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Installation view: Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 24–August 2, 2017. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
Installation view: Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 24–August 2, 2017. Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
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This Art Installation Absorbs Nearly All Sound to Create the Sensation of Infinity

Picture of Rachel Gould
Art & Design Editor
Updated: 13 June 2017
In a city as cacophonous as New York, a quiet moment is a rare and welcome gift. Thanks to an installation titled PSAD Synthetic Desert III (1971) by Doug Wheeler, a whole gallery at the Guggenheim Museum has been dialed down to silence.

“Silence as we know it measures at 30 decibels,” according to Doyle Robertson from New Jersey-based acoustic technology company BASF Corp., “and Wheeler’s semi-anechoic chamber will measure in the range of ten to fifteen decibels — so quiet you might just be able to hear your own heartbeat.”

Doug Wheeler in the Painted Desert, Arizona, ca. 1970. Courtesy the artist | © Doug Wheeler.
Doug Wheeler in the Painted Desert, Arizona, ca. 1970. Courtesy the artist | © Doug Wheeler.

An immersive, abstract artwork inspired by the meditative expanse of a Southwestern desert, Doug Wheeler’s PSAD Synthetic Desert III employs some 1,000 components of Basotect, a unique material Architizer describes as “BASF’s flexible, open-cell melamine foam with high sound-absorption properties.” Basotect is commonly employed in architectural projects as it’s also flame retardant, malleable, and nearly weightless at 99% air.

By manipulating both light and sound, Wheeler’s installation transforms the Guggenheim’s gallery space into a “semi-anechoic chamber” with the illusion of boundlessness. The sensory experience Wheeler has created mimics the deserts of northern Arizona, where significant silence influences our visual perception of distance.

Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971 (detail). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Panza Collection, Gift, 1991 | © Doug Wheeler.
Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III, 1971 (detail). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Panza Collection, Gift, 1991 | © Doug Wheeler.

Doug Wheeler rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s for his abstract, geometric multi-media artworks that play with light and texture. He conceived of Synthetic Desert several decades ago, but the Guggenheim’s realization of the artwork as a functional, three dimensional installation is the first of its kind, based on Wheeler’s sketches of the concept.

To experience Synthetic Desert for yourself, reserve a ticket in advance or purchase a walk-in ticket designated for a specific time. Groups of visitors are limited to five in order to minimize noise pollution.

Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III will remain on view at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10128 until August 2, 2017.