The New York Earth Room: One artist's dirty deed

It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. And that someone's name is Bill Dilworth, caretaker of The New York Earth Room, a loft in SoHo that's filled with 335 square metres of levelled dirt weighing 127,300 kilograms. It's been there since 1977.

The Earth Room is an artwork by Walter De Maria, who is best known for The Lightning Field, 400 stainless steel poles installed in a grid in New Mexico, which light up spectacularly during lightning storms. 

I've been visiting The Earth Room almost every time I've been to New York since the early '90s, not just to check in on the dirt, but to spend time in the company of Dilworth, who has been caretaker since 1989, diligently watering, weeding and raking it each week and sitting at a desk making a new squiggle in his notebook every time another visitor enters. He has been there so long that he now has a stack of these books, each page filled with what look like schools of jellyfish with tentacles hanging down. 

Dilworth, who is 61 and has a zen-like demeanour, is also the caretaker of New York's oldest clocktower in the Lower East Side. His business card reads: KEEPER OF EARTH AND TIME. 

Since De Maria's death in 2013, he's become the closest human connection with The Earth Room. He's also the guy who is there each day to answer questions. The most common thing he's asked is if it's the same dirt today that was first installed almost 40 years ago. 

"It's exactly the same dirt," says Dilworth. "And the second question they always ask is what I have to do to maintain it. The idea is to keep it looking like it's the first day. I water and rake it once a week. I go out there with a hundred feet of hose and blast it. Mud splashes all over the walls and I scrape it off. I wait until the next day to rake it, and that gives it a better texture."

Dilworth also witnesses what people say when confronted with The Earth Room. Some reveal they have an overwhelming urge to jump over the small retaining wall and lie down in the earth. One woman who visits regularly laughs the whole time she's there. A minority dismiss it, some are mystified by it, but most have an overwhelmingly positive reaction. Some, like myself, make return trips. 

"I'm probably The Earth Room's biggest fan and its greatest appreciator because I've witnessed thousands of reactions," he says. "On one hand it's a famous example of minimal sculpture, but it's also a local sanctuary because it's one of the quietest places in Manhattan. 

"There are comic elements to it that I think are great too. It's a big loft in SoHo, where people are money crazed. New Yorkers are desperate for space, then they walk in and see this big space filled with earth. I think it's a good thing that you can come in here and get a sense of expanse and be reminded of the horizon."

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After all this time, what does The Earth Room mean to him personally?  

"I think it does for me what it does for a lot of people. It draws you into it. It doesn't assert itself, although it is profound in its mass. You can connect with it easily. It accommodates you. And as I've been here longer than anyone, that accommodation for me is gigantic." 

Does he ever talk to it?

"Do I talk to it?" he says, before rubbing his chin and thinking for a full 15 seconds. "That's a good question. I get a lot of questions and I've never been asked that before. I don't think I talk to it, but I'm not sure. I'll have to pay more attention, because people often talk to themselves without realising they're doing it, don't they?" 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visittheusa.com.au

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GETTING THERE

United flies daily from Sydney to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and daily from Melbourne to Los Angeles on its Dreamliner 787-9, providing customers with connections to New York City. For reservations and enquiries, call 131 777 or see united.com/au

STAYING THERE

McCarren Hotel & Pool – In the heart of Williamsburg, the hotel has a saltwater pool, rooftop bar Sheltering Sky and restaurant Oleanders. Rooms from $260. See chelseahotels.com/us/brooklyn/mccarren-hotel-and-pool    

Nu Hotel – Nestled between Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and downtown Brooklyn, the Nu has a complimentary breakfast buffet and free use of bikes. Rooms from $217. See nuhotelbrooklyn.com

VISITING THERE

The New York Earth Room, 141 Wooster Street, between Houston and Prince Streets. Open Wednesday to Sunday midday-3pm, 3:30pm-6pm, mid-September to mid-June. Admission is free. See diaart.org/sites/main/earthroom

Barry Divola was a guest of United, McCarren Hotel & Pool and Nu Hotel. 

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