert may not be standing in the Mojave Desert, their experiences here are still profound, whether theirs ears are filled with distant noises or nothing at all.
Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side) through August 2.