Walk into any gallery or museum with a clump of dirt in your hands, and you'll likely be escorted out of the premises within minutes. Art and dirt don't mix. That is, unless the dirt is a central part of the art on view.

Such is the case with "Soil Blind," a sculptural installation at Woodbury School of Architecture in Barrio Logan. Dirt is a fundamental part of the piece, created by artist Jeremy Gercke, landscape architect Jonathan Austin and scientist David Lipson.

The sculpture features more than 100 cone-shaped clay modules hanging from cables suspended from a steel frame. Each unique module is filled with various types of soil and nutrient-rich composts found in gutters throughout Barrio Logan.

The piece is more than visual art, however; it's also a scientific experiment. With "Soil Blind," Gercke, Austin and Lipson created an environment ripe for germination and natural activity.

"It's been an education for me," Gercke says. "I always wanted to make artwork that isn't necessarily something to be looked at. It is part of an environment, a site-specific piece that relates to the area."

The installation was made possible by a grant from DNA of Creativity, an organization that provides funding for projects that merge art and science. The grant went to a project called Urban Succession, which aimed to preserve and provide wildlife habitat in urban areas.

Gercke, Austin and Lipson are friendly with members of Urban Secession, and after a series of talks, the organization decided to get behind "Soil Blind" as a bit of a different part of the project.

"The idea of making a home for raccoons or possums didn't resonate with us," Gercke says. "These animals are going to go wherever they want. So we looked at the larger picture and thought about what activates the animals."

"My compost in my backyard is the most active place in my house," he adds. "Bugs, birds—they all hang out. We felt they needed environments the most."

The crew set out to collect soil specimens for their installation. Lipson, a professor of soil biology at San Diego State University, ran tests on the dirt collected. He was surprised when one soil sample came back positive for E. coli.

"It's part of our hope that this project is fruitful," Austin says. "It can start a dialogue about these issues, like soil, Barrio Logan and the city in general—how the city is producing soil through unnatural processes."

Since its installation in mid-February, the piece has been aflutter with activity: Plants are sprouting, spiders are spinning webs and birds often snack on bugs hanging from the sculpture. This is exactly what the team had hoped for.

"Soil Blind" can be viewed from the corner of Sampson and Main streets.


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