I waited in line for two hours Saturday to slip on a pair of hospital booties and spend a few minutes, maybe 5 minutes tops, milling around a white room. And you know what? It was totally worth the wait.
The installation is called rather unromantically SA MI 75 DZ NY, and it’s precisely what I’ve described—a white room and little else. That "little else," though, makes all the difference. Wheeler softened the room’s corners to obliterate any sense of where the floor ends and the walls and ceiling begin. I’d seen photos of the thing online, but I was totally unprepared for the physical effects. Step inside, and immediately, you feel like you’ve been smacked in the face by an endless plume of mist.
The effect dies after a moment (turn around and you’ll notice a bunch of mood-killing lights and—eek!—the right angles of a normal room). But hang out a few more minutes (and ignore the lights if you can), and your eyes start playing new tricks on you. My boyfriend obsessed about the little particles of dust in his eyes that the white background threw into relief. "My eyes feel like they’re dirty," he said.
SA MI 75 DZ NY is Wheeler’s fourth so-called "infinity environment"—expansive, all-white rooms that evoke the sensation of entering an infinite void. The first was built in 1975. Wheeler helped pioneer the Southern California-based Light and Space movement in the 1960s and ‘70s alongside guys like Robert Irwin and James Turrell. Their big thing was futzing around with light and architecture to control, sometimes very subtly, how people experience art. If you want to read a great book about this stuff, pick up Lawrence Weschler’s extended profile of Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. The book details the profound impact the artist’s work had on viewers. In one instance, after he manipulated the transparency of a building near his studio, people sat and observed how its light changed, "watching, sometimes for hours at time."
I suspect that what drew people to Irwin’s artwork decades ago is the same thing that inspired legions to wait two hours (or more) at the David Zwirner gallery on Saturday. People crave the visceral experience. Our world is even more image-saturated today than it was 35 years ago. A new painting can be disseminated around the cultural stratosphere before it even hits the gallery wall. Everything can be found online. Well, almost everything. The rather plain shots of Wheeler’s installation above just go to show that some things really are still better in person.
Images by Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York © 2012 Doug Wheeler