Not long after disassembling Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms, which had New Yorkers queuing up in polar conditions from the beginning to the end of their six-week run, David Zwirner Gallery now offers another buzzworthy, limited-capacity affair: a “rotational horizon work” by light-and-space artist Doug Wheeler. The wise will consider making a reservation in advance this time.
Housed in the commodious ground floor of the gallery’s 20th Street location, the work resembles a giant igloo. It consists of a slightly convex circular platform, about twenty yards in diameter, rimmed with a bright band of light that bathes an encapsulating dome in the lavender hues of early dawn. Waiting in the narrow antechamber, where visitors are outfitted with shoe covers to prevent scuffing the immaculate environment inside, one feels as though preparing to pass on to the next world.
Wheeler’s heaven, actually informed by his experiences as a pilot, is fun because it is gently disorienting. The curvature of the platform, suggesting that of the earth, continuously robs one of equilibrium—an effect that becomes acutely intense as one approaches the platform’s edge, the distance of which from the domed enclosure is strangely unfathomable. The hue of the light makes the height of the dome similarly impossible to gauge, and once one becomes attuned to the atmospherics, slight modulations of the light become perceivable as streaky patches. The auditory senses receive pleasure too, as footsteps trigger echoes of otherworldly timbres.
Unfortunately, you can bet that just as you’re on the cusp of achieving zen, a gallery attendant will politely request that you make way for the next group.
Joking aside, it is this inevitable interruption that separates Wheeler’s gallery exhibition from, say, James Turrell’s Aten Reign, another light-based work and one that illuminated the Guggenheim’s rotunda this past summer to great fanfare. The two works share much in common. Both are immersive, minimal, based in light and space. Wheeler and Turrell belong to the same cohort of artists that, since the 1960s and ’70s, have produced immaterial counterparts to the pared-down sculptures of artists like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin (some prints by whom you can currently see on Zwirner’s second floor).
But here’s one difference: The Guggenheim exhibition was crowded. Whereas Wheeler at Zwirner aims to carve out a relatively private experience for visitors (a slice of alone time with one’s perceptual apparatus) by accommodating only small groups for limited windows of time, the Guggenheim exhibition allowed paying customers to just hang out, park themselves on the floor of the rotunda, and bask in Turrell’s temple of light for as long as they wished, chatting or simply gazing upward.
As a remedy for a lack of stimulating public spaces, Turrell’s Aten Reign was of course very partially satisfying, just as the installation at Zwirner less than graciously delivers as an occasion for prolonged meditation. Both, however, rank as sights worth seeing and experiences worth having for what they are. What remains, perhaps, is for an institution capable of functioning differently than a gallery or museum to offer a third option for art of this type.
Doug Wheeler will be on view at David Zwirner Gallery (537 West 20th Street) through March 29, 2014.