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Monday, June 13, 2005

The Smell of 12 Tons of Prison Compost

The temperature had moved above 90. The humidity was unbearable. What better way to spend the day than visiting a room filled with 25,000 pounds of prison compost mixed into 50,000 pounds of Home Depot topsoil?

The surprise of the day? How little smell there was. Nothing noticeable at all, really.

The New York Dirty Room, Mike Bouchet’s riff on Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, is on view at Maccarone through August. Holland Cotter unpacked about everything possible from the work in a short Times review last month (archived at NEWSgrist).

Everything, that is, except the fact that the work lacks a revulsion factor. I was expecting a real, rotting stench. I was expecting to see steam rising from the piece as the compost continued to ferment on such a nasty hot day. But no luck.

Sure, the conceptual element is there—what Cotter talks about as the clean and the unclean—but the work suffers because it doesn’t slap its viewers in the face (or, more precisely, in the nose) with a visceral gross out. Without something in the work itself that raises the ante or subverts the original, the piece comes across as a poor knock off of De Maria. It’s not enough to be handed a Dia-like gallery guide (you know the kind, the 8 ½ x 5 ½ brochure) and told that this isn’t the same sort of dirt that De Maria used.

It comes down the this: the work would be much better if it smelled much worse.

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