Monday, December 3, 2012

Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, New York, NY

Holy hell, how has it taken me this long to see Walter De Maria’s, The New York Earth Room?! I have lived in New York for seven years or so and I have only JUST made it a point to see it this weekend.  This long standing installation is located at 141 Wooster Street and it is a thing to see.  Anyone who has not, you must make it a point to, it really will make your night, day, or week seem filled somehow.

This is the third incarnation of De Maria’s work, the original was done in Munich Germany in 1968, the second iteration at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt Germany in 1974 and the one in New York was done in 1977.  The first two no longer exist and this installment has been on continuous view since 1980 and is maintained by the über art facilitator and authorizer the Dia Art Foundation.  Think what you want about moneyed culturization, but maintenance and access to this work is a generous gesture to art and one we should all be thankful for.

You walk through Soho, which is the epicenter for retail excess which is beautiful and perfectly distilled to the point of art in a way.  This area once used to be the ground zero for the New York avant-garde, when these beautiful massive columnar buildings were inhabited and renovated for the purposes of art action, art gesture, art parties and a glamorous subversiveness that only succeeded by its level playing field of poor artists wanting to hang out and make things happen and see each other make things happen.  That time is bygone, shed no tears for it though, it’s not location that makes art but the necessity, concentration and the revelations of its participants.  But, even saying this, there is something to be remarked about this history of this once art district and The New York Earth Room being still sited here as it echoes back to this time yet also to the possibilities of cyclical reoccurrence. 

You buzz the Dia buzzer and you walk up a flight of stairs, lovely worn in slate stairs, to the second floor and you come into a room that has a small reception area to the left and to the right is the work.  What hits you first is not the actual piece but the smell.  You smell earth.  It is that smell, which for those who grew up around nature, suburbanized or other, recalls when you dig into the dirt, deep under, and you get that rich brown sort of wet soil that has micro shimmers of metallic grains and you understand quickly how things can grow out of this and also how it is the material that can decompose flesh.  Then you go to a little mini hallway of sorts, and there is a clear plexi wall that separates you from the room that is filled with dirt.  This is what this work is, a room filled with dirt.  Actually it is a large room and there is a smaller open room inside it which is also filled with dirt.  As simple as this sounds, it is more intriguing to see then I could have ever imagined. 

The work, as written by Dia Foundation, is 22 inches deep, 3,600 square feet with 250 cubic yards of earth and weighs 280,000 pounds.  Its weight is the most compelling visual, you can sense the denseness, the heaviness of this soil.  The coloring is a deep healthy brown, it is moist and this moistness can be seen on the windows that are on either end of the room.  The sweat on the window panes is that of nature and it feels more present in this room, with its resistant boundaries, then it is nature itself. The room itself looks like it was used as is.  What could have been a nice office with the generic alignment and construction of space is filled to waist high level with soil.  It is more then soil and also it is less then soil because there is no growth, no use of its potential.  It nulls the potential for the original conceived use of the space as it also nulls the soil’s natural desire to grow or decompose things.  The whiteness of the walls contrasted with this deep brown is wonderful to look at.  You see it as a sculpture; you see the room, the soil as form, as space, as object.  Another notable thing in addition to the sense of weight in the work is the effect on sound.  The room feels heavy, still, quite but not in a deadened way, it is dense in its quietness, absorbing and dominant.

There were questions I had about the work and those were generously answered by the attendant whose name was Bill.  Bill has been maintaining the work for 25 years.  Yes, the soil was from the original installation that De Maria installed. He was not sure of the soil’s exact origin, possibly upstate New York or Connecticut.  The soil was selected for its color.  Bill waters and rakes the soil once a week.  This takes hours, to water and to rake.  He uses a hose and lets the soil absorb the water.  He walks on top of the soil and he rakes it until he rakes his footprints away.  At the beginning of the project, the soil was tested and there were a lot of living organisms, now he does not think there are is much left but it is still alive.  People throw seeds and other such things into the soil all the time but this has little effect and he doesn’t think people realize how often he waters and rakes the soil or how thoroughly he does it.  I asked him about the smell, how he felt about the smell of the work, he said that he enjoys it, that he likes the smell of the soil, of nature, or something along those lines.  Bill seemed extremely happy, very “zen” in a way.  Is this what happens when you live and experience and in many ways become a part of an artwork that is De Maria’s New York Earth Room?  If so, that seems sort of magical and a wonderful existence and experience to participate in. 

So, again, for anyone who has not seen this, it is a must see.  For those who have but maybe did not have a chance to talk to Bill, go back.  For those who know all there is to know about this piece (which I sure don’t) see it again anyways.  It is a great piece of art and the length of its duration makes it feel challenging in the face of many things occurring in this fast, quick, throw away art world today.