When Steve Jobs died my father said something like this, “it’s hard to believe; the guy was five years younger than me.” Now my old man didn’t know Jobs or, to my knowledge, anyone in the Silicon Valley game. In fact he’d just started using his first Jobsian product a couple months earlier. I asked, “What’s so hard to believe? He had cancer.” It took me a while to understand his response, that you see everything through the prism of your own life experience.
Time passes and this exchange replays in my mind as I’m standing in a second floor loft filled knee high with dark, moist soil. The loft is on Wooster Street, in SoHo. Incandescent bulbs spread a glossy sheen across eggshell white walls. It’s been like this since 1977 when the Dia Art Foundation commissioned Walter De Maria to create The New York Earth Room. A glass partition, no higher than the soil, serves as a retaining wall. It’s evident that this is where all visitors stand; the floorboards have been worn thin by footfall. Outside a car bumps along the cobblestone street and somewhere else in the building a generator is humming on a frequency so low it seems you can almost feel it, softly, in your stomach.
I understood what my father was getting at almost intuitively, that a personal gauge is always measure of oneself against something else. My father was thinking about time, holding half a century up to half a century. How can you imagine someone’s lifetime without thinking of your own?
It is a similar line of thought that brings me to the Earth Room, that objects (and this goes for people and places and circumstances too) become real only when experienced directly, as in with your body. A sculptor I wrote about in the spring helped bring this concept into focus for me. His work is made on a scale determined by his body, so 1:1 is life size. I knew when I began writing about his sculptures that I would have to get into their physical space if I was going to have any chance of knowing them on a physiological level. One afternoon I spent hours with a roomful of them, and it was one of the most intimate art experiences I’ve ever had (partly, surely, because I was the only person in the room). Thinking of the sculpture as a body in relation to my body, its parts relative to my parts, its movement versus my movement…I came away with the feeling that I knew the work the way you know someone who has just bared their secrets, fears, and dreams.
Before you see the Earth Room you smell it, the pungent aroma of dirt as thick as you’d expect in a greenhouse. You feel it too, because the soil is watered weekly its constantly moist and that water hangs like an invisible cloud, an aura of palpable humidity, around the undulating field of loose terra firma. It’s a smell that does not belong to winter, and is hardly common in SoHo even in appropriate seasons. It’s a primeval scent that fills your mind with archetypal images of nature that extend beyond Western civilization to agrarian ages and gods of harvest. It makes you think of fertility, and then the new year about to begin, 2012.
Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977; Photo: John Cliett / Copyright Dia Art Foundation
The Earth Room was completed in 1977, five years before I was born. It’s been here the whole time looking just this way, smelling exactly as it does now. At this very moment (4:00 on the 23rd of December) I am the only person with the Earth Room in my field of vision, the only person on Earth. The trajectories of our respective existences have come together—body to body—and the thing I feel most compelled to do is breathe. How odd. Not at all a typical art reaction. Deliberately breathing is a grounding activity. It focuses my thoughts on a physical process that requires no thought. Unthinkingly I am breathing in the Earth Room. The boundary between its body and my body becomes less distinct.
According to Dia this is the third iteration of the Earth Room, but the other two no longer exist. Bill Dilworth has been this artwork’s steward since 1989. He says he’s not sure exactly where the dirt is from, he’s heard Pennsylvania, he’s heard upstate New York—what he knows for sure is that the artist chose this particular dirt for its color, a deep dark umber that appears more black where it intersects with the walls’ whiteness. I stare at this line where dirt meets wall until all I see is a blur of dark beneath a patch of light. The line loses all definition and becomes a space where darkness and light merge. It could be dusk, or dawn. The stillness feels pregnant with force; it’s like being inside a Rothko.
I told Bill that he’d be seeing more of me in the year ahead, that I felt I was just beginning to appreciate De Maria’s work though I’ve known about it since my college days. Bill nodded, his hands folded across his lap, “Wonderful thing about these permanent installations,” he says, “is you can come to them in your own time.” As we shook hands it occurred to me that permanent installations of contemporary art are very rare. Monuments and memorials may be permanent, but exhibitions come and go quicker than the seasons. You go to them in their time, while they are available to be experienced. Time in the Earth Room doesn’t seem like “art time.” It has a geological presence, what the writer John McPhee once described as “deep time.” All of the eighties, nineties, and aughts are eclipsed by the deep time of the Earth Room. Installed anywhere else and this tremendously powerful sense of the artwork’s inertia would be gone. The depth of time excavated with probably little more to show than a big hole.
Before I departed I took a medium sized aggregate in my hand and crumbled it. As the grainy particles of dirt filtered through my fingers I remembered that exchange with my father about Steve Jobs. The memory was overlaid with what Bill had said about coming to things on one’s own time. Obviously there is no shortage of time-tracking tools in the world, but the only ones that are true and natural as gauges of human experience are the internal ones we know to be our own. In 2012 I’m going to bring my father to experience the Earth Room. I have a feeling he’ll alter the way I understand it, even though he has no idea who Walter De Maria is.
(Image at top: Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977; Photo: John Cliett / Copyright Dia Art Foundation)