January 22, 2009

The New York Earth Room and Its Caretaker

While in New York City over the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, I planned a trip to the New York Earth Room, after viewing a short video about it. Since no cameras are allowed, the New York Earth Room is intentionally (and intelligently) left out of the video’s footage, thus heightening the mystique of the “interior earth sculpture.” This leaves anticipation and interpretation wide open. And while mine weren’t met, the Earth Room still satisfied my curiosity: it is a literal composition loaded with meaning. Adjacent to the New York Earth Room sits Bill Dillworth, who receives attendees after buzzing them in and, importantly, tending to the 280,000 pounds of earth enclosed in a white-walled space. Bill chuckles, and even refutes, the title of “curator.” I pegged him as the constant gardener but caretaker will suffice, in my (and possibly his) estimation. While chatting with him, I mentioned that the sculpture is ambiguous. I couldn’t tell if something was being buried or growing. Bill, in his contemplative delivery, simply said that “it has potential.”

It was immediate that Bill’s relationship with the New York Earth Room is one of deep familiarity—but the kind that doesn’t go stale. He’s been sustaining, not merely maintaining, Walter de Maria’s sculpture for 19 years. The sculpture was installed in 1977. To most, this may feel truly long; but to Bill, I believe that he would deem it as is, nothing more, nothing less. Bill emphasized that he’s “at a different pace” than everybody else. City living can be a daily blur. But Bill keeps steadfast in his place within the space-time continuum, urban and otherwise, much like the Earth Room that he keeps watch over.

One formality that intrigued me was Bill’s notation of attendance for the New York Earth Room. Rather than simply marking down the number of visitors or using tick marks, he created a whimsical set of characters. The sculpture is supported by the Dia Art Foundation, so I couldn’t but help dub Bill’s capture of attendance as Diacritical marks:

Each calligraphic stroke represents one attendee. If a family arrives, a bridge is made between characters (middle figure in above image) like a ligature. The visualization of his vigilance is entered into two separate blank notebooks, one is for weekdays and the other is for weekends:

While flipping through one of Bill’s attendance notebooks, there was comic relief in discovering a page of marks with a second color. As it was pointed out, it was done in recognition of Halloween:

These marks can be easily judged as superficial, but they constitute a change made over a long period of time. One can relate a number of products and services whose experiences gain from a slow evolution; a slow form of play. Like his one attendance-mark at a time, Bill keeps the New York Earth Room in a constant state of integrity, day to day, year to year, attendee to attendee, contributing to what a passage of time entails and means. His use of a rake and hose produces “subtle changes” to the New York Earth Room but it remains somehow constant in its enduring state. The micro-composition of the New York Earth Room, with Bill’s attention, keeps its quiet and pious way, while its surroundings agitate in their composition at an unsettled velocity. Some, if not many, may describe the Earth Room as simply a room of dirt. To Bill, in his own dictated pace, the room takes something commonplace and makes it extraordinary. One is reminded of the good earth.

The coupling of the New York Earth Room and its caretaker call to mind the profound rigor that can be found in cherishing consistency and its heir apparent, simplicity. Following and finding sanctuary, amidst the flow of ordinary time, is both the cue and challenge.