Spring 2002

Leftovers / It’s about Time for Fresh Kills

The remains of that day

Mierle Laderman Ukeles

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

When I got a call that the debris from the World Trade Center was going to be shipped to the Fresh Kills Landfill for sorting and burial, I said, “Oh no. No, no, no, no. The City would never do that. They would never mingle human remains in a place where they put garbage; that would collapse a taboo in our whole culture. That crosses a line.”

So I was wrong. Fresh Kills, the largest garbage landfill in the world, closed “forever” in March 2001 after being open for about 50 years. It was re-opened on 13 September 2001. The sifting and sorting of the World Trade Center debris is being carried out at Section 1/9, one of the four mounds at the landfill, by the FBI and the New York City Police Department. The material is considered criminal evidence. The authorities explained that there was no comparable place at the required scale, and Fresh Kills was the only site that was sufficiently secure. Actually, that’s been true for many years. The Department of Sanitation weighed and counted every pound of garbage that came in by barge, controlled at every stage from the moment it was picked up from in front of your apartment in Kew Gardens. They could pretty much track its path: which truck on what shift, dumped at which transfer station onto what barge, and finally put to rest at which section of the landfill. No one outside of this system could get into the site unless OK’d by the guards. What’s stunning about Sanitation is that even though the marine disposal system had been unused between March and September of 2001—except that the fleet of barges had been hand-cleaned all summer on the insides, every nook and cranny washed—the Department was able to mobilize 22 barges and put several marine transfer stations back into operation within days. So an orderly system for moving the debris was organized and implemented almost immediately.

Manhattan skyline from top of Fresh Kills Landfill. Photo Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

What will happen to all this debris? There will definitely be some kind of memorial for the catastrophe: for the people; for the attack on US soil; for the towers that we feel have been torn out of us. This will be at Ground Zero. But what about the dust at the Fresh Kills Landfill? It’s not about the body parts that are found. They’ll remove the identifiable fingers and toes, run DNA tests, and return them to families. It’s the flying dust that is full of thousands of unfound, incinerated human beings. This will be their graveyard.

I’ve been waiting to get to work here for 24 years. Even though I’ve been absorbing the place all these years and creating various art works and texts about it, I’ve been waiting for a master design team to be organized to begin permanent work here. I never imagined I’d be working on a cemetery. But let me back up a bit.

In 1976, the art critic David Bourdon reviewed a performance work of mine in New York City with 300 maintenance workers in a skyscraper, and suggested that, if maintenance can be art, perhaps the Sanitation Department could call its work performance art and replace some of its lost manpower—cut in the fiscal crisis of the mid-70s—with a grant from the NEA. Reading this, I thought, “the Sanitation Department, hmmmm,” and sent a copy of the review to the Commissioner of Sanitation. I got a call from the Commissioner’s assistant asking if I would like “to make art with 10,000 people.”

“I’ll be right over,” I said. After learning where my garbage went, I proposed three different works. The first was TOUCH SANITATION, an 11-month-long performance work in which I faced each of the 8,500 sanitation workers, shook hands with each one and said, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” The work involved walking thousands of curb miles with them in every sanitation district all over NYC. The second was a work ballet with trucks and sweepers that asked, “Can work be art?” The third was for urban earthworks for NYC landfills that were located in every borough except for Manhattan. In 1978, I received two grants from the NEA: One was devoted to planning my own urban earthworks for NYC landfills; the other was for Re-Raw Recovery, a project exploring the feasibility of a design competition to open these spaces to all kinds of creators. I felt that the classical American earthworks that I loved had an unfortunate un-public aspect about them, since they were in isolated places and available only to a few who could afford the trip. For the rest of us, there were only the pictures. Almost all of these works are/were on private land. In New York City there were huge tracts of public land on municipal landfills; weird, yes, but land that the public actually owned and could make a claim on, land that you could take a subway or bus to, available to all. Soon after, with the advent of a spate of environmental regulations, the landfills were, with the exception of Fresh Kills, declared inactive hazardous waste sites requiring immediate attention—and rendered off-limits for art.

Fresh Kills was kept open for several factors. In contrast to other truck-fed city landfills, the waste at Fresh Kills was delivered by City-owned barges receiving material from City trucks dumping their payloads at the City’s own transfer stations. It was felt that the waste it received had always been more controlled, with almost no opportunity for criminal dumping of toxic materials. Secondly, Fresh Kills was always viewed as being in a unique category as a municipal waste-disposal resource because of its incomparable 2,200-acre size. Therefore, the City decided to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading the landfill to the same level of environmental protection as a new landfill, a feat never accomplished at any other site in the US. But throughout the upgrading period, art was still off-limits.

In 1989, I was awarded a Percent for Art commission by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. My contract, registered in 1992, said I was the Artist of the Fresh Kills Landfill, appointed to design elements of the landfill and to contribute to its overall closure and end-use design. The year of closure was not identified at that time and it was thought that the landfill would stay open for at least twenty years. I was asked to wait for the selection of a multi-disciplinary design team. A few attempts were made to form such a team, but they didn’t last. In 1996, the Governor, the Mayor, and the Borough President unified to announce suddenly that the landfill would close in five years, at the end of 2001. Soon after the announcement, the City Planning Department and the Municipal Art Society organized an international design competition to propose a conceptual master plan for the end-use design for Fresh Kills.[1] In order to align my work with these two major changes—closure and competition—a Change Order was registered in December of 2001 for my contract. I will be able to proceed to design my own works, and I will “link” with the winning team of the competition to integrate my work with theirs and to contribute with them to the overall end-use design. I am almost finished with the first phase, my overall reconnaissance of and research into this overwhelming site. A public component of this phase is my six-channel video work, Penetration and Transparency, made with video-makers Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra.

I feel as if I’ve been caught in a zone of trauma since 13 September. My expectation all these years was to work, alone and with the design team, in a very dense political atmosphere, focusing on the transformation of the site, healing the effects of garbage via a rolling series of what I call “Morphing Challenges”:[2] Layer One is the garbage; Layer Two is the Sanitation Department’s pioneering closure design, orchestrated by Phillip Gleason (Director of Landfill Engineering) and currently being implemented at the highest level of engineering and environmental standards; Layer Three will be the design to transform the site and turn it, over many years, into a public place, a local, citywide, and even international asset, safe and full of meaning. Now, after the 13 September decision to reopen the landfill for the World Trade Center debris, an undreamt-of Layer Four is required. What is the meaning of this place now?

The entire site cannot be turned into a memorial. It is important to remember the proportion of the World Trade Center debris here: It occupies one section of one mound, which is one of four mounds. The other three mounds are unaffected. It is also important to remember that this garbage landfill has been a 50-year burden to the people of Staten Island, who have received the garbage from the whole city, originally promised to be open for 3 years, not 50. Something was “taken” from Staten Island and should be returned.

So what is the correct proportion of space and overall attention for the World Trade Center debris and remains? And what is its relation to and impact on the rest of the site? The completely new question at Fresh Kills concerns the nature of the memorial or the graveyard or whatever it will be. Is it for the particular individuals who died? A person and a person and a person, turned to “flying dust?”[3] Will there be a marker with the person’s name, some details, objects, messages? Many will say no, it should be a general memorial, a meditation place, a place for gathering and pondering. For all. Un-programmed.

To me, what’s wrong with creating a general, un-individuated memorial for some particular place within Fresh Kills is this: To call something “garbage” means that the possessor of the object has lost desire for it. Desire has passed, and with it goes value. The value of the object evaporates. We are quite expert at this; in consumerist society, we’re trained to lose desire as fast as possible and to buy again, more and more. To call something “garbage” means stripping the materials of their inherent characteristics. So that even though differences are obvious, hard becomes the same as soft, wet as dry, heavy as light, moldy old sour cream as a shoe, wet leaves as old barbells— they become the same things. The entire culture colludes in this un-naming. Then we can call it all “garbage”—of no value whatsoever. To put it away, actually paying to put it away, as soon as possible. Thus forgotten. And then paying tremendously to remediate its effects on the land, the air, and the water.

So that’s why, in this 50-year-old social sculpture we have all produced, of four mountains made from 150 million cubic yards of the un-differentiated, un-named, no-value garbage, whose every iota of material identity has been banished, the memorial, graveyard—or whatever it is—needs to be created out of an utterly opposite kind of social contract. The shattered taboo that enabled this unholy shotgun marriage needs to be restored; a chasm-change in attitude is required, one of very deliberate differentiating, of naming, of attentive reverence for each mote of dust from each lost individual. Thus remembered. This must become a place that returns identity to, not strips identity from, each perished person.

Hasn’t it been art that can transform the meaning of material, re-invent identity, and re-name the lost? This part of the overall Fresh Kills site must become a double place: the unnamed healed and the named re-named. Otherwise the doubling being done here tumbles necessity into obscenity.

I’ve done a lot of other work over the years, but basically I’ve been waiting for 24 years to get to work on this. Garbage is hard enough. The scale of 2,200 acres, equivalent to 2.5 Central Parks, is mind-bending. Now this unimaginable new Layer Four. I’m ready to get to work on this now.

An article in “World Changing” on Freshkills citing Mierle Ukeles’s Cabinet essay available at www.worldchanging.com/archives/000525.html [link defunct—Eds.].

  1. The official title is “‘Fresh Kills Landfill to Landscape’ Conceptual Design & Planning Approach Competition & Master Plan Services.”
  2. This is the phrase I used in Appendix E of the Competition Design Brief, “Statement of Perspective by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Percent for Art Artist of the Fresh Kills Landfill.”
  3. “Flying dust” comes from the Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) prayer: “As for man, he is from dust and will return to dust; he earns his bread at the risk of his life; he is like a broken shard, the grass that withers, the flower that fades, a fleeting shadow, a passing cloud, the wind that blows, the flying dust, and as a fleeting dream.”

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is an artist based in New York City. She is represented by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.