Braving sleet and slush I went to see Doug Wheeler’s installation at the David Zwirner Gallery. At the door I was greeted by a friendly girl who said that they could unfortunately not allow more people in. There were a couple of dozens of persons waiting in line before me. Of course I was disappointed! Come back next week, the girl said, in the morning when it will be much calmer. So I did. Today. I was the only one there!
I was invited to take off my coat and shoes and then slip on a pair of those shapeless covers over my feet. Oh, it only added up to the expectation! Then I was led in.
There I was, standing in a big white rectangular space. Lights were dim but I could still see the outline of the backing wall of the room. A shade of lilac, or was it purple, seemed to shine through. Then, after my eyes got a little bit adjusted, I suspected the wall to be a screen, a kind of gauze, translucent. I took some steps to have a closer look. The screen was there, but then also not there. I was holding still in front of a dark line on the floor, afraid my nose was going to touch the screen. It made me think of a silk screen used for screen printing, but then an enormous one.
Ok, now. If you are planning to go and see the installation for yourself, you should stop reading this, here and now! I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Come on, go and do something else now…
If you are still reading this, it looks like you have decided not to go to the gallery but to continue with me.
I was still in front of that line, and the light was turning brighter. Although I was told not to touch anything, I couldn’t resist and slowly stuck out one finger to touch the screen. There was no screen! I went back to one of the girls of the gallery to ask if it was allowed to cross that dark line on the floor. Yes of course, she said, and you should!
So I went back in and carefully, very carefully, put one foot over the line. It was like stepping into a void. I couldn’t see anything, but I knew there was space. Slowly I stepped forward. I had to concentrate on not loosing my balance.
There I was. I had crossed the non-existing screen and I found myself in ..nothingness. Almost unnoticeably the light had turned up even more, but still there was nothing to see. I adventured forward in what looked like a very dense fog. But fog is cold, and I was getting hotter. Bright, very bright light now. But unbelievably there was still nothing to be perceived. I held up my hand in front of me. The image was sharp. So there was no haze, no fog, no mist at all. I was surrounded by this intense light. And that’s all there was: light. The image of what heaven is supposed to look like.
I heard some more people behind me. They were treading very lightly, and slowly. They had no shadow. They seemed to be floating in the air.
This sense of emptiness is created by the nonexistence of edges of the room. The plane of the floor slowly flows into the vertical wall and then into the ceiling. No sharp lines to tell you what is below or above. It’s the same principle photographers apply when they put their models in front of a white vinyl roll that doesn’t have a horizon. It’s called an infinite background. In this room however the infinite extends almost all around. It puts you in a space where there’s no references as to what is up or down. You find yourself in a neverending space, an infinite expansion.
The eyes have nowhere to rest, nothing to hold on to. It’s an extremely disorientating feeling. Although you know there is nothing, you always are trying harder to see something. Peeping through your halfclosed eyes, not being able to focus on anything, the only things you start to distinguish are your own eyebrows, eyelashes and nose! Selfconfronting it is!
When I was about to leave the gallery, some other people came in and I stayed to observe them. They had the same reaction as I had. They stood in amazement before that…”screen”, wondering what it was they saw, hesitating to go closer, turning back and forth, examining up close and still not sure about the whole thing. The silence was broken when the girl from the gallery encouraged them to explore more. When all of a sudden a woman walked into the void, the others looked on, bewildered. It really looked like she was going to completely disappear in the distance, in a vaste expansion of whiteness, the land of emptiness.
Although Wheeler lives and works in the States, his works have not often been seen in New York. He is known from the LIGHT AND SPACE movement in the 1960s and 70s. He surely is a master of light. He brings space and light together in a way that makes them almost merge into one single third element, which I would describe as emptiness, void, nothingness.
His work makes me think of Anish Kapoor, one of my top 10 artists. But where Wheeler works with light, in some of his works Kapoor explores darkness, the complete absence of light. The sensation is the same: palpable emptiness.
So instead of recommending to go and see it, I’d rather say: go and feel it.
DOUG WHEELER at the David Zwirner Gallery, New York
(The whole cycle of upcoming and descending light takes around 30 minutes.)