Dirt. The New York Earth Room, a permanent exhibition of the Dia Center for the Arts, is full of it--280,000 pounds of peat and bark, to be precise, 21 inches deep in a 3,600-square-foot apartment space, piled right up to the windowsills.
For 11 years now, the Earth Room, described as Walter De Maria's "massive, simple, horizontal sculpture," has attracted a kind of worshipful following. Both a primitive pagan shrine and a work of postmodern absurdism, it calls to mind the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song: "They took all the trees/ Put them in a tree museum/ And they charged the people/ A dollar and a half just to see 'em."
But the Earth Room, moist-aired, sound-absorbent, white-washed, is free.
A small shingle advertises its location in an unremarkable building, where an Earth Room enthusiast has scratched a small star into the steel plate next to the buzzer. A few rings at 2B will get you in.
Behold dirt, perhaps our most common and familiar substance, now rendered inaccessible in this pristine space. Preventing overflow of soil into the non-exhibition area is a pane of thick glass, a 3-foot-high dam. With weekly waterings and rakings, the Earth Room is as pampered as a socialite's hair.
Bill Dilworth is the 37-year-old guardian of the room. Dressed in sneakers, paint-splattered shorts and a T-shirt, he's raking the upper-right-hand corner of this indoor field, moving quickly toward the center.
"A cultivator gets down twice as deep as a rake," Dilworth says, pushing dirt with a steady left-right movement. "It gives the soil a nice bumpy texture."
The Earth Room receives an average of 200 visitors a week, most of them on Saturday. The all-time attendance high was recently logged on Earth Day, when 200 people packed the space.
"They were quiet--more like a congregation than a convention," Dilworth recalls.
The simple enigma posed by the room has kept critics chattering for years. "It claims all the attention, like a spoiled child in a room full of adults," snipped New York magazine. "The room is so obviously an act of aggression," opined Artforum. "One feels that the dirt is captured, like a proud lion on display at the zoo," mused the Soho News. The New York Times called it "the world's largest cat box."
In fact, a cat from a neighboring apartment did wander up once and test Earth Room soil.
Other eventful happenings and overheard commentary are duly noted by Dilworth in a small spiral ring notebook. When the Dia Center's executive director, Charles B. Wright, pays a monthly visit, he and Dilworth set up table and chairs on the Earth Room mound, drink coffee and talk dirt.
There is the story of the woman who wanted to know how "permanent" the installation was, for the purpose of scattering her brother's ashes in the room. The request was denied, as was the wish of a dance company director who wanted her troupe to perform barefoot on the soil.
Flipping through the pages of his journal, Dilworth notes that two Upstate New York farmers visited and declared that Earth Room soil "could yield 60 to 80 bushels an acre."
He talks about the day a man serenaded the soil with his harmonica; about the woman who came regularly to giggle, then laugh raucously.
"Laughter isn't always considered an appropriate response to art," Dilworth says. "But we don't mind it here."
When he's not tending the room, Dilworth sits at a desk, alone in a stark space around the corner from the viewing area. No surveillance cameras monitor visitors, some of whom have taken advantage of the privacy and enjoyed romantic interludes.
"I can see shadows on the wall," Dilworth smiles. "People ask me all the time about rolling around naked in the dirt. To my knowledge, it hasn't happened in daylight. But," he says cryptically, "after hours, it's anyone's guess."
There's more to a room full of dirt than meets the eye--a sheet of plastic is the sole barrier between soil and a hardwood floor. Every few months, trenches are dug to check for wall and floor rot. Last year, when two crumbling walls were replaced and the entire space repainted, Earth Room soil became so packed from trampling that it had to be turned with a shovel. And until they recently moved, the neighbors downstairs in 1B complained that their ceiling was about to cave in.
The Earth Room holds secrets. When he is alone, Dilworth rakes to flamenco music. "There's a nice rhythm, a nice pounding of the heels to it," he says.
He often waters the earth to tapes of birdcalls.
"There's something about the water splashing, creating little rivulets, sending up rainbows, that I find transporting."
The Earth Room is also perhaps the only artwork in New York that yields a regular harvest. Airborne spores grow two types of mushrooms; there's the edible shaggy parasol mushroom that Dilworth's friends recommend he use in spaghetti.
A more suspicious-looking gray mushroom Dilworth steadfastly avoids. "They look too strange," he shudders. "They grow in clusters. I won't go near them."
Breaking the Earth Room's boundaries has relatively harmless consequences; on weekends, rowdy high school students occasionally throw dirt balls.
"People can't hurt this art," Dilworth says. "Dirt can be cleaned off walls, footprints can always be raked over." Touching the soil isn't encouraged, but it's within reach and tempting.
Perhaps it's his own frequent contact with the soil that keeps Dilworth so easygoing in a sea of suspect, weak-willed Earth-ophiles. "The biggest giveaway," he chuckles, "is when people leave the Earth Room, and they wave goodby with what look like black-gloved hands."
The Dia Center for the Arts' Earth Room is at 141 Wooster St. in Soho and open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, 12 to 6. Admission is free.