You push a buzzer at a nondescript door in Soho tucked between high-end furniture and clothing boutiques, and head up a flight of stairs to what is perhaps the longest-running and most unusual free art display in the city, the New York Earth Room.
It’s a sprawling 22in pile of dark, humid topsoil filling a 3,600-sq-ft loft the size of a small football field. The same earth has been sitting here for nearly 35 years, the work of artist Walter De Maria, one of three Earth Rooms he has created since 1968, and the only one still in existence.
The exhibit is maintained and run by the Dia Art Foundation, a not-for-profit arts organization that likes to support artworks that wouldn’t otherwise be able to exist. Not only is this one of the longest-running art exhibits in the city, but the person who mans the exhibit has perhaps one of New York’s longest-running jobs. For more than 20 years he has greeted the public and tended the soil, raking and watering it weekly, occasionally finding small weeds or mushrooms growing which he carefully removes.
About 50 people come here a day, and reaction to the show is diverse. Some New Yorkers say it’s the most soil they’ve seen in years, some find it mildly creepy, others say being here is spiritual or comforting, a moment of peace in the hectic city. Many are drawn back to the room again and again.
You can’t photograph it, or touch it, but you can ask questions, like how they got the soil in here in the first place (through the windows with cranes) or what it means (that’s up to you).