The New York Earth Room installation at the DIA site in SoHo is a breathtaking piece, for reasons that exist only in the ephemera of experiential perception itself. Aligned with the immensity of introspection and ambition that the legendary artist Walter de Maria has been known for, Earth Room is so preposterously simplistic yet vast in both its physical form and its conceptual impact.
De Maria’s artistic legacy of large-scale Earth Art pieces has afforded him public acknowledgement as “Artist at a Grand Scale.” But his work transcends concerns of scale to the extent that it refers to the size of the installation: the “Grand Scale” that de Maria contends with is cosmological, dealing with actual astronomical scales. Having just recently seen his indoor sculptural installations at the Dia:Beacon site in Beacon, New York—which was my first introduction to the artist’s work—I had the realization that somehow I was experiencing the same sense of awe, hyperactive “presentness” (for lack of a better word), and sanctuary from the constructions of the civilized city. As William Powers of the Washington Post writes, “Perhaps that is how De Maria seeks to change the world: by clearing out unexpected spaces where our imagination might grow.”
Much of this can be attributed to the site specificity of both pieces, yet the strategies employed are almost antithetical. At the Beacon location, de Maria’s pieces—particularly the Silver Meters and Gold Meters series—interact tangentially with the rigid structuralism of the building’s industrial form, creating a sense of absoluteness and certainty derived from the impeccable, seemingly manufactured formality of the pieces themselves. Conversely, the New York Earth Room is formless: its sheer beauty lies in its absolute entropy, to borrow a phrase from de Maria’s fellow Earth Art colleague Robert Smithson. The sensation of viewing the formless piece, breathing in the stench of its soil, and generally disembodying oneself from the built environments that can be perceived just beyond the work itself are experiential elements that combine to create a sensory understanding of the natural world as it really is: the distinctions between nature and human civilization are truly arbitrary and artificial, and have contributed to a perpetuating ambition for “controlling” the entropy that truly does not even belong to the human race.