The Beauty of Beirut
Musée Henry turns fragments of Lebanon’s history into a poetic mosaic.
Art dealer Lucas Zwirner details the quietest place he’s ever been.
I was thinking about literal locations and then I remembered one of our artists named Doug Wheeler, who’s a light and space artist based in Santa Fe, but who spent a lot of time in California. In 2017, he was invited by the Guggenheim to realize a piece that he had never realized before, which is called PSAD Synthetic Desert III. It’s a piece I believe he came up with the idea for in 1971. It was based on his experiences in the desert, flying out there (he’s a pilot), landing on the sand in nowhere land, and realizing you’re at around a five decibel — just no sound whatsoever. With a uniform horizon making it all the more totally engrossing. So he created what’s called a semi-anechoic chamber, a chamber that is totally sound insulated and mutes everything. And it was in the Guggenheim.
You’d enter the museum out of noisy New York and walk into this special chamber and be completely isolated. It was low enough that your own breathing and heartbeat were somehow more audible in your ears than anything else. And it was especially powerful because it was in New York. He got a chemistry company that makes specialty foam to partner with the Guggenheim and donate foam for the project. There were all these small pyramids, jutting triangular forms breaking up the surfaces all around and making the sound completely muted. And then he created one of his optical light effects. So you really felt like you were looking into empty space. And it was so beautiful because it was this experience lifted from the middle of the desert right into one of the loudest, most bustling places in the world.
I’ve been doing Transcendental Meditation for about six years now, and it felt a lot like being in the deep kind of swoon of one of those meditative states when they’re really going well. What's interesting is sensory deprivation is now all the rage, but Doug Wheeler was so ahead of his time, so prescient to see that. Even in 2017 people were not talking about sensory deprivation or minimalist experiences the way they are now. But already in 1971, he had designed this experience that was supposed to strip away all extraneous sensation. And leave you just with the sound of your own body pumping blood. After a couple of minutes, what you hear is literally your own body working with the sounds of being alive. A little scary, but amazing.
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