“It’s just a room full of dirt,” says a man coming down the stairs as we go up to the second floor of a non-descript building at 141 Wooster Street. Good–then it’s still there. As if Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room would suddenly be gone, after existing inside this SoHo apartment space since 1977.
I try to go to the The New York Earth Room every time I’m in New York City, and bring along whomever will come with me. “Just a room full of dirt” is not the easiest sell in a city full of art, but it is also free, and that often turns people around. Additionally, explaining that there has been an apartment in SoHo knee-deep in dirt for nearly forty years often tips the curiosity factor. I tell people if they haven’t been, they should at least see it.
But the spectacle value of the sculpture is only the first few inches of this dark, heavy, fertile work. This was not the first time that De Maria filled a room with just dirt–two previous Earth Rooms were created, both in Germany. During the same period the artist completed a number of monumental works that combined precision with nature. The precise technological constraints of work like Vertical Earth Kilometer, in which a kilometer-long rod was inserted into the earth, The Lightning Field, in which rods are distributed precisely across a field in New Mexico, and Broken Kilometer, a series of rods places very precisely on the floor of another SoHo space–all required precision manufacturing and technical expertise to install and maintain. Fill a room with dirt may seem like a departure from these works, but if anything, it might be more technical.
The room is filled with 250 cubic yards of earth–enough to fill 25 dump trucks. The dirt was chosen specifically for its color and texture, sourced mostly in Pennsylvania, although it was mixed with other sources. But some of the real artistry has taken place as the sculpture has persisted. As it turns out, SoHo apartments aren’t designed to hold 280,000 pounds of dirt, and architectural renovation and repair has been necessary to keep the floor holding it up. The moisture affects the structure, as well as the weight. But this moisture is a part of the sculpture, and is maintained by the caretaker, Bill Dilworth, who has been responsible for the Earth Room for 26 years. He waters and rakes the sculpture weekly–otherwise the dirt would compress and dry out.
This moisture is one of the most overwhelming sculptural aspects to the work, for me. I have never visited another indoor work that I could smell and feel on my skin as I ascended the stairs to go see it. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and earthy, loamy, wet scents are common here. Scents are overwhelmingly common in New York City as well–but wet earth is not one of them. The Earth Room doesn’t smell like a forest, or even a natural space, but it smells of irreducible combination. I can smell dusty, old New York building paint, the smell of service elevators, and on a wet day, the unique stench of Manhattan rain. But additionally, I can smell moist dirt. I have perhaps never seen a space so permanently altered by sculptural work as The New York Earth Room. Not by opposing the phenomena of nature with those of the city, but by using both as artistic medium, a hard line between them confronting the viewer, as they stand looking at a just a room full of dirt: and just that precisely, for the past forty years.