Friday, February 15, 2008

Walter De Maria: The New York Earth Room, 1977

In the heart of SoHo, now one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Manhattan, most of the second floor apartment of 141 Wooster Street has been completely covered in 22 inches of earth. Originally a three month temporary exhibit, Walter De Maria’s Earth Room became a fixed exhibition in 1980. At this time, it was taken over by the Dia Art Foundation, which focuses on the preservation and initiation of art projects which are not economically feasible. Since then, an average of 35 people walk in daily to experience De Maria’s earth sculpture: from art connoisseurs to people who sit in meditation and earth lovers.

I happened to see the Earth Room for the first time on Valentine’s day. For the occasion, a woman had decided to pay tribute to De Maria’s work by filling the staircase landing with flowers, both fake and real, as well as by making her own contribution to the sculpture itself: a little grey-green bush about a foot high had been placed in the earth when I first saw De Maria’s soil landscape. It was quickly removed by the receptionist at the foundation, who told me somewhat timidly: “This is how it’s supposed to be.” Although the bush was gone, there still remained next to me a little blue table with a red vase filled with fake roses and poppies, making me feel as though I were sitting on the more manicured and embellished side of the apartment, in contrast with the starkly minimalist expanse of soil in front of me.

Valentine tributes aside, De Maria’s earth sculpture is especially interesting as an experience of the senses. The sculpture is not immediately visible for visitors, so the first experience of the piece relies mainly on senses other than vision. Immediately, on walking inside the apartment, the air has a different quality to it. It is humid, and the space smells reassuringly damp and earthy. The temperature of the space itself is very comfortable, regularized naturally by the soil and without the use of heaters.

Once the earth does come into view, however, the combination of the white walls and naked light bulbs in contrast with the dark brown solidity of the earth is somewhat breathtaking. It is also surprising and surreal to enter a clean apartment building with wooden floors and aged staircases, to discover a space covered in an element belonging to the outdoors and to nature. I laughed as I imagined real estate agents in New York outraged at 3,600 square feet of precious SoHo floor space completely covered in soil.

Watered and raked once a week in order to keep it like it was during its first exhibition, the earth also has something barren about it: its richness and wetness contrast the fact that there is nothing growing out of it, no visible life. Furthermore, the soil is not meant to be walked on or touched, creating a particular tension in the viewer who can look, smell, and feel the air around her, but not come into direct contact with a material suddenly made sacred as De Maria’s art work.

Earth Room combines De Maria’s work as a minimalist, conceptualist and land artist. In this sculpture, California born and educated De Maria brings together contrasting elements to create a surreal and soothing experience for the body and the mind. On one hand, the sculpture presents us with a great sense of solidity and stability, the rich and heavy earth packed evenly in the contained space of an apartment. Yet because of its nature as a site specific work, Earth Room also constantly changes in its implications and the way it can be approached by viewers. If you find yourself shopping for shoes in the neighborhood, do not miss the chance to rethink where you are and visit 141 Wooster Street.

The New York Earth Room
12-6pm (closed 3-3.30pm)
Open each year September through June

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