Searching for secret art in New York City
- There are some startling secret installations to be found in the heart of the city
- These include Walter De Maria’s ‘Earth Room’ and 'Broken Kilometer', and Max Nuehaus’ ‘Times Square’
A recent trip to New York City saw me go off the touristy route. On previous visits, I had ticked off the mandatory boxes so, apart from walks in Bryant Park and Central Park, where I chanced upon free plays and music concerts, I decided to go in search of three “secret" art installations.
I happened to hear of the first from a chatty gallerist in the Chelsea borough, an uplifting neighbourhood with hundreds of art galleries showcasing a wide spectrum of art. In the course of our conversation, he spoke of one of the oldest art installations in the city, around since 1977. “Go to the New York Earth Room," he said. “It will blow your mind."
Artist Walter De Maria’s Earth Room is located in a grand old building at 141, Wooster Street in Manhattan’s SoHo neighbourhood, complete with the cast-iron facade that the area is known for. In fact, SoHo has the world’s largest collection of such cast-iron architecture buildings.
I rang the second-floor apartment buzzer, placed discreetly beside the building’s main door. When the door clicked open, my son and I stepped into the old-world foyer of an eight-storey apartment building with the usual letterboxes and notices. A woman on her way out assured us that it was indeed the right place, and pointed to a side door. It led to a flight of narrow iron stairs and the Earth Room: a big roomfull of earth!
De Maria’s conceptual work was executed first in Munich, in 1968, then in Darmstadt in 1974, and in its present location, in New York, in 1977. It was to have been on display in New York for a couple of months but has remained on view since 1980. The reactions, then and now, have range from on disbelief to incredulity.
“Is this art?" my son exclaimed, as we stood at the entrance of the large loft awash with light from large windows, staring at black soil spread evenly on the floor. The entry is barred by a glass sheet a few inches higher than the soil. The statistics are impressive: 197 cubic metres of soil spread across 3,600 sq. ft, 22 inches deep. Bill Dilworth, fondly referred to as the Keeper of Earth, has been tending to the soil for decades, watering and raking it once a week, and watching for weeds and mushrooms. He is the one who ushers in visitors and sits inconspicuously behind the counter of the adjacent reception area. Pulitzer Prize winner and art critic Jerry Saltz noted that “the sight (of the earth) was full but blank; it was an affirmation of physical abstraction".
After 5 minutes of taking in the sight and smell of moist earth brazenly occupying premium real estate, I walked to the other installation by Walter De Maria, Broken Kilometer (1979), exhibited at a gallery at West Broadway close to the Earth Room.
It is a photogenic arrangement of 500 highly polished, round brass rods, each measuring 2m in length and 5cm in diameter, in five parallel rows of 100 rods each. Exactness is the key and the space between the rods increases by 5mm each. The first and second rods are 80mm apart while the 99th and 100th rods are 570mm apart. The height is raised progressively so that when viewed, all the 100 rods are at eye level. When all the 500 rods are aligned together, they are a kilometre long. The installation is polished in summer every two years. A careful grid ensures that none of the rods are out of place.
The third “secret" took us to bustling Times Square, where the sound installation by Max Nuehaus, titled Times Square, is hidden in plain sight. At one of the busy pedestrian islands on Broadway, between 45th and 46th, is a large metal grating from which, if you pause and listen, there is an audible hum, a low droning sound not unlike the one made by a Tibetan singing bowl. I stood and listened, a grin plastered on my face.
Nuehaus didn’t want any label to draw attention to it; he wanted it to be a discovery for people. In 1977, Times Square looked very different. The artist had described it as “an environment of moving neon signs, office buildings, hotels, theatres, porno centres, and electronic game emporiums". The installation remained till 1992, when it was dismantled by a construction crew. It was placed there again in 2002, its volume tweaked higher to accommodate the sounds from the street.
I walked all along the grating and marvelled at my discovery before Minnie Mouse asked me to step aside as she posed with a group of tourists who, I presume, didn’t notice or care about the humming sound that persists like the lure of the siren, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.