In 1972, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alongside Broward Artificial Reef Inc. (BARINC) thought it might be a productive effort to take nearly one million used car tires (donated by Goodyear) and drop them a mile offshore near the Osborne Reef in Fort Lauderdale. The intention: to build an artificial reef that could support new reef life and game fish from the waste. The actual result: rubber cannot support sturdy coral colonies and storm surges sweep loose tires from the seabed onto the shore, and the system fails altogether. Through diligent research and a dogged determination to cut through a sea of red tape (which included several failed cleanup attempts), German artist Hannes Bend gathered a group of volunteers: experienced divers, underwater videographers, mariners and journalists on a mission to extract the rotting tires from the floor and recreate the controversial site in the gallery space. This will be his first solo exhibition, Eclipse, with gallerist Eric Charest-Weinberg opening this week.
Those participants leaving from Miami (which included Bend, Charest-Weinberg, two art handlers, Patricia Sagastume from WLRN Radio Miami and myself) were up around 4am to make the drive to the Hillsboro Inlet just south of Boca Raton. On a choppy catamaran ride out to sea, enormous tarp coverings were laid down to protect the boat from the tires, filled with rancorous odors from decades of sedimentation and decomposition. A separate craft carried a team of divers (some with Rescue and Recovery credentials, some with military backgrounds and others as instructors for recreational clientele) to the site, where they would descend with ropes and inflatable bags to lift the tires to the surface. Two submarine videographers from the local CBS affiliate accompanied the divers. One tells me this story has national news potential.
The divers' efforts were largely unseen, but the physical effort of retrieving the tires was realized when ten or fifteen-count bundles (while almost weightless in water, came close to 125 pounds each at the surface) reached the catamaran to be collected. Several times, Bend himself leaped into the water to reclaim the drifting lines as the captain tried to maintain his position. Trial-and-error retrieval attempts were made as the inflatable bags swelled with water, the weight was far too great to drag up to the deck, or the divers ran short on their Nitrox supply.
By high noon, 80 tires dripping with mud and red, white and earthen splotches of dead coral were stacked at the stern. They emerged from the seabed as warped, flattened or frayed rubber rings. Apart from the inherent risks of the mission, handling the tires, themselves, was hazardous as some were spotted with poisonous fire coral, sharp urchins and one slimy octopus hiding in a dark sliver. The day felt less like an aesthetic gesture, but more akin to a full-scale military research mission. "It doesn't feel like part of the process at all," Bend said over the engine hum, "but I think it's really sort of apocalyptic, this thing that was not necessarily hidden but just below the ocean."
Back on land, once the tires were loaded onto a moving truck and photo ops were staged, Bend continued his thought; "I'm always interested in the way we interact with our environment." I said that it felt a lot like Smithson in reverse. Bend replied, "I think so. Also Beuys and Gordon Matta-Clark are influential, as well. But yes. For this project, it was about never giving up to create something in the space. This, the Osborne Reef project, was made with good intention, but the cycles of nature acted upon it, a sort of attack of nature.'
Part 2 of this article will be published as a review following the opening of Bend's first solo exhibition, Eclipse, at Charest-Weinberg Gallery in Miami on Friday, March 30th.
Shana Beth Mason is a critic formerly based in Brooklyn now active in London, UK. Contributions include Art in America, ArtVoices Magazine, FlashArt International, InstallationMag (Los Angeles), Kunstforum.as (Oslo), The Brooklyn Rail, The Miami Rail, San Francisco Arts Quarterly (SFAQ), and thisistomorrow.info (London).
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