Walking into Doug Wheeler’s new “infinity environment” at Chelsea’s David Zwirner gallery is like walking into a cloud of milk. Nothing in the installation is visible, concrete or certain. It is suggestion and experience as art: A suggestion of a physical space on which the viewer is completely unable to focus and an experience of a day-like cycle of light, 32 minutes during which Wheeler uses an array of instruments to play Helios, to create and deliver sunrise, high noon, sunset, inky nighttime and then sunrise again.
The installation, titled SA MI 75 DZ NY 12, is on view at Zwirner through Saturday. Lines to see the installation have rarely been shorter than an hour long. (Art in America’s Brian Boucher recently wrote about waiting four hours to see it.)
An ‘infinity environment’ — the phrase seems to be Wheeler’s, but on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast he said he’s no longer sure it’s a good one — is a space that Wheeler has altered to eliminate any corners or places where light has an opportunity to sit uncontrolled by the artist. It’s hard to tell, but I think the Zwirner space is a rectangular room that opens into a blob-shaped room that may or may not be symmetrical. Just above and to the sides of the entrance to the apparently blob-shaped room, Wheeler has installed the (apparently) timed lighting devices that create the sensation — facsimile? — of one day’s light.
This is Wheeler’s fourth ‘infinity environment.’ According to Zwirner, Wheeler made the first one in 1975 at Milan’s Salvatore Ala Gallery. That piece was acquired by Italian businessman Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo and is now in the Guggenheim’s collection. Eight years later he made another for an installation for a 1983 exhibition at MOCA, and in 2000 Wheeler installed his largest ‘infinity environment’ at the Guggenheim Bilbao.
I entered Wheeler’s space — where the visitor is standing in the JPEG at right — at about ‘mid-morning.’ The ‘day’ was still becoming bright. As I stared straight ahead, I saw pinks and purples. When I moved my head, I continued to see those colors. Every time I blinked, I saw a black dot near the center of my vision.
After some time, I’m not sure how long, the installation became brighter. I could feel my iris contracting my pupil in response to the increasing intensity of the light. As the installation became brighter still, I thought I could see a tree in shadow in front of me, its leaves waving in the breeze and then a bird taking off. None of this was really there (right?), it was just the intensity and perhaps the heat of the light playing tricks on my eyes.
Brighter. I realized I was squinting. A moment later I was squinting so hard that my eyes were tearing. Within a few minutes I discovered that the brightness of the light was giving me a shattering headache. I realized how disorienting Wheeler’s environment is: I had lost all knowledge of time, of how long I’d been in the environment. I had no sense of up, down, left or right. If I’d turned around, 180 degrees, I could have instantly sited myself. Unless, unsure of my bearings, I had fallen down while turning. (At about this point I remembered that in 1980 someone fell down in a James Turrell environment at the Whitney, was injured, and later sued the museum.)
After a few minutes I could feel my pupils beginning to expand again. The brightest part of “the day” had passed, “nightfall” lay ahead. As the brightness receded, I thought I might recapture a sense of space, of grounding, of tangibility, but I did not. I remained inside the installation throughout the darkness. I saw yellows and peaches each time I blinked. Soon the dark gave way to the child of morning, a dawn less rosy-fingered than it was a tangible sensation of light melting onto my corneas. When the brightest part of the day returned, just after I’d been in the environment for a full cycle, I stepped out. Upon sitting down with my notebook a couple of minutes later, the first thing I wrote was: “One of the greatest experiences ever. Feel privileged to have been in it.”
These ‘infinity environments’ are quintessential light-and-space masterpieces. They make us aware of light, unaware of space and unsure our sixth sense, perception. It seems like they should be the conclusion of the light-and-space experiment: They seem informed by or at least in conversation with Robert Irwin’s tendency to make us unsure of the space around us, Larry Bell’s ability to make us unsure if what we’re looking at is real and tangible or not, and James Turrell’s experiments with color. They’re controlling in a way similar to Eric Orr’s installations such as Zero Mass (1972-73), which requires the viewer to walk into a paper-made womb-like structure and to allow her eyes to adjust to the low light level. (I read and hear that Maria Nordmans operate in a similar way, but I’ve never been in one. Nordman declined to be included in various Pacific Standard Time-related exhibitions because she does not participate in group exhibitions.) Instead the ‘infinity environments’ seem to open up the possibility of greater artistic control over space, light and perception, possibilities later explored by artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Anthony McCall and Erwin Redl.
One of my tests for the greatness of art is whether it rewards a sustained gaze, whether it gives me new reasons to spend time with it, whether I find new joys with continued viewing. Wheeler’s newest ‘infinity environment’ passes those tests in an unusual way: It rewards our gaze by transforming looking into a physical experience.
Related: Doug Wheeler is this week’s guest on The Modern Art Notes Podcast. My understanding is that it’s just his third one-on-one interview. Click here to download the mp3, here to subscribe to the program via iTunes and here to subscribe via RSS.
[All images in this post: Doug Wheeler, SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 1975/2012. Reinforced fiberglass, LED lights, high intensity fluorescent lights, UV fluorescent lights, quartz halogen lights, DMX control. Architecturally modified space, composed of two parts. 564 x 702 inches (total space) 1432.6 x 1783.1 cm. By Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.]