Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III.

Doug Wheeler, “PSAD Synthetic Desert III” (1971) (detail), ink on paper, 61.1 x 91.4 cm.

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.

Doug Wheeler, PSAD Synthetic Desert III (1971, realized in 2017), reinforced fiberglass, anechoic absorbers, neon, sound equipment, room: 5.8 x 17.2 x 8.1 m, installation view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (photo by David Heald; all images © Doug Wheeler).

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.

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.”


Doug Wheeler: PSAD Synthetic Desert III continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side) through August 2.

You can see and read much more at Hyperallergic. I think this would be absolutely fascinating to experience, and I wish I could. If you are, or are going to be in the area, consider grabbing a ticket and having one interesting experience!


  1. says

    There are some similar installations (maybe by the same guy) at the mattress factory museum in Pittsbugh. One was a completely blacked out room where a large red framed thing at the end of the room lit up dimly. You can’t take your eyes off it because it’s the only thing you can see -- then you start feeling disoriented. It took me a little time to realize that it was rotating very very slowly. Clever.

    As someone with severe tinnitus (thanks, US Army!) I never experience silence. Anechoic rooms, for me, sound like they are full of cicadas and frogs.

  2. says


    I never experience silence.

    That would drive me starkers. I require silence, especially in the mornings.

  3. says

    I’ve got complete hearing loss in one ear and severe tinnitus in the “good” one (Marine Corps). I don’t know what silence sounds like anymore. I also don’t get much from sound based installations. Oftentimes though, there is usually a visual component to them that I can enjoy. I think I would enjoy this one quite a lot.

    (In the summer, I have to sometimes ask “are the cicadas particular loud today or is it just me? :) )

  4. Raucous Indignation says

    My tinnitus sounds like a hissing steam radiator. Usually just behind and above my left ear, but it’s volume and laterality are quite variable.

  5. Raucous Indignation says

    How much would I have to donate to add an edit feature to the comments on FTB?

  6. says

    Gad, I feel lucky to not have a major problem in that area. I do get a sort of, um, muffled effect at times from my meds, but quiet is quiet, and silence is reveled in, in so far as I can actually get any. Having a house full of animals (rats are astonishingly noisy) and a partner who is home 3 days a week, and doesn’t understand the meaning of quiet, it’s hard to come by.

  7. rq says

    I would love to visit this.
    I also revel in silence, but I suspect a developing tinnitus in the right ear. What with the kids and Husband, who grew up with a constant background noise of TV and who thinks that turning the phone down (versus earphones -- he listens to a lot of youtube) is enough, well, I, too, take what I can get, when I can get it.

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