Professor Dara Meyers-Kingsley
April 12, 2016
The Complex Beauty of Simplicity in The Earth Room
Located at 141 Wooster Street in SoHo of N.Y.C. was a rundown apartment building. Nothing out of the ordinary, it would seem, except that upon entering this edifice, one would be immediately drawn to the steep flight of worn stairs in the back of the room leading to a spacious and roomy loft, with white walls and a wooden floor. To the right, a great mass of dirt spreads evenly on the ground. Further down, a middle-aged man sits behind a reception desk, minding his own business. What is with all this dirt, and such cold silence? This was a 1977 art installment by Walter De Maria called The New York Earth Room, a site-specific work that gives viewers a 3D experience of a space which contains De Maria’s artwork.
Unlike the classical and more traditional genres of art which is conventionally more pleasing to the senses (one might think of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Michelangelo's Pietà, for instance), De Maria’s Earth Room challenges viewers to look beyond these conventional standards of aesthetic beauty, and reevaluate the artwork’s true beauty. The dimensions of interior sculpture were 280,000 pounds of dirt all dumped into 3,600 square feet of floor space. In many ways, the Earth Room evokes more than just that, and by using a reflective and introspective thinking approach, this artwork manages to challenge many other notions. For one thing, it deals with the conflict between nature and man, and tells a story about the dreadful, yet hopeful events awaiting humanity and all other living things in the distant future.
My initial reaction upon seeing De Maria's work was shock mixed with disappointment, since the work was the complete opposite of what I had expected. I expected De Maria's work to feature multiple rooms with a sort of earthiness aspect, and this, to me, would have a variety of implications. For example, just like Sylvia Gruner’s Hemispheres: A Labyrinth Sketchbook, which had 3 rooms displaying different sorts of mediums, I was expecting this work to have multiple rooms featuring photos of flora, films about the Earth’s evolution, or sculptures of the globe. However, my expectations were immediately shattered once I saw the simple materials that were used in this work, such as the undecorated walls and windows, and the mass of dirt on the floor. Everything was boring and unappealing to look at, and due to my inexperienced artistic eye, it appeared to me that the room was simply filled with dirt. This realization angered me, since I had expected the artist to be a little more creative, and use other materials besides dirt and a room. At that initial moment, it all appeared to me that the Earth Room was some silly ruse played by the artist. Perhaps he did expect the viewers to expect something more than just a simple room filled with dirt, and to humor us, he did the opposite of what the viewers expected.
Although the simplicity of the work threw me off at first, I knew that my negative reaction undermined the hidden complexity of this work, and so I challenged myself to see beyond the ugliness and encounter the work’s inner beauty and meaning. From there, I began to be more appreciative of this work as I began to see the beauty of De Maria’s work, and the messages which I interpreted from this work. Since this site-specific work is the kind that would tell a different narrative every time one visits it, I’ll talk about how the art spoke to me at my current state, when the clouds were clearing up from the heavy downpour of rain, and sunlight was seeping through the windows to shine on the soil. Firstly, the artist wanted to emphasize the differences between nature and the man-made environment, and from there, attempt to reveal the bad prospects that await nature in the future as humankind continues to destroy it. Yet, this room filled with dirt tells us that even with these cynical events, there is hope. This is seen when one realizes the true beauty of the simple things in life that we see everyday, but which we overlook so often in reality.
To further explain my idea of the conflict between the man-made and nature, I will start with the materials used in De Maria’s work. I saw these materials as symbols for other ideas, and so the large floor and the white walls and ceiling represented man-made creations, while the dark soil represented nature. Staring at the expanse of dirt that greeted me, I also silently mused. In this contemplative state, I felt a childish urge to cross over the glass partition to play and roll around in the dirt, because it reminded me of my childhood dreams when I would be swimming in a tub of pasta, or roll around in a room of marshmallows. But at the same time, the knee-high Plexiglas separating me from the mound of earth reminded me that there was a barrier, which restricted my wild nature from doing these actions, keeping me in this civilized state of obedience and composure. These thoughts of mine only further shows the conflict of the man-made, which is more desirable in society, and nature, which is undesirable in society.
Additionally, the theme of man-made vs. nature was apparent when perceiving the form, color, and texture of the soil and its surrounding walls, floor, and ceiling. In terms of its texture, opposing characteristics between nature and man were observed in the walls of the apartment building and the soil. While the walls were smooth and its edges were straight and sharply defined, the soil was not. Each soil particle was of different sizes, and looked very grainy, as if one was looking at a pixelated photo. The soil was a dark brown (almost black) color, and was littered with light brown twigs, unlike the walls, which had a consistent white color. This suggests the difference between the white, clean walls of humankind and black, littered dirt of nature. Overall, there is an implication that the man-made environment is more desirable and beautiful than nature.
In formulating my concept of this artwork, I imagined the amount of work that was required to create this artwork, and so I envisioned De Maria lugging in bags of soil one after another from the steep staircase into this wide floor space. The fact that a middle-aged man (Bill Dilworth) waters the soil daily, yet removes all fungal growth on it, demonstrated the amount of effort that was used to maintain this art installation. This is a good example of the continuous process of art, which is done to preserve and maintain its original form. In another way, however, this also evokes the message of how humans like Bill and De Maria seem to help nature flourish (by preserving it and watering it), but their attempts are futile as they continue to destroy life with their own hands (such as by removing its vegetation). In a more general scope, it is because of us, that wars and other disasters will occur, ending in chaos that would potentially erase all natural things, even humanity itself. The only thing that is left is humankind’s creations, or the unnatural aspect of this whole “Earth” room. This, along with the conflict of the undesirable nature versus the more desirable man-made environment, all symbolizes the desolateness of humanity in the future.
However, hope is communicated through the quietness, the warmth of light from the windows, and the stubborn vegetation that finds ways to sprout in the soil. To me, it made the environment soothing and peaceful. Although I was previously talking to my friends, I suddenly became quiet upon seeing the art, even though I didn’t need to, but with Bill quietly doing his own things, I felt compelled to stand still and meditate. Even the rays of light that managed to come in from the large windows created a peaceful ambience. This all reminded me of when I was in a meditation room, where the silence and the steady ray of blue, green, and red light beaming from within the pool of water oddly comforted me. In this way, the artist seems to be saying that despite all the complexities and difficulties of the outside world, this artwork always seems to remind us to look at things in a greater perspective, and from there, one can learn to appreciate the world more and take things one at a time. There is nothing to stress over, and if we remind ourselves that we should just sit and be peaceful like the grains in a seemingly endless mass of dirt in a restricted, isolated place called the solar system, everything will be okay.
Even though De Maria emphasizes the conflict between the undesirable natural world and the attractive man-made environment, and also the detrimental future of humanity and nature, he shows that there is not only hope, but beauty in both the natural world and the encroachment of man as well. For example, the work was sited there because it was quiet, and this peacefulness perfectly displayed the harmony between the natural and manmade experience. Also, although the soil was messy, brown, and grainy, and lay on the floor to be stepped on, its beauty lay in its pleasing earthly aroma, which had a faint jasmine or herbal tea smell. Then there is the ceiling, pillars, and walls, all white and unmarked of blemishes. Evidently, both the system and surroundings are beautiful in its own way. While the surroundings are clean and white, the earth smells good and fresh. Additionally, I saw beauty in the symmetrical aspect to this work, starting from the sharply defined walls to the consistent height of the soil (22 inches above the ground).
Unlike other classical aesthetic artworks that may look more conventionally appealing, De Maria's Earth Room challenged these notions and showed that even the simplest objects can be a beautiful work of art with many abstract, deep messages and meaning. It was both an amazing realization and undergoing process that will make me anticipate more for the DIA: Beacon trip in the future, and see how contemporary art can be both extraordinary and revolutionary.