Doug Wheeler


Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III (detail), 1971, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.

Doug Wheeler is an American artist based in New Mexico. In the 1960s he began working in Los Angeles, where he was one of the pioneering figures exploring how light and space could be used to establish experiential situations. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Wheeler is currently showing PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971, the first realization of a semi-anechoic chamber he originally conceived as a plan in 1968. The work is on view through August 2, 2017.

TO ME, A WORKING DRAWING is about experimental spaces or thoughts. I used to do what I called “equation drawings,” which I started making because I felt they allowed me to map space objectively. With my current show at the Guggenheim, I saw the original drawing I made in 1968, which is part of the Panza Collection there, and I realized what I wanted from the piece. I’ve since done about ten more drawings based on that one. Every time I do a drawing, I learn more about what I’m doing. I almost don’t need to actually realize a physical piece because I’ve been through the whole idea so much that I know it’ll work.

To make the Guggenheim space do what I’d drawn, the sound-reflecting areas had to be shaped in such a way that what sound does get generated will flow away, rather than bounce at you. In the space, which is off of the rotunda, the decibel level is usually quite high, but I wanted to get it down to ten decibels. The Guggenheim ended up calling up a sound lab called ARUP to help. The space has sound, but it’s a kind of sound that I’ve experienced when I would fly alone. There have been a few times when I landed on a dry lakebed a hundred miles from any road. When you’re in a place like that, where you don’t hear the motor anymore, the ticking of the metal cooling, or anything like that, you just listen while you’re looking into the distance and you hear sound come to you. I’m not talking just about the wind over the ground. You’re hearing sound that’s generated miles away, so it becomes disembodied, and it’s an incredible experience. That’s why I call these works Synthetic Deserts, because I’m trying to make a sensate experience. I’m not trying to duplicate it, or make a diorama of it, or anything like that. I’m just trying to create a place where you’ll have that kind of experience, and it will feel like the experience, but very obviously not be it.

This work has neon, like in the original plan, and the pyramidal absorbers. In the original drawing, they had a base of a two-foot square. These have an eighteen-inch base, and they’re skinnier than in my original drawing. I’m doing that to create more areas where sound will get trapped. The way I originally drew it, it wouldn’t work as well. So pyramid forms surround you. When you walk in, everything is sound-absorbing: the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and it’s all due to these pyramidal absorbers. And then there’s a platform that you walk out onto that’s in the middle of these absorbers. And then there is a wall that curves around you—not totally curving, but it’s got an eight-foot radius in the corners—and feels like my light walls feel.

Whatever sound people who come in will generate won’t do much because it doesn’t go anywhere. In the space I’ll be generating pink noise primarily. Pink noise is a frequency that is much more palatable than white noise. I had to shield the entire space, floor, walls, and ceiling—everything—with a sound envelope so that vibrations and all the things that the museum is generating won’t be able to get through. However, if it’s anything too low then what you would be hearing, which is very disconcerting, is your own body. You’d be hearing your heart and all these other things in yourself, and that could be very uncomfortable, and I don’t want that. I don’t want you to feel claustrophobic or anything. I want a sense of expansion to take place. Hopefully the viewer can become sensitive enough so that the space feels alive.

— As told to Alex Bacon