PSAD Synthetic Desert III

This otherworldly art installation brings sweet silence to New York City

Art East
Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III. (Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum)
Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III. (Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum)

In the city, it can be hard to find places of total quiet. A new exhibition at the Guggenheim, though, tries to tone down loud New York, at least for a couple of minutes.

Artist Doug Wheeler has created expansive works with luminous materials since the 1960s. His latest piece, PSAD Synthetic Desert III, creates the impression of infinite space as it plunges visitors into almost complete silence. With help from what are essentially large Magic Erasers, Wheeler transformed a regular museum gallery into an almost totally silent space meant to evoke the northern Arizona desert.

Wheeler first conceived of Synthetic Desert in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but this is the first time his installation has been realized. Tucked away on an upper floor of the Guggenheim, visitors pass through three sound-cushioned antechambers before entering the installation on a carpeted gangway.

Save for a recording of the desert, the luminous purple-gray space is so soundless you can hear a whole constellation of funny bodily noises that are typically unhearable in everyday life. While sound in a quiet room registers at 30 decibels, in Wheeler’s semi-anechoic chamber, noise levels check in at about 10 to 15 decibels.

Melamine foam, above, lends the installation an atmosphere of near-total quiet. (Courtesy BASF)

Melamine foam, above, gives the installation an atmosphere of near-total quiet. (Courtesy BASF)

To achieve this super-quiet, the museum used 1,000 pieces of sound-absorbing melamine foam on one side of the room and on the floor. 600 grey foam wedges line the walls, and 400 pyramids of the same material fill space below the platform where visitors sit and take it all in. The Guggenheim worked closely with Arup sound designers Raj Patel and Joseph Digerness to realize the exhibition, and BASF, the company that created the foam, is an exhibition sponsor.

PSAD Synthetic Desert III  is on view through August 2 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. More information about reservations and walk-in tickets can be found on the museum’s website.

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