Upon sensory event. Stark white walls juxtapose the

Upon stepping into Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977), one may be suddenly displaced from the streets of SoHo into an unexpectedly obscure climate of sorts. The exhibit itself is not immediately visible; one must walk up a tightly enclosed stairwell and narrow hallway, first seeing the gallery desk before stumbling upon the viewing room. Thus, the viewer’s first experience is reliant on alternative senses. One becomes aware of the loamy smell that permeates from the building and moist humidity that fills the space, foreign from the industrial urban environment outside. It was initially shocking; something otherworldly, unexpected, yet also familiar. The most striking component of the initial exposure is undoubtedly the sound. There is an eerie silence suspended throughout the building, which embodies the tranquil essence of the work. This initial journey serves as a preview for the physical encounter of the piece.Earth Room is an interior earth sculpture of rich soil, a displacement of landscape in an urban domain. It is a strange combination of sculpture and architecture that creates a disruptive sensory event. Stark white walls juxtapose the lush black earth that fills the exhibit. The room is rectangular with a small, square room in the middle at the back that you can only see into from its door. The limitation of direct interaction with the soil creates a curious tension for the viewer and the large scale draws attention to one’s presence within the surrounding space; one feels at once involved and excluded, at once part of the discussive framework and silenced. The solidity of the material establishes a sense of stability. As a work of art, Earth Room’s subject matter is abstracted through ambiguity and the space and object, though seems to emphasize our epistemic relationship with the natural world, or the lost natural history of New York, thereby creating an eerie monument to pre-Columbian New York. Far from being simply an optical journey, the beautifully absurd sculpture changes one’s entire demeanor, creating a sense of escapism and a space for contemplation.The space becomes an environment that prompts introspection regarding one’s relationship to nature. This unique concept works especially well in in the urban setting of New York City, proposing soil as more valuable than it is often understood to be. The soil is elevated and made sacred through the presentation of the exhibit. In a sacred space, all activities have meaning, all are transformed into rituals. Sacred ground is not normally, for instance, a neighborhood, which is defined by the ongoing everydayness of life, work, and public interaction. Thus, notions of Earth Room as sacred ground is ironically antithetical to the surrounding SoHo area; the space draws power from this juxtaposition. The effect results in a meditative reflection of the piece by engaging the viewer in self-contemplation and alluding to a greater, spiritual dynamic.The art installation also challenges the typical experience of interacting with earth and soil, repurposing meanings of what both art and what nature might be. Soil is less about refuse so much as it is about a cyclical materiality. It is a reminder of continuity, a vestige of what was that continues to exist under our modern utopia. It is about circularity, the promise of new life, of beginnings, of growth. Technological advancement has brought devastation to our relationship with the earth, evident in major cities such as New York where one is surrounded by industrial buildings and often denied accessible land untouched by technology. And yet, technology is also building the bridge that will allow us to reconnect with the systems that seem lost; this piece would not exist without advancements in technology to transport the earth, build the structure of the loft, and create an environment for connection.Alva Noë in his book Strange Tools, reflects on the intersection of art and technology. Noë sees art as a form of technology—a reorganizational experience of what we have known as true about ourselves and the world, toward a new creation of understanding ourselves differently from before, more richly and meaningfully as experiencing a new reality of ourselves and our world. Humans “are designers by nature” by which technology extends into and organizes our lives in ways that make it impossible to conceive of our lives in their absence; technologies make us who we are (Noë 64). In making art of the technology-produced space, Earth Room becomes a strange tool that encourages one to reconnect with oneself and the earth.This work is one example of De Maria’s approach to Earth Art, while also demonstrating his investment in minimalist and conceptual art practices. Minimalism art, which may be remembered for its extent to which it hinders on the environmental situated aspect such as the space and light of the gallery, creates ambiguity of where the ‘end’ is within the work for it blends with the environment. Earth Art incorporates the landscape not merely as subject or setting for the artwork but as an integral part of it. The movement is perhaps best known for “earthworks,” such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). This work, differing from works such as Spiral Jetty, was rare in bringing parts of the natural environment into the art world instead of putting art into the environment. As is true for Smithson’s work, the grand size confines Earth Room to be presented alone, segregated from the cultural movement that it is connected to. The pieces have become timeless, independent in place and time.Earth Room mimics the radical art movement in SoHo during the 70’s by redefining the traditional structure of how a gallery should and could function. There is no commodity or specific object. By placing something so simple and commonplace into a gallery setting, De Maria pushed the boundaries of what art can consist of. He highlighted the natural world while implying a critique of the usual material practices and values of the art world; he helped establish new concepts of art presentation that broke away from traditional institutions.

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