PSAD Synthetic Desert III belongs to a yet-to-be-realized series of installations conceived by Doug Wheeler during the late 1960s and ’70s. In each work, the architectural modification of an existing room allows the artist to achieve subtle manipulations of light, space, and sound. These changes create a “semi-anechoic chamber” designed to suppress all but the lowest levels of ambient sound.
Secondarily, the room’s lighting and configuration induce an optical impression of infinite space. The Guggenheim installation, produced in close collaboration with the artist, will be the first time Synthetic Desert—or any work in this series—has ever been completed and shown.
Interviews conducted by the Guggenheim with Wheeler have clarified his ambitions for Synthetic Desert, including what kind of sensory experience he hopes to create and how that experience reflects on consciousness—on our subliminal awareness of optical and acoustical properties of space in the natural world. The concept of Synthetic Desert is partly drawn from psychological and neurophysiological experiments in sensory deprivation that date back to midcentury. Yet Wheeler also compares the impact of the work to his own experience of a specific location in the Arizona desert, where near-silent conditions profoundly influence the visual sensation of distance.
Based on drawings executed in 1971, Synthetic Desert is being redesigned for one of the museum’s Tower galleries. The installation entered the Guggenheim collection in 1992 along with many other Minimal, Post-Minimal, and Conceptual artworks from the 1960s and 1970s that were acquired from the collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. The forthcoming installation is being executed in conjunction with the Panza Collection Initiative, an extensive ongoing study devoted to questions of fabrication and installation in art of that period. In the case of Synthetic Desert, the goal is to produce an authorized iteration of the work that can be re-created at the museum in the future, thereby guaranteeing the work’s posterity.
Due to the nature of the work, which depends on reducing distractions of any kind, the audience for Synthetic Desert will be carefully controlled to limit visitation to small groups. This measure serves to protect the quality of visitor experience, which can only achieve fullest potential if traffic is regulated and all extraneous sound is eliminated.
This presentation of PSAD Synthetic Desert III is organized by Jeffrey Weiss, Senior Curator, and Francesca Esmay, Conservator, Panza Collection, with Melanie Taylor, Director, Exhibition Design. The Guggenheim is also working closely with Raj Patel and Joseph Digerness, technicians from Arup, a design firm that specializes in the acoustic properties of built space.