In 1972, a nonprofit group came up with a brilliant idea: Create a three-mile-long artificial reef off the South Florida coast using 2 million old tires. Goodyear donated the rubber, Broward County forked over the funds, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off.
The plan quickly went to hell, however. Coral didn't grow on the tires. Fish didn't flock to the rubber reef. Then the tires began coming loose, crashing around in the current and destroying natural reefs nearby. The environmental effort became an ecological disaster.
Flash forward four decades, and the tires are still sitting 70 feet underwater. But not for long. This week, a young German artist named Hannes Bend is planning to pull up at least 300 of the rotting radials so he can dump them in Wynwood's Charest-Weinberg Gallery.
"It's a trash cemetery on the bottom of the ocean," says Bend, a handsome 31-year-old Miami transplant. He hopes the project will draw attention to the 30-acre monstrosity while raising questions about our environmental crimes.
The struggle between man and nature has fascinated Bend since his childhood in Roge, a tiny German village on the Baltic Sea. He visited nearby fjords every summer and was collecting signatures for Greenpeace by the time he was 5. After graduating from art school, he started secretly filming Berlin's public pools, elaborate tropical paradises of plastic. Later, for his sculpture series CandY, he melted confections into multicolored casts of humans, animals, and everyday objects.
"The candy sculptures were about artificiality and imitating nature," he says. When an art fellowship brought him to Miami last year, he began hearing about another grotesque environmental imitation: the tire reef.
"It's like Atlantis down there," Bend says. "Put in a gallery, it becomes apocalyptic. But it will also be a back-yard scenario where people can walk around the tires and play with them."
Bend has been trying for months to obtain permits to dredge up the tires, to no avail. The same agencies that approved the idiotic project 40 years ago are now standing in the way of cleaning it up. Yet Bend has persuaded a marine towing company and local divers to help him anyway. They plan on pulling up the rubber doughnuts sometime this week.
He hopes that seeing the tires in a gallery will remind Floridians what they've done to nature.
"I am making visible something that has been hidden," he says. "That's what art is all about."