Abbye Churchill of WILDER QUARTERLY interviews the caretaker of THE NEW YORK EARTH ROOM, a 35-year-old installation by Walter De Maria. The earth-filled Soho loft is open 9 months of the year and its caretaker Bill Dilworth has tended the site for the last 23 years.
One of the most resonant pleasures of living in New York is that it is always evolving: abandoned buildings are revitalized, long-forgotten train lines blossom into public parks, bars and restaurants become other, newer bars and restaurants. Smack in the middle of the real estate turn-over that is Soho, minimalist sculptor Walter De Maria has created an enduring work that lies quietly, steadily in contrast.
Originally from California, De Maria moved to New York in 1960 where he became embedded in the phantasmagoria of the downtown scene at the time. He participated in happenings, produced films and even acted as the drummer for the band that paved the way for the Velvet Underground, The Druds
––featuring Andy Warhol on vocals, LaMonte Young on sax, and Lou Reed. Amidst this flurry of activity, De Maria’s minimalist sculptures and land works are among his best known.
Installed in 1977 and opened to the public in 1980 by the Dia Foundation, Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room
sits in striking contrast to its surroundings. Located at 141 Wooster Street on the second floor of a squat, gray building opposite the Adidas showroom and Betsey Johnson’s eponymous boutique, (now in its final closing sale but which originally opened its doors just one year after The New York Earth Room
was installed), 250 cubic yards of earth are contained over a space of 3,600 square feet. The rich, deep brown, almost black, earth creates a uniform visual horizon–– a dividing line against the white walls of the gallery space.
For the past 23 years, one man has cared for this space and the earth contained within. In a time of ever changing careers, as well as spaces, Bill Dilworth shares with OC
the importance of longevity, silence and growth.
Abbye Churchill: What attracted you to being the caretaker for The New York Earth Room to begin with?
Bill Dilworth: I just had a sense that it would be a nice way to exist in the city. I instinctively just knew that it would be a good balance to the kind of commotion, the hectic aspect of the city. And you can tell instantly that this is a quiet place. I think you have to have a comfort with who you are and you have to have an internal life that seems satisfying to have this job. I’m sure that it would drive some people crazy. A few people who had the job before me… I wonder why they left, but they had a different temperament. It suits me.
AC: What do you think it has given you in terms of perspective? Do you think being in this space everyday has shaped your outlook overall?
BD: I think that is a balance. New York is a wild place––a lot of commotion. And this is in contrast to that. New York is always changing; this is radically unchanging. I think to be surrounded by all of New York City makes this a very poignant and healthy place. And it has given me that sense of balance in my own life. The time tells the story there. The interesting thing is that Dia supplies the time for this to be here––for decades. To have held this job for this long, I have given my own time. It is sort of like the more time that both Dia and I give it is beneficial for Dia and for me. I once read this story, and I’m not sure where it was, someone said that if they could create their ideal job, it would be to tend a mile long stretch of river. When I read that, it occurred to me, “Well, that’s kind of along the lines of what I do.” I tend a section of earth. It is displaced earth, but it is still fundamental––even to New York City. It is underneath our feet. We might loose sight of it. But it is nice to be reminded of the basics.
AC: What does a typical day consist of for you, in the context of The Earth Room?
BD: I can just pursue my own thoughts. That is liberating, in a way––to be in a both a quiet place and a place that doesn’t steer you in one direction. That’s the brilliant thing about Walter [De Maria] not talking about it. He doesn’t intend to steer anybody. And so, my job is consistent with anyone’s experience of The Earth Room
. You can come here and you are free to think what you want. One thing I have learned is the power of silence. Walter doesn’t speak about the work. Sometimes I feel awkward just attempting to put words to my own experience because I really have grown to fully appreciate the impact and power of not saying anything.
AC: What does it mean to care for the work?
BD: Well, every day I look in on it. There is a normal weekly watering and raking. The idea is to keep it visually unchanged. So it is just a matter of monitoring it; keeping an eye on it. Depending on where the sun hits it––that changes over the course of the year––there can be patches that dry out faster than others. Those patches I will go after and do a little bit more as I need to. It needs to maintain a uniform quality.
AC: How do you establish a point of saturation?
BD: It is purely visual––what it looks like. It is supposed to look like the day it was installed. But, I did find something a lot of people responded to which was not visual: the smell of the earth. The more I watered it, the more that smell came out. But, I also found that putting so much water on it caused that water to saturate down to the floor along the wood. Years ago, when I discovered that, I backed off on that intense amount of watering. I kind of watered less in exchange for preservation. It is a balance between keeping things visually unchanged and preserving it. The moisture is not ideal for an interior space so that is what I am trying to balance: the amount of moisture versus keeping it visually unchanged.
AC: What happens in the event that something does begin to grow?
BD: It becomes very distracting. Mushrooms used to come up because the plant grows underground; mushrooms being the fruit of the plant. It could just suddenly emerge and bloom. It doesn’t happen so much anymore because the nutrients supporting that population were consumed. But, before, there would be big white mushrooms that would pop up really fast and your eyes would go right to it. It would no longer be The Earth Room
; you would focus on this event. So, I would go out there and pick them. But, it seems now that these large plants have faded a little, given that most of the life in there is on the microscopic level. It seems that it is enough just to do the watering and raking. The raking is done with a cultivator, a big claw-like rake that turns the earth and uproots things that otherwise would be showing.
AC: You’re about to close down for the summer beginning on June 10th, reopening on September 12th. What will happen to the space during the summer months?
BD: It gets trenched out. The earth has spent 10 months lying against that edge and it is cleaned off and checked very carefully. What happens in the summer is crucial to the work’s longevity. During that otherwise relentless humidity, being closed for those three months allows for the space to dry out enough to get in there and do those repairs.
AC: Are you the one who does all those repairs as well?
BD: I used to until a couple years ago, but I passed that along.
AC: What will the summer hold for you?
BD: I’ll head North. I disappear. It increases my own longevity. I get to disappear for three months. But I will be back in September. It is a healthy thing for all of us, for The Earth Room
and for me to go away for a few months and come back. I have a house in the Adirondacks. It is a lot of property. People see The Earth Room
and ask me if I am frustrated that nothing is growing, but they don’t realize I have plenty of space for plenty of things to grow.
THE NEW YORK EARTH ROOM
141 Wooster St
New York, NY
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Images by Matthew Kelly.
Walter De Maria