Earth First (And Last)

by Thomas Beller


141 Wooster St, NY, NY 10012

Neighborhood: West Village

Bill Dilworth may have one of New York’s most relaxing jobs. He is keeper of the New York Earth Room, a permanent installation by the artist Walter DeMaria, sponsored by the Dia Foundation. The work has been on display at the same location at 141 Wooster Street for over ten years, and Mr. Dilworth has been its guardian for the last four, and shows no signs of letting up. He is a tall slim man with a neat haircut, and on a recent visit he wore a blue corduroy shirt buttoned to the top. Two library books sat stacked on his desk, the top one being Naming Nature: A Seasonal Guide to the Amateur Naturalist.

The Earth Room’s title pretty much sums up its contents: it is a large loft space filled to about knee level with earth. Some people might call it dirt, but it seems healthier than that. A set of windows overlooking Wooster Street lends the space a kind a domestic feel, with patches of sunlight and a view of a sign that says, “Park.” One surveys the Earth Room from a kind of vestibule in much the same way one might survey a party just after arriving, but before plunging in. Except in this case there is no plunging in, and it’s much quieter. There is something plush about the moist, fragrant earth, like someone’s idea of shag carpeting gone amok.

Mr. Dilworth sits in a separate room, in sight of the front door but with a wall separating him from the viewing area. He is not a proprietary guard.

“Guard isn’t really the word for what I do,” he says, “there’s nothing to guard.” Then he cheerfully producing a document issued by another museum titled, Why Not Touch Works of Art. “This is an art work that can’t be hurt. And besides, I can’t see the visitors.”

He feels it’s to the viewer’s advantage that they are alone when they see the work. “I think it’s nice that people can come here and have their own quiet private time. In fact a lot of the people who come aren’t particularly interested in art. Their interested in it is as a sanctuary. It’s not one thing or another, it’s just a big flat area of earth. People can project themselves onto that.”

The piece is, on the whole, low maintenance. Once a week Mr. Dilworth waters the earth and rakes it. Occasionally there is some weeding to be done because, as he put it, “things grow in it.” An occasional sprout here and there can be taken care of during the weekly raking, but a nascent mushroom population requires a particular vigilance. “If a mushroom were to pop out it would become the focus of the room,” he said.

Most visitors to the Earth Room, which is open from noon to six p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, come alone. Mr. Dilworth estimates that on weekdays there are between twenty and forty visitors. On Saturday it gets up to one hundred and twenty. Though there are a few people who seem offended or confused by the work, most people’s reaction to it is quite favorable, even edifying. “Usually things that seem crazy are frightening, but this isn’t,” Mr. Dilworth says. “It is entirely inappropriate to laugh at most art, but not in this case.”

In fact, laughter is apparently a common reaction. The Earth Room has a number of regulars, among them a woman whose visits follow a similar pattern each time. “Soon after she arrives she begins to giggle lightly, and then it slowly builds to a full fledged laugh. She has a very infectious laugh so sometimes I find myself laughing along with her. Then she gets very quiet and stands for a few more minutes before leaving. There’s a good vibe here at the earth room.”

As if to support this claim, a recent visit to Mr. Dilworth was peppered by visitor’s popping their heads in to register their appreciation. Mr. Dilworth clearly enjoyed the exchange. “One of the good parts of the job is that people often come up to me and say thanks. I did free-lance carpentry for a while and no one ever said thanks. They talked to you when things went wrong.”

That, essentially, is what the Earth Room is–a place where things don’t go wrong. “The Earth Room is always here, people can return to it again and again. In this city where everything is constantly changing, particularly in Soho, and where everything has a price tag, the Earth Room always remains he same. And nothing is for sale.”

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