Doug Wheeler: See the Space
Image credit: David Zwirner Gallery.
If you want to experience pure space, or rather its disappearance, go immerse yourself in Doug Wheeler’s SA MI 75 DZ NY 12, currently on view at the David Zwirner Gallery at 525 West 19th Street in New York through February 25th.
I didn’t say go see the exhibition. This is a work of art that surrounds you, taking away all the usual cues that lets us understand space, which is to say the structures architects build. Wheeler has created a white room with no corners, lit so that you are disoriented, blinded, and see nothing with your eyes wide open. It is as close to a religious experience as I think we can have these days.
The installation is part of a renewed interest in the “light and space” artists who create effects through the manipulation of spatial borders and lighting conditions –I wrote about the Phenomenal exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art a few months ago. Among architects, James Turrell is most well-known, but Wheeler, who has been creating these kind of environments, largely without much attention, for several decades, here goes that macho maker of desert observatories one better.
It works like this: go stand in line for at least an hour (OK, I cheated, the gallery snuck me in ahead of the people waiting), take off your shoes, put on white booties, and step into a room where Wheeler leaves you to float. You step gingerly onto a white platform, let the rear of the room and the city behind that fade away, and shuffle as close as you dare to the invisible end of the room. Stop. Don’t imagine you can reach the end. Just stand there. Don’t discuss with your friends. Find a vantage point from which you do not see any other viewers. Open your eyes as wide as possible. Try not to fall over. Keep those eyes open.
Whiteness surrounds you. When I hit the installation at the height of its 30-minute cycle, the light, which comes from behind you, was almost painful, harsh and insistent. I started to see things falling that I soon realized were dust in my eyes. Aureoles flared up somewhere between my brain and the walls.
Then the light started to fade, and contours became visible. They were not walls, but curves and even seeming forms appearing out of the grays that were beginning to wash the space in front of me. As the light dimmed ever further, purples and blues rained down, turning into a bed of almost darkness.
Before I could lose myself in the absence of light, dawn set in again, slowly opening the space up again until I once again was in the now familiar place of infinite lightness.
As the cycle approached its peak, familiarity and guilt crept into this openness, and I shuffled back into the real world to let others take my place. I felt like I had taken a light bath that cleansed everything I saw outside, making the objects and colors appear in all their materiality.
The raison d’etre for architecture is space. It is what architects believe they make. Yet it is something invisible, a quality that mathematicians postulate and designers enclose and define. In Doug Wheeler’s installation, it appears, but only as an absence. It made me realize that space will only be if we keep our eyes wide open, do nothing, and let buildings disappear.