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Sand dune in desert

How Silence Sounds in the Desert (Or the Illusion of the Mute)


An artwork in which the silence of the desert speaks forcefully, from a gallery in a New York museum.

Perhaps absolute silence doesn’t exist, at least not for humans. But our longing for silence, while certainly a right, is even a kind of dignified quest. John Cage once asserted that absolute silence is an experience impossible for humankind. If we were able to isolate ourselves from all the sound coming from the outside, we’d inevitably hear the sounds within ourselves. That’s the paradoxical beauty of this ceaseless mission.

Fifty years ago, the Guggenheim Museum in New York acquired the sketches of PSAD Synthetic Desert III, an artwork by American artist, Doug Wheeler. An ambitious series of plans made in the late 1960s, the work described a spatial installation with elements of light and sound. Like an incomplete poem or an unfinished painting, these sketches remained in the archives of the museum until recently.

Almost half a century later, PSAD Synthetic Desert III has finally been assembled within the New York museum. It consists of an immersive installation emulating the sensations and sounds (or lack thereof) of the imposing Arizona desert, where Wheeler was born and raised.

 PSAD Synthetic Desert III art installation

Isolated on the sixth floor of the Guggenheim, the work takes shape in a gallery covered by white foam cones. Carefully illuminated – they’re the ghostly mountains Wheeler once admired in the desert of his childhood.
The installation, open to but five people at a time, represented a huge technical challenge. To be able to isolate it, almost entirely, from the hustle and bustle of the New York streets it was necessary to construct, literally, a room within the room. To reproduce the calm of the desert, Wheeler managed to create the illusion of silence, using a room that almost completely prevents any kind of echo or resonance.

We think of true silence as the total absence of sound. But man-made silence always has something to say. Wheeler explained that absolute noiselessness wasn’t exactly what he was after. That kind of silence is actually capable of causing distress, even within just a few minutes. Instead, the artist sought a perfect degree of stillness: a space in which sounds were of only between 10 and 15 decibels. (A whisper, for example, is about 30 decibels.)

The Doug Wheeler piece is an illusionist work. It’s one that emulates a total lack of sound but which actually strongly resonates. It’s a visit to the artist’s childhood, to the sacred silence of the desert, and finally, it’s a revisiting of the human longing for silence, a small hope in a quest that may never end.

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