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SoHo’s Siltiest Spot

A look at De Maria’s perplexing Earth Room By Gaby Edwards

A room full of dirt? Art? I asked myself as I made my way down to SoHo. My destination was the Earth Room, an interior sculpture installation by Walter de Maria that has been on the second floor of a building on Wooster Street since 1977. While I knew the basics of the Earth Room—a 3600-square-foot room filled 22 inches high with dirt—I hadn’t expected the exhibit to impact me in such a meaningful way. Part of the appeal of the Earth Room is its permanent and unchanging presence in a city that is notorious for its constant evolution. The layer of earth resting above the bustling streets creates an unsettling divide and no succinct interpretation. It is also a space of relative silence, an oasis of dirt shielded from the liveliness of the city. Yet, this installation and its series of contradictions do not add up to one succinct interpretation. I left feeling a little bewildered—had I missed something? Did everyone else know some big secret I wasn’t let in on?

It was only after, on the subway ride back to Morningside Heights that I began to appreciate de Maria’s project. De Maria intentionally remains elusive on any sort of message behind the Earth Room. It’s not just a quiet sanctuary in the city, or a time capsule, or a statement on environmentalism. While some may scoff at this vagueness, I found that the meditative nature of this piece, rather than having any outright political implication, is actually far more effective in evoking wonder and reflection.

For me, one of the most striking aspects of this installation is its viscerality—it induces a sense of awe that can’t fully be expressed in any intellectual way. Yet, it also treads the line of being almost impossibly full of meaning; the dark dirt against the starkly white walls, the powerful smell, the vortex-like entrance are all deliberate and calculated. As Bill Dilworth, the caretaker of the installation since 1989, once described, it’s a monument of simplicity, and it is this simplicity that makes the Earth Room endlessly fascinating.

Illustration by Rea Rustagi


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