In Florida, an Ecological Disaster Becomes an Artistic Statement

Pieces of a 36-acre underwater junkyard now make up an art exhibit called Eclipse.

Nearly 2 million decaying Goodyear tires lie submerged off the coast of South Florida, decrepit hunks of rubber that have gradually succumbed to the pressures of tides and tropical storms. The steel cables that once strung them along the ocean floor have snapped, and many have drifted into the natural reefs only 70 feet away, permanently scarring them.

What is now a 36-acre underwater junkyard was once the Osborne Reef, an ambitious effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Broward Artificial Reef, Inc., to create a habitat for an influx of game fish, which would in turn attract tourism to the area. Now, it is the focus of Eclipse, an exhibition by Berlin-based artist Hannes Bend at Miami’s Charest-Weinberg Gallery.

“The exhibition combined my art with an environmental interest I have had since childhood,” Bend says. To prepare for Eclipse, he researched artificial reefs across the world, including ones off the coasts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and Africa—all of which have failed to foster and sustain oceanic life. “Failure,” he says, “reveals more about environmental and social conditions than success.”

The idea of jumpstarting an ecosystem with an artificial reef was once popular among environmental activists, but mismanagement of resources and improper use of materials doomed several projects like the Osborne Reef. In almost every case, the result has been unintended harm to the environment. Marine creatures never made a home on the South Florida reef, and when the cables came loose, the tires began to damage surrounding plant life.

Efforts to remove the tires began in the 1990s, but layers of red tape nonetheless made it difficult for Bend to collect 80 for his exhibition. After battling heavy winds and unsupportive politicians he was able to take his share with help from conservation and recreation groups like the Palm Beach Hammerheads and the South Florida Diving Headquarters.

“There were two boats, one with a crew of divers and one acting as a salvage boat," says gallery director Eric Charest-Weinberg. "Although I would have loved to have been underwater with the rest of the crew diving, I needed to stay onboard, because we actually didn’t have enough people to hoist the tires up. They were incredibly heavy, just dead weight filled with water and sand and other things that did not make them easy to pull up.”

In the exhibit space, the 80 recovered tires crowd the gallery space as if threatening to overcome it and spread beyond its walls. As a memento to the difficulty of the collection process, the walls of the Eclipse exhibition are adorned with pieces from salvage expedition: a heavy lift bag, one of the ropes used to secure the tires, and underwater photos of divers eerily maneuvering through the reef’s rubbery remains.

But when viewers first enter the Charest-Weinberg Gallery to view the exhibition, none of those things are most noticeable—visitors are taken first by the smell. After sitting on the ocean floor for close to the 30 years, the recovered tires have taken on enough sea salt and decay to assault the olfactory senses in a way that embodies their contribution to an environmental disaster.

“It’s a very intense experience,” Bend says. “You’re breathing it in and a part of it. We had some people who couldn’t stand it, who had to leave right away because of the smell.” He likens it to stepping into a multi-dimensional surrealist painting. “Hearing about it is one thing, but going there and interacting with the piece, walking over the tires and being part of the exhibit, I hope will be eye-opening and give people a different point of view.”

The power of Eclipse goes beyond the visceral, though; it also broaches a bevy of environmental subjects, from the impact of artificial reefs to broader questions about how humans alter, cooperate with, and emulate the environment. According to Bend, the exhibition proves that, “in the end, nature rules.” It also builds off his past work, which includes videos taken at street level or on railroad tracks. “They create a harmonic or romantic situation…showing the brutality of the machines of mankind," he says. "The [Eclipse] installation involved the tires as a way to push this theme and to really make it intense.”

For Charest-Weinberg, the exhibit represents the best of what contemporary art can be—simultaneously visually compelling and thought-provoking. “Other people,” he says, “have looked at this from a totally opposite perspective, which is fantastic.”

Photo courtesy of Eric Charest-Weinberg

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