Acne Paper, Issue 12
Amidst the consumer chaos of Soho, a 3,600-square-foot loft filled to a depth of 22 inches with 250 cubic yards of dirt, stands unchanged since the late seventies. The interior earth sculpture by artist Walter de Maria lives on the second floor at 141 Wooster Street between Houston and Prince and has been open to the public since 1980. Lisa Rovner spends an afternoon with its legendary caretaker, the soft spoken Bill Dilworth. Bill has been working and caring for the Earth Room since 1989. In the bright lights big city of Manhattan, the Earth Room is a quiet sanctuary that reminds us how nice it is when things don’t change.
Lisa Rovner : I would describe the Earth Room as object poetry, one critic said it was like being in a Rothko, how would you describe the Earth room to someone who had never seen it?
I like that, “being in a Rothko”, cause you think of saturated color. I get it, both have light and dark. It’s nice to think of the earth as color. That’s really a nice parallel, you sense the shifting color, that you might sense in a Rothko. I’m suspicious of words, but most recently I’ve come to use 4 words to describe it. It’s art, it’s earth, it’s quiet, and it’s time.
It was installed by the artist Walter De Maria in 1977.
Correct. On his birthday. It opened on his 42nd birthday.
Thirty five years later, it’s still here, quietly defying change. Thanks to the Dia Art Foundation, this monumental sculpture is open to the public, 5 days a week, for free. Can you tell our readers about its history?
It was installed as a gallery exhibition, Walter thought of it as a show. It was meant to be last Heiner Freidrich’s gallery show. Heiner Freidrich was going to leave the conventional world and start Dia with Helen Winkler and Philippa de Minil. But to back up a little bit, Walter’s first Earth Room show was in Munich in 1968. It resembled this but was only half the size. He showed a second Earth Room again in Germany so this would be the third. The first New York Earth Room. It opened on October 1st in 1977 and ran for three months. Then it closed for some time and reopened in 1980, as a DIA project. Real estate at that time here was cheap so there was no rush to take it down.
What was Soho like then?
Soho was seedy. The artist and art galleries came because there was affordable space. But the reason there was affordable space is because no one would step foot in this place. It’s funny to think that when the city was rougher, we had advantages
So for three years nobody was taking care of the Earth Room?
I don’t know if it was watered and raked or if it was entirely dormant for a while. We don’t have a definitive history. New York was a wilder place, looser, more creative, on the fly, a little more raw. At the time, no one was taking notes.
Is it really the same dirt? Gathered up from a field upstate?
Yes, it’s the same dirt. We’re not sure of the origin but we do know that the key was that it was from outside. The significance is that it was not sterilized dirt, it was full of life. When I first got the job, half a dozen mushrooms would pop up a week, and these were good size mushrooms. The guy who had just left the job told me that they were poisonous. In fact, they were not poisonous at all, they were delicious.
Do mushrooms still pop up?
No, the nutrients that supported them were consumed over time.
Will the Earth Room really be here forever?
In the early days there was a poster for the earth room and it said “permanent”. Dia realized it was maybe going too far, so they now refer to it as “ongoing”. It’s hard to use that word permanent. It’s more accurate to say ongoing.
I love Dia.
Dia knows how to give art space. It knows art comes to life with the right amount of space. When you crowd art you close it off. Dia gets that.
You have overseen The New York Earth Room since 1989. Do you agree with De Maria when in a 1972 interview with Paul Cummings, recorded for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, he said: “The most beautiful thing is to experience a work of art over a period of time?
The ideal circumstance is to live with art. When you see it repeatedly it becomes implicated in your life, it’s part of your experience of life. Yeah, it’s much better to live with it overtime.
Did you always like it?
Oh sure, what’s not to like about it? Because it’s undefined, it’s a generous work. The Earth Room is easy to like and easy to live with. It’s not a thing you can get tired of. It’s earth. There’s an ancestral longing to connect with the earth. It’s sort of answering these unasked questions, and that’s part of its appeal. The longer I’m here, the more I like it, because I’ve witnessed the effect it’s had on others. My appreciation for it is that big.
Has your relationship to the work changed over time?
It’s continually refreshing.
In the Smithsonian interview cited above, De Maria says, “Every good work should have at least ten meanings.” Yet he was adamant about not talking about the intention behind the Earth Room. The absence of any proscribed meaning or truth is key to De Maria’s work. In 1960 he wrote an essay about the importance of meaningless work but then also said "Whether the meaningless work, as an art form, is meaningless, in the ordinary sense of that term, is of course up to the individual."
One of my teachers said “You don’t judge the art, the art judges you.” And I think there’s something to that..
People have described the Earth Room as visceral, in other words characterized by intuition or instinct rather than intellect. Sure, there are no figures, no movements, no secrets, but yet somehow, the earth room is full full of meaning, reflection and truth. It tells us so much about the world we live in, mainly through juxtaposition and contrast.
Although I think an Earth Room in the country would be compelling too, the contrast element is huge in NY City. For starters, it’s permanent and unchanging in a city that is constantly evolving. Makes it absolutely radical.
It also transcends the art market in a world dominated by markets.
Yeah, this blows all that away. And it’s a monument to simplicity. And profound at the same time.
How has the Earth Room changed your relationship to the world?
It’s interesting to have been here so long and to get older with the work. Maybe the closer I get, the less I have to say about it. There is something in not saying things that I find of interest. In the rising communication, it’s all the more compelling. I have to assume too, that being here all this time has affected me. It’s either nurtured or created me. There is something about quiet spaces. I see this as an opportunity to explore that quiet space. It has to do with perceiving a non-verbal world. I know people feel that briefly when they visit. I get to indulge in it by being here all the time. It’s an interesting thing to think about as a direction.
I see the Earth Room as political art. A silent victory over capitalism. Do you agree?
You know, given the fact that Walter hasn’t told you what to think, it’s a viable take on it. The Earth Room does stand in defiance of the commercialization of art. It’s one aspect of it. And I think for some people that would be of more significance than it is to me. That’s not the part that I dwell on.
What is the part that you dwell on?
I think it’s having this place that is quiet and unchanging in NY City.
The Earth room alludes to the most fundamental conflict humankind faces today, the search for equilibrium between nature and the city. Manhattan is one hell of a city. It’s difficult to find the time to think. Do you think the Earth Room can help one find that equilibrium?
I mean I love NY. A friend of mine once said “NY is my joy” and I just think that is lovely. But to be here, and to have this experience of quiet and silence in the city, that’s what interests me, it’s the combination and the contrast.
You’ve defined your work as care taker of the Earth Room as a way of life.
That’s my experience of it. Its funny I take care of a clock as well and again, it’s about maintaining things that have an effect on people. These are nice ways to relate to the world.
About the Earth room you have said, “The longer its here, the more important it seems to be.” I can’t help but agree.
That’s just the nature of time. It blows people away when you tell them it’s been around for 34 years. There’s a lot of double takes, its always fun to see that. People are literally jolted sometimes. It stands in contrast to the kind of miniaturization of our experiences. It brings you back to a fundamental place that I think we all really do understand. It’s literally a grounding experience.