WHAT DID Richmond sculptor Tara Donovan do when she took the call several weeks ago informing her that she had been chosen to participate in the upcoming Whitney Biennial 2000, the prestigious exhibition of contemporary art opening next spring at Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art?

"I screamed and ran around in circles," she laughs. "What do you think?"

Makes sense.

Consider this: Donovan's "Whorl," a new, site-specific installation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art also screams and runs around in circles. Blindingly white, the work lies like a polar bearskin rug just off the center of the Hemicycle Gallery's parquet floor. It isn't apparent at first, but if you move to the far side of the furry floor piece, you can see that it runs from the center of the room outward in a spiral pattern reminiscent of Robert Smithson's famous (and now submerged) jetty or a cross section of a chambered nautilus or a gently rolling landscape by Maya Lin, covered with snow. It doesn't actually make noise, but I wouldn't be surprised if some dog somewhere isn't howling at the shriek -- inaudible to all but the most sensitive ears -- that seems to emanate from its icy blue heart.

Not to say that "Whorl" has no soul, but it's animated more by the cold, intellectual beauty of industry than by nature. So that artificiality is especially puzzling -- and creates a delicious kind of tension -- when you hear Donovan talk about the living quality of her work: "I'm playing around with the idea of mimicking nature by referencing the organic processes through which things actually grow. I want to create the feeling that it could take over the space in the way mold could."

It's funny, because "Whorl" looks less like fungus than a burial ground for tribbles (for those who never saw the classic "Star Trek" episode, "tribbles" are alien critters that resemble nothing so much as short-haired pom-poms or fuzzy bedroom slippers). Made out of a 100 percent nylon fiber with the unromantic name of Allied Signal Product Code 30039, "Whorl" consists of about 8,000 pounds of the stuff meticulously bundled and trimmed into powder puff-size tufts on the Hemicycle floor, four tons of loaned waste material that will eventually be returned to a factory in Hopewell, Va., for use in the manufacture of bulletproof vests or insulation or carpeting.

An extension of Donovan's long-standing interest in texture and optics ("I want people to ask, `Is it real color or does the blue come from the internalness of the filament?'"), "Whorl" is also a continuation of the 30-year-old artist's ongoing exploration of what she calls "active fields."

"When you walk around it, both the viewer and the work will change through a foregrounding of viewpoints," says Donovan. "Does that make sense?"

Maybe not, but like the rest of Donovan's always engaging work, "Whorl" has a way of secretly insinuating its cool, cool way into your heart, even as it plies its seductive powers most obviously -- and dazzlingly -- on your retinas.

TARA DONOVAN: WHORL -- Through Jan. 17 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW (Metro: Farragut West). 202/639-1700. Web site: www.corcoran.org. Open 10 to 5 daily except Tuesdays; Thursdays to 9. Admission is by suggested donation of $3; $1 for seniors and students; $5 for family groups.