Eco-warriors: in Tel Aviv a dangerous rubbish dump has inspired artists Vito Acconci, Cai Guo-Qiang, Mark Dion and others

“Hiriya in the museum” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art consists of nineteen proposals for the rehabilitation of the site


Many people from all over the world come to Israel to see the Mount of Olives in Jersualem. However, the first landmark to greet international visitors arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport is a very different kind of mountain. Hiriya is a mountain of rubbish eighty-five metres high, covering sixty-eight hectares. For commuters travelling on the motorways between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the stench of gas penetrates the car windows.

With the capacity to consume 3,200 tonnes of rubbish a day, Hiriya was Israel’s largest garbage dump and a symbol of the erosion of the Zionist principles on which the Jewish state was founded. In 1998, the risk of interference with nearby aircraft from thousands of birds who scavenge at the site, finally precipitated its closure. According to the Ministry of Health, 300 people die each year as a result of toxic fumes in the air around Tel Aviv.

The exhibition “Hiriya in the museum”, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until 21 February, consists of nineteen proposals for the rehabilitation of the site, conceived by twenty-eight artists and architects from Israel, the US and Europe. Sponsored by the Beracha foundation, the exhibition is curated by Dr Martin Weyl, former director of the Israel Museum. While the future of Hiriya still hangs in the balance, it is hoped that it will become a landmark site of some kind. However, these particular schemes were not intended to be realistic proposals so much as to encourage environmental awareness in a country where recycling has yet to make an impact.

The projects range from the fantastic to the (slightly more) practical. Vito Acconci has dreamt up “Garbage city”, a kind of technological kibbutz. With a school, cinema, football stadium and monorail, the city is powered by methane gases from the garbage. Ironically, Hiriya really is home to people from all walks of life: scholars, scavengers, bird watchers, and, once a year, a woman who keeps an annual photographic record of her naked body in situ. The Austrian artist Lois Weinberger also draws on this fascination with other people’s trash, presenting a collection of objets trouvés. His installation displays photographs of weddings, developed from negatives unearthed at the tip, to the accompaniment of a rescued LP of love songs. In a witty take on today’s consumer society, Gil Vaadia, Gal Weinstein and Shai Weinstein have furnished an “Israeli Laura Ashley” style living-room, where the design on everything, from the wall-paper to the ashtrays, is inspired by the rubbish tip. Souvenir hats and T-shirts are on sale in the museum shop. Mark Dion and Nils Norman have created the “Hiriya hotzone biohazard extreme theme park”, an interactive family experience spookily reminiscent of the Greenwich Dome, where visitors, guided by mascots, can learn all about the environment. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has a speedier remedy for this environmental boil: he plans to simply detonate the entire mountain. Other proposals are more practical: Micha Ullman, who describes the exhibition as “part of a larger battle that is being waged against Jerusalem’s ecological problems”, has suggested converting the tip into a recycling plant. A first sign of progress is the presence of recycling bins at the museum’s exit.

For the time being, a transfer station has been established at Hiriya, from which waste is being transported to other parts of the country. Dr Weyl remarks “Israel lags far behind other Western countries in dealing with the most elementary aspects of the fight against various sorts of pollution. We hope this will lead to a wiser sustainable policy of dealing with solid waste, though recycling, as in European countries and the US”.

Since the Jewish state was founded in 1948, suburbs, shopping precincts and motorways have taken over the “land of milk and honey” at an alarming rate, replacing deserts and forests. In this warring state, ecological matters have tended to take a back seat. Similarly, Israeli land art has primarily engaged with questions of borders and identity, rather than with environmental issues. Dr Weyl hopes the current exhibition will forge a more meaningful connection between artists and public life: “The art world as a whole tends to set itself apart and to live in an ivory tower environment of museums and galleries. It is important for artists to become involved in public life and for art to have a functional role. These proposals require team-work between artists, architects, biologists, physicists, ground specialists and ecologists. Land Art had been made for isolation. Eco-Art requires team-work and advocacy.”