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More than a pile of dirt? Our guide to Sydney's most intriguing art project

Kaldor Public Art Projects, Asad Raza, 'Absorption', 2019
Photograph: Pedro Greig Asad Raza, 'Absorption', 2019

When you walk into the ground floor of the Clothing Store at Carriageworks to enter Asad Raza's art project, Absorption, you'll probably have one initial thought: "That's a lot of dirt."

That may be followed by: "We're going to need a lot of Roombas to clean this up."

And you're not wrong – there's around 300 tonnes of different soils and organic materials that are being brought together for the New York-based artist's work, which is the 34th edition of the famed Kaldor Public Art Projects. But there's a lot more happening here than first meets the eye.

Kaldor Public Art Projects started in 1969, when Christo and Jeanne-Claude used 95,000 square metres of fabric to wrap two kilometres of coastline in Little Bay. This year's edition is safely indoors, but Asad is bringing the outdoors in, covering the entire ground floor of the Clothing Store building with materials, which are being brought together by "cultivators" who will care for the soil over the 17 days that the project is open to the public (May 3-19).

Asad Raza, 'Absorption', 2019. Photograph: Pedro Grieg.

But what do you need to know about this artwork to get the most from a visit? We decided to dig deep (pardon the pun) to discover why it really is more than just a pile of dirt.

Who is the artist?

Asad Raza is a New York-based artist whose work is all about experiences. He creates exhibitions that are "metabolic entities", which means there's always some kind of activity or transformation going on, and a way for the audience to get a little more deeply involved.

His previous works include 'Untitled (Plot for Dialogue)', where he installed a game of tennis in a deconsecrated Milan church, and 'Root Sequence. Mother Tongue', which featured 26 living trees and caretakers installed inside the Whitney Museum in New York. One of his most famous pieces was 'Home Show', in which he allowed 30 artists to change his New York home and impose rituals upon him, and invited visitors on a tour of his home every day for five weeks.

What's in the soil?

A bit of everything really. The point of the work is that the cultivators are bringing together all sorts of materials to create a "neosoil". 

"A lot of it is organic green waste from Sydney," Asad says. "There’s a brewery in Marrickville that sends us all their spent barley, and we incorporate all these things together here and create a new soil."

There's also mushroom compost, red kandosol from Cobbitty in southwestern Sydney, cuttlefish bone from NSW beaches, and even post-brewed coffee grounds.

What is a "cultivator"?

The cultivators are people working in the space to care for and test the soil. They're on shifts, and you'll see them watering the soil, testing its consistency and acidity and recording the results, and mixing elements together for the whole of the exhibition period.

The inspiration?

In part, Asad was inspired by the Carriageworks site and its history as a rail workshop.

"This was where the land was dug up from Australia, brought to these processing places, separated into different components and sent away by train," Asad says. "I was thinking that’s the legacy we have from modernism, and I would like to almost reverse that process, and instead bring all these separated elements back to the same site, mix them into one organic medium again, and then give it to people."

What else is happening in the space?

This is where things get really interesting. Asad has collaborated with several other artists who use the installation in different ways.

The most obvious one is Daniel Boyd's work on the windows, which throw porous light all over the space, and also Agatha Gothe-Snape's work: the hi-vis vests that the cultivators wear, which have lining made from vintage John Kaldor fabrics. Jana Hawkins-Andersen has created a work in which clay leeches are moulded before being broken up and returned to the earth, while Megan Alice Clune's work allows you to listen to the soil. There are also talks and performances happening in the space over the course of the exhibition.

Can I take the soil home?

Yes, and you can really take as much as you need or want. If you show up with a massive truck, you'll probably be able to fill it (but also maybe don't do this until later on in the exhibition). 

"You can do what you want with it," Asad says. "You can sprinkle some on your garden, or take a tonne, literally, and make a new community garden, or you can put it in pots on your windowsill."

Our number one tip?

Talk to the cultivators. They'll tell you about the work they're doing and how the exhibition actually works. It's once you start having these conversations that you'll get to understand just how much is happening beneath the surface.

Absorption is at the Clothing Store, Carriageworks, May 3-18. It's free to visit.

Looking for more arts experiences around Sydney? Check out the best public art in the city and this month's must-see exhibitions.

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