Experiencing substance as a way of connecting with natural origins
Some artists, instead of using scenes as reminders of nature, use substance as the bearer of meaning. Celebrating the physicality of substance unravels alienation from the natural world.
One of my favourite examples is Walter de Maria’s Earth Room (1977, earth, Dia Art Foundation, New York). It is made up of 250 cubic yards of earth (197 cubic meters) 3,600 square feet of floor space (335 square meters) 22 inch depth of material (56 centimeters) Total weight of sculpture: 280,000 lbs. (127,300 kilos) . The New York Earth Room has been on long-term view to the public since 1980. This work was commissioned and is maintained by Dia Art Foundation. It is a reminder that earth is the substance that has been hidden by urbanization and washed away by modern sanitation.
The Earth Room, made up of a huge quantity of mud, requires constant tending and replacement to keep it moist yet not growing fungus, etc. Its power lies in the tension between the repulsion we feel for dirt and the pedestal we put art on. At a deeper level earth bears connotations of fertility and decay- aspects of life and death that technological advancement can influence only to a limited extent. It reminds us that our bodies will return to the earth when we die- to the very dirt that we shun during our lifetime. Works such as these remind us that nature is not just a pretty picture to be looked at. It is also more than a life support system. It is that from which our very existence springs and into which it will be absorbed.