The sound of silence at the Guggenheim
By Anna Spiewak
It was Albert Einstein who said that “science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity and form,” and BASF is living proof of that notion.
The leading global chemical company has sponsored the much-anticipated installation “PSAD Synthetic Desert III,” conceived in 1968 by contemporary artist Doug Wheeler, a pioneer of the loosely affiliated art movement called “Light and Space” in 1960s and ‘70s Southern California.
While the artwork was created and plan drawings made close to 50 years ago, it was first realized in March 2017 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. BASF’s Basotect—a melamine resin foam—is used as an acoustic as well as visual component of the installation.
Wheeler’s work is inspired by his experiences in the deserts of northern Arizona, where near-silent conditions deeply affected the visual sensation of distance. This installation reduces ambient sound to such a degree that it is possible to hear one’s own heartbeat.
A handful of BASF employees got to experience the artwork first-hand in the first week of the opening. Here’s the lowdown—A chaperone leads a group of five people—max—into the installation, which is nestled away on the seventh floor. (You are asked to leave your mobile devices behind prior to entrance). As you enter the compact room, all your senses are on alert.
At first, you notice the low-level lighting, which almost creates a glow around the field of Basotect pyramids. As you gaze across the pyramids, the walls seem to fall away. You are given the option to sit or stand. It is then that it finally hits you—the silence. You can hear yourself think, swallow, crack your neck, others’ clothes ruffle as you stare into the so-called distance before you. You are, it seems, in a man-made desert and you suddenly desire to revel in this experience solo, wishing that no one else was in the room distracting you from your moment of Zen.
This utmost quiet is achieved thanks to manipulation of sound. While silence as we know it measures at 30 decibels (equivalent to a tranquil rural area), the installation achieves the suppression of sound to mere 10 decibels (barely audible, equivalent to breathing), offering an escape from the loud Big Apple, while still in it. The lighting and configuration, at the same time, induce an optical impression of “infinite” space.
Basotect possesses other more practical purposes such as sound-effect reduction in equipment, transportation vehicles and buildings. While the sound-absorbing foam is most famously used in BASF customer Procter & Gamble’s product— the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, it doesn’t stop there. It’s also utilized in subway carts, elevators and the rail system. Most recently, Basotect has been making rail seating lighter and safer for commuters.
“More and more specialists are taking note of sound pollution, because excess exposure to sound can have both negative physical and behavioral effects. Excessive sound can affect concentration, cause misunderstandings, impair task performance, add stress levels and disturb our sleep,” said Doyle Robertson, Regional Business Manager, Plastics, at BASF during his speech at a private event at the Guggenheim. “Basotect allows (architects) to create acoustic treatments that are highly functional. (The material) can be cut into any shape and coated with color or wrapped in certain coverings providing practically unlimited design options.”