Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dust and Water

The idea of a random space in Manhattan’s SOHO neighborhood, amidst all the other cramped spaces, filled with dirt is fascinating. What other strange things are hidden amongst the stacked shoeboxes that make up some of the world’s most pricey real estate?

The New York Earth Room (Walter De Maria, 1977) is located in an expansive gallery filled with waste-high dirt. You can’t photograph it, or walk on it. You just look at it, feel the moisture and smell the earth. It’s frozen in time. It consists of a vast main space once site to large-scale installations by the likes of Dan Flavin, and perhaps most intriguing, a smaller gallery, the project room, nestled in the back. You can catch a glimpse inside, see that the dirt continues, and spot a few light cans and then only imagine what is unseen. It’s a bit like imagining what is happening at the wreck of the Titanic at this moment. Or inside one of the pyramids. The experience most impressed upon me outside the odd smell of fresh earth, notable in a city often noted for its less than fresh odors, was the forced perspective. As a viewer, you are allowed a very narrow vantage and are left wondering what it would be like to stand at tantalizingly unreachable vantage points.

Entrance to The New York Earth Room • photo: Art or Idiocy?

The Earth Room is periodically tilled, watered, and weeded so that it is always fresh. By now most of the little plants and things that had been carried with the soil are gone. The New York Earth Room was the final exhibition at Heiner Friederich Gallery in 1977. It’s now maintained by the Dia Art Foundation, which Friedrich co-founded, and has been on continuous view for over 30 years. While the work itself is quite amazing, quite literally a gold standard of “Earth Art” what makes it stand out is the context in which it exists. The gallery has long since closed, but its final exhibition continues in perpetuity. It is kept lively and new like the day it was installed. The white cube, like an unchanging tomb, is also free of time.

To think of the Earth Room in terms of burial and, in its perpetual state of newness, a type of immortality is irresistible. After all, what is the work of art but a way for the artist to live forever? What is the desire to participate in history other than a way to carry on after you art gone? It’s like having children, but on a grander, less mundane scale. But then again, it is The New York Earth Room and other works fostered by the Dia that have attained a certain eternity more than their creators.

Boris Groys’ essay “On the New” seems incredibly relevant here:

It is a difference not in form, but in time—namely, it is a difference in the life expectancy of individual things, as well as in their historical assignment. Recall the ‘new difference’ as described by Kierkegaard: for him the difference between Christ and an ordinary human being of his time was not a difference in form which could be re-presented by art and law but a nonperceptible difference between the short time of ordinary human life and the eternity of divine existence. If I move a certain ordinary thing as a readymade from outside of the museum to its inner space, I don’t change the form of this thing but I do change its life expectancy and assign to it a certain historical date. [“The New York Earth Room, 1977” still on display in 2013] The artwork lives longer and keeps its original form longer in the museum than an ordinary object does in “reality.” That is why an ordinary thing looks more “alive” and more “real” in the museum than in reality itself. If I see a certain ordinary thing in reality I immediately anticipate its death—as when it is broken and thrown away. A finite life expectancy is, in fact, the definition of ordinary life. So if I change the life expectancy of an ordinary thing, I change everything without, in a way, changing anything.

This nonperceptible difference in the life expectancy of a museum item and that of a "real thing" turns our imagination from the external images of things to the mechanisms of maintenance, restoration, and, generally, material support—the inner core of museum items. This issue of relative life expectancy also draws our attention to the social and political conditions under which these items are collected into the museum and thereby guaranteed longevity. At the same time, however, the museum’s system of rules of conduct and taboos makes its support and protection of the object invisible and unexperienceable. [The Earth Room being closed to visitors during the summer months for maintenance] This invisibility is irreducible. As is well known, modern art tried in all possible ways to make the inner, material side of the work transparent. But it is still only the surface of the artwork that we can see as museum spectators: behind this surface something remains forever concealed under the conditions of a museum visit. [You cannot photograph it, you cannot walk on it, enter into it, only view it from without, from the entrance of the gallery that has a regular wood floor and from behind a glass enclosure.] As a spectator in the museum, one always has to submit to restrictions which function fundamentally to keep the material substance of the artworks inaccessible and intact so that they may be exhibited "forever."

Entrance to The New York Earth Room • photo: Art or Idiocy?

Indeed the idea of carrying on an exhibition indefinitely, one made up of such a simple gesture as fresh earth replacing the floor of an otherwise empty gallery, is the perfect example of Groys’ position. For it’s not only a single work being preserved, or even a final exhibition, but a moment in time made up of all these things.

Even if the material existence of an individual artwork is for a certain time guaranteed, the status of this artwork as artwork depends always on the context of its presentation in a museum collection. But it is extremely difficult—actually impossible—to stabilize this context over a long period of time. This is, perhaps, the true paradox of the museum: the museum collection serves the preservation of artifacts, but this collection itself is always extremely unstable, constantly changing and in flux. Collecting is an event in time par excellence—even while it is an attempt to escape time.2

But for now we can revel in The New York Earth Room’s apparent timelessness, the thoroughly corporeal work’s simulated existence outside of corporeal reality— even as the gallery that hosted it, and now its maker—have succumbed to temporality.

Walter De Maria died at the age of 77 last week.

1. Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 36 - 37.
2. Ibid, 39.

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