“It’s just dirt,” the man in the overcoat warned me as we passed in the hallway outside the New York Earth Room: he was leaving, I was arriving. And it’s true: at first glance, the New York Earth Room is just a room full of dirt. What could be so great about that, in a city that already has more than its fair share?
The long-term installation, by artist Walter De Maria care of the Dia Art Foundation, has resided in a SoHo loft on Wooster Street since 1977. It’s open free to the public: you just press a buzzer, climb a flight of stairs, walk across some creaky gallery floorboards down a narrow hall, and the space opens up: an expanse of raw, fragrant dirt spread out like a fertile field among the white columns, walls, and huge windows of an otherwise typical downtown loft.
From the outside, the only indication that something unusual resides inside 141 Wooster Street is some mist on the second-floor windowpanes. But inside is a rare urban respite of air that seems to breathe—and a wonderfully vibrant silence. The 250 cubic yards of earth, which reaches about knee high (22 inches), is contained by a transparent piece of Plexiglas between the walls. You can kneel by the edge and touch the earth. It’s chocolaty, sparkling with flecks of mica and stray stones. Faint rake-marks trail across the surface, as if the earth had recently been tilled. Bare ceiling bulbs provide spotlights, but in the afternoon natural light streams through windows on either side.
The earth feels cool and firm between the fingertips, crumbling into moist, ripe clumps like floury cookie dough, or how I imagine moistened, tamped espresso grounds must feel when they’re knocked out of a filter. If you simply rest your palm on the surface, you sense a resilient vitality stirring beneath the solidity. It’s loamy, velvety. If you spend some time in the New York Earth Room, as the gentleman in the overcoat evidently did not, you realize the difference between “dirt” and “earth,” and how little contact we New Yorkers have with the latter.