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Amazing Art Sanctums: a Visit to the Walter De Maria SOHO Installations 2020

| October 16, 2020 | 0 Comments
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Amazing Art Sanctums: a Visit to the Walter De Maria SOHO Installations
The Broken Kilometer, Walter De Maria

On a recent Saturday in what is revealing itself to be a delightful Spring in New York City, I had the privilege of visiting two important works by Walter De Maria, commissioned and cared for by  Dia Art Foundation. Housed in cramped rooms in SOHO, The Broken Kilometer (1979) and The New York Earth Room (1977) are generally not accessible to the public. However, four times per year, Dia generously opens the doors to the spaces and offers a limited-occupancy, docent-led tour of both sites. This time the tour guide was no less than the director of Dia, Philippe Vergne, a charming Frenchman whose relaxed, almost humble manner belies his powerful position.

A group of approximately fifty art lovers listened as Vergne gave a short history of Dia: from its genesis with the union of Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil to its current state of art-bedecked, vast property owner. According to Vergne, Dia was envisioned  as creating sanctums of a sort for art of the modern era, as cathedrals and chapels served as the repositories for the art of earlier ages. The art of these non-denominational, “holy” places would remain in perpetuity: object and location melded into one entity. Thus, the art of these spaces would represent something more than a typical installation, which can be dismantled and re-installed somewhere else. Such treatment of Dia’s charges would be tantamount to destroying them.

The tour started at The Broken Kilometer: a dazzling display of 500 two-meter long brass rods arrayed in five rows of one hundred. Employing an arithmetic progression in the spacing between bars, De Maria placed the bars in such a way that they become further apart from their neighbors as they recede into the distance. This trick plays with perspective, vanishing points, and the limits of human sensation, as the bars appear to fuse together into a scintillating mass of optical wealth.

earth room 300x217 1
The New York Earth Room, Walter De Maria

Richness of another sort is part of the experience at the The New York Earth Room. This work comprises the second floor of an office building which has been covered wall to wall by twenty inches of dark, loamy soil that promises great fertility. However, since its creation, The New York Earth Room has been kept barren. All plants, animals and fungi that germinated or emerged from the soil were removed, leaving an abiotic expanse that calls to mind an apocalyptic disaster. The presence of such a calamity in a very unlikely space reifies the feeling of unease and suggests a degree of culpability in the destruction.

While Vergne politely declined to offer an interpretation of either work, he did comment on the sublime and De Maria’s thoughts on the aesthetics of natural disasters. Lest the tour end on a leaden and ruminative note, questions from the group leavened the collective mood with a brief and humorous discussion of SOHO’s history: from a desirable neighborhood in the early 19th Century, to a manufacturing center in the early 20th, to a post-industrial wasteland in the late 20th, to its rebirth as a gilded arena for luxurious living and conspicuous consumption in the 21st.

broken kilometer
the earth room

Amazing Art Sanctums: a Visit to the Walter De Maria SOHO Installations

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