The Unchanging, Ever-Changing Earth Room

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The piece is static and permanent, a place visitors can, and do, return to over the course of decades as a pilgrimage. He and his wife, Patti, who watches over De Maria’s Broken Kilometer, have raised two children in the Lower East Side loft they’ve occupied for decades and recently became grandparents. Initially, the piece had electric lights on above it, but Dilworth got into the habit of leaving them off, since   natural light makes visitors stay longer. Their work deals with massive scales, both in time and space. It’s open to visitors from Wednesday through Sunday, noon to six P.M. Yet the context of the work is always shifting.  
Kyle Chayka is a writer living in Brooklyn. In 1996, the couple bought a house in the Adirondacks, where they stay for three months every summer while the installations close for maintenance. Over the past decade   The Earth Room has seen an explosion of visitors. In 1989, he noticed the desk job at The   Earth Room; two months later, it opened up and he nabbed it, despite the fact that it paid half his previous carpentry gig. Dilworth is at pains to keep it stable, watering and raking the earth (the same organic material installed forty   years ago) on a weekly basis. On Soho’s cobblestoned Wooster Street, tucked above North Face and Lululemon boutiques stocked with neon athleisure, there is an otherwise empty, white, second-floor thirty-six-hundred-square-foot loft filled with   140 tons of dirt. You leave knowing that you can always come back and the earth will be there just the same, only different. Dilworth began working for Dia in 1979, on projects with artists La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela and the board member Lois DeMenil. In 1977, he also created the Lightning Field, a grid of four hundred stainless steel poles installed in New Mexico, and in 1979 the Broken Kilometer, five hundred two-meter-long brass rods laid in rows, installed at 393 West Broadway. “My life and my experience here is immersed in art, earth, quiet, and time,” he told me. In October 1977, the German art dealer Heiner Friedrich hosted   The   Earth Room   as an exhibition at his gallery, which then occupied the Wooster Street space, where the dealer also lived in a front apartment. It was not just the quieting of the sounds from the street but an enveloping cocoon of warmth and musty scent, like a field after summer rain. You maintain it and nothing grows,” he said. De Maria might have created   The   Earth Room, but its public face is Bill Dilworth, a sixty-three-year-old abstract painter who has been caring for the installation as its curator for the past   twenty-eight years. He chalks the increased traffic up to New York City’s larger changes—going from “wild to wealthy,” as he put it—as well as The   Earth Room’s inclusion in the Lonely Planet guides starting around 2008. “It’s like a flag for preserving Earth,” Dilworth said. “It’s a continual growth of time.”
At least it used to be quiet. Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room,   1977. Vigorous raking takes care of most intruders. His first book, on minimalism, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2019. Walking up the stairs and into the space on a recent late morning, I was first struck by the sensation of hush. Both are under the purview of Dia as well. “It’s important that people understand it’s worth preserving, and this can remind them.”
Even as his job has stayed the same, Dilworth’s life has changed. It’s grounding, in a literal and metaphysical sense. The previous caretaker raked the dirt smooth; on his first day, Dilworth decided to do it with a cultivator, a spiked tool used for tilling farms. “Whereas in the early days we’d get   thirty-five hundred people a year, the last few years it’s been sixty thousand.” Every time someone shows up at the door, their image appears on a console screen at his desk, and Dilworth pushes a button to let them in—sometimes with a white wooden plank so he doesn’t have to reach so far. “They look at the book and they look at that and they just don’t get it,” he said, gesturing toward the installation. The installation was meant to last for three months, but it never left, and in 1980, Friedrich helped found the Dia Foundation, an art organization that has pledged to preserve De Maria’s work in (more or less) perpetuity. Around the corner, a raked expanse of soil two feet deep filled the loft from edge to edge, occupying what might otherwise be a bedroom and rising up to meet wide exterior windows. “It’s very much a Zen garden. The surreal aspect of its very existence is undercut somewhat by the normalcy of public access and consistent hours, as if it were a store selling nothing. This year marks the   fortieth   anniversary of   The   Earth Room’s   quiet persistence, which Dia is marking with commemorative events and ongoing exhibitions of De Maria’s work. This is the New York Earth Room, an installation by the New York–based artist and musician Walter De Maria, who died in 2013. Walk into the back office room past the glass-protected aperture that opens out onto the field and most days you’ll find Dilworth behind a tall wood desk. Dilworth would rather let the piece speak for itself, too: “When people come up and ask me what it means, I really just turn them back to   The Earth Room so they can look for that answer.”
Celebrating   The Earth Room’s anniversary exposes a particular paradox, too. Installation view, New York, New York. As Bill says, “The Earth Room is meant to be unchanging; nevertheless it evolves.”
One such evolution is the texture of the earth. “That’s where the real balance is.”
No photos are allowed of The   Earth Room, repelling what might otherwise become a hoard of Instagrammers making their way up the stairs. “It was just an effort to make it look more like earth,” he said. They’ve endured struggles for tenants’ rights and a luxury renovation when the building fell into the hands of developers. In fact, mushrooms and grass have sprouted, large dragonflies have hatched from subterranean nests, and a visitor even once threw a can of black beans on the dirt. The way The   Earth Room shelters a small parcel of dirt, keeping it fresh and protecting it, draws out our ancestral connection to the material. “A lot of people will walk right by it not knowing that’s it.”
Walter De Maria, Lightning Field, 1977. Tall, gregarious, and preternaturally youthful (a result of dirt therapy?), he has thought more about this particular piece than just about anyone. What you take away from standing in front of the dark, musty expanse is what you bring to it. “If there are times I feel I’m getting inundated, I’ll flip the lights on.”
De Maria’s work is about sensory experience: the sheer feeling of being in the presence of so much earth. “There are days when not   ten minutes go by without someone,” Dilworth explained. Photo: John Cliett
De Maria himself stayed silent on the work’s significance, though it came at the peak of the artist’s career. Dilworth sees a particular message coming to the fore more recently, however, about our increasing isolation from earth and our impact on the planet as climate change becomes more blatant. “I’d love to see an Earth Room out in the country,” Dilworth said. De Maria described   The   Earth Room as a “minimal horizontal interior earth sculpture.” Accurate, but possibly unhelpful for those seeking a deeper message. De Maria was part of the 1970s Land Art movement that included such compatriots as Robert Smithson, of Spiral Jetty fame, and Michael Heizer, whose City is an enormous monument complex in the Nevada desert still under construction.