"The Best Art In The World"
January 17 through February 25, 2012
"There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time."
- John Cage
Popular myth recounts how 16th century sailors lived in fear of accidentally discovering the edge of the world. Hypothetically speaking, after careening off the precipice of existence they would have presumably ended up somewhere very similar to Doug Wheeler's installation at David Zwirner, i.e., nowhere, surrounded by nothing. 'Nothing' is a tricky if not tautologically impossible concept to grasp, particularly in a visual sense. Not being able to see is in no way the same as having literally nothing to focus on. SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 (2012), Wheeler's fourth ‘infinity environment’ and first New York solo show, is probably the closest you’ll ever get to finding out what this would be like.
The installation, and Wheeler, come out of California’s loosely defined Light and Space movement of the late 60s and early 70s, the same period Lucy Lippard broadly mapped out as encompassing the ‘dematerialization of art.’ Throughout these years art was released from the constraints of object-hood and found itself increasingly dissolved into modes of perception. In keeping with this tradition, SA MI 75 DZ NY 12 gently invokes an altered frame of cognitive reference. This is a potent experience. Humankind has a long track record of tinkering with consciousness, via many and varied methods—it’s as if we feel something’s not quite right with how we usually see the world. When we manage a perceptual adjusment, even temporarily, it is viscerally felt, and in the best cases we return to the mundane with greater perspective on how we generally interact with it.
Here, the lightly intoxicating optical effect is achieved by a concave wall of spotless white fiberglass and lashings of light. It is as delicate as it is all-encompassing—one of the gallery assistants explained that a fallen hair could ruin the illusion. As such, the long-standing edict 'don't touch the art’ is taken to clinical, even sci-fi-esque, levels. Everything is very politely but very precisely controlled. Only a small number of people are allowed in at once, so first you wait in the front room, removing your shoes to pass the time. Eventually, you are beckoned to a bench where you cover your socks with booties. You are then handed to another assistant who lays down some basic groundrules: spend time in the antechamber, don't walk up any inclines you might encounter, and so on.
At long last, you step into the light. Each movement forward is cautious because every flicker of the eyes is mute, conveying nothing of any conventional use. Over a 32 minute cycle the evolving color suggests a dawn that procedes slowly to dusk. At ‘midday’, its brightest and whitest, it most intensely conveys an impression of absolute absence. It's a curious contradiction that due to the nature of light, in these moments you are not in fact experiencing no color, but all colors—not nothing but everything. And whether you take away a deeper awareness of how your brain relates to your corneas or a more profound sense of the infinite, you will leave with something.