April 2023

Arts & Letters

Slide and the family stone: Mike Hewson

By David Neustein

‘Rocks on Wheels’, Southbank, Melbourne. Images courtesy of Mike Hewson

The artist playing with risk and constructing public spaces that make wry observations of how we treat nature in our urban environments

Mike Hewson is a Sydney-based artist who challenges conventional notions of nature and permanence, while imbuing ordinary and artificial objects with their own life force. His artwork presents a visceral and arresting but also cheeky and optimistic experience of the Anthropocene. Bringing together plants and rocks, play equipment and common hardware, sophisticated systems and reused junk, Hewson offers us a new aesthetic vantage for experiencing the strangeness of our time.

Born in New Zealand and trained as a civil engineer, Hewson began his art career as a hobbyist. He alternated jobs on offshore pipeline projects or mining sites with stints in his Christchurch studio space. His earliest works were conventional depictions of the natural world, paintings of Central Otago’s rugged river valleys, peaks and glaciers. In 2011, Hewson was at work in his studio when the earthquake struck. He watched as Christchurch’s cathedral collapsed and the city was reduced to wasteland.

The earthquake was a personal tipping point. The apparently safe and stable fabric of the world around him had been revealed as a fragile façade. He became an artist first and engineer second, and set to work on a series of progressively larger and more sophisticated digital images, which he installed directly on the ruined walls of quake-damaged buildings. These images were a far cry from traditional landscape paintings. He copied and inverted the surrounding architecture, animating unoccupied spaces and giving them a fleeting sense of life. In so doing, he also celebrated impermanence, exploiting the storytelling potential in the transitory period between destruction and reconstruction. In 2014, Hewson commenced a master of fine arts degree at Columbia University, New York, and in 2015 he was awarded his first major permanent public commission, for Illawarra Placed Landscape in Wollongong.

“I arrived by train and found myself standing in the middle of the Wollongong mall,” Hewson tells me. “There was no sense of identity or place. The ocean and escarpment were right there but hidden from view.” His first impulse was to bring the landscape quite literally to the Crown Street pedestrian mall by craning in sandstone formations and endemic cabbage tree palms. But rather than install these elements in a naturalistic setting, Hewson wanted to create a space that seemed as temporary and enigmatic as his earthquake projects. So he went to great lengths to create the illusion that the boulders and trees had just been trucked into the mall one day and left where they landed, like gigantic, stranded garden supplies.

Completed in 2018, Illawarra Placed Landscape is intended to look “permanently temporary”, says Hewson. “It was designed to a minimum 25-year lifespan. It’s been here for more than five years and people are still looking up and wondering, What the fuck?” Hewson’s installation is distributed through the mall, creating gathering areas and pockets of activity within an otherwise open plaza. The boulders all have forklift slots underneath, as if they could be picked up and relocated at any moment, and the trees remain out of the ground, their root balls bundled. One of the trees is tethered to the top of a lamppost like a windsock, its crown reaching 17 metres into the air, while two others lie horizontally across the pavement. A fourth tree is lodged improbably in a hefty sandstone boulder, its trunk passing through a tiny aperture in the rock. The trees and some of the larger boulders seem to be secured in place by trucker’s tie-down straps, which are actually purely ornamental, with more substantial fixings and footings concealed from view.

It’s not evident that the palm trees were rescued from a site designated for clearing, or that the bent trees were found in that condition. Nor is it obvious that there are pipes running up through the lamppost and under the pavement that feed and drain the trees. In some people’s eyes the artwork is perverse. A cast member from The Real Housewives Slovenia launched into an Instagram tirade during a recent visit to the mall about what she perceived as “plant torture”, while a local burger business has made removal of the “palm up a pole” the focus of its campaign to return cars to Crown Street. “There are some who want this project to fail,” says Hewson, “but it’s finding a way to survive despite attacks from people and the weather. There is something buoyant about the audacious resilience of nature.” A recent windstorm has left one of the prostrate palms a little flatter than first intended. On January 1, 2022, the century-old tree attached to the lamppost was deliberately set ablaze with fireworks.

What makes Hewson’s work so potent, and what seemingly motivates this backlash, is the uncanny and very deliberate sense that things are not in their right place. In 2019, Hewson was approached to design a “playful sculpture” next to a planned playground at the entrance to the WestConnex motorway in St Peters, Sydney. Instead, he convinced the council to combine the two spaces into a playful sculptural playground. While investigating the area, Hewson was directed by a local historian to a street where houses had been flattened to make way for the 1990s expansion of Sydney Airport. Only the brick front fences remained, left behind as a sort of protest relic. Once again, his instinct was to bring back to the site what was currently missing from view. Hewson assembled and scrutinised archival photographs of the demolished houses, along with those more recently cleared to make way for WestConnex. St Peters Fences (2020) recreates the fences of the lost houses as a teetering playground jungle-gym. What looks like hard concrete paving underfoot is actually custom-made spongy soft-fall flooring. Walls tilt as if slowly subsiding. The features and ornaments of the suburban brickwork are faithfully reproduced as climbing frames and obstacles, while swings hang from the ruined porch of a terrace house.

Pockets Park (2022) takes the ad hoc nature of Illawarra Placed Landscape and St Peters Fences to a further extreme. Working through COVID lockdowns as artist, engineer and contractor in one, Hewson has reinvigorated a rundown playground in Leichhardt’s Pioneers Memorial Park, Sydney, using materials found onsite or salvaged from the council depot. The trunks of two large trees that were cut down during the playground’s construction are repurposed as balance beams, while timber planks and sandstone blocks are reconstituted as furniture elements. The floor is a seemingly random tapestry of wet-pour rubber patches, while stacks of bright plastic buckets, colourful climbing ropes and paint-splashed concrete blocks hold the whole thing together. Like the iconic Watts Towers in Los Angeles – soaring structures built by “outsider” artist Sabato Rodia out of construction scrap, drink bottles and broken pottery – Pockets Park treads the line between planned and improvised, inspired and deranged, treasure and trash.

Hewson’s largest and most ambitious project opened to the public in November 2022. Rocks on Wheels was commissioned by the City of Melbourne for a prominent Southbank site, barely a stone’s throw from the future location of NGV Contemporary, and was built to a reported budget of $2.4 million. The project was conceived prior to Pockets Park, but took much longer to execute due to both its ambitious scale and the complexity of working across state borders and through lockdowns. Inspired by a 1962 Diane Arbus photograph of the same name, which depicts a series of fake Disneyland rocks in transit, Rocks on Wheels comprises a field of 24 immense bluestone boulders that appear as if they are balancing on small plastic furniture dollies.

As with Hewson’s other public artworks, there is so much to see – including a multicoloured slide, steel reinforcement steps jutting out of rock faces, a ziggurat drinking fountain and twisted metal monkey bars – that you might not notice the technical wizardry at work. Southbank’s bluestone paving merges seamlessly into the fake-bluestone rubber flooring below the climbing ropes, removing the perception of a playground fence, while concealed footings and steel dowels leave the boulders looking as if they could roll off at any moment. Witty, anarchic and labyrinthine, Rocks on Wheels has proved irresistible to children.

“Play spaces are an opportunity to fly under the radar as an artist,” says Hewson. But while they may be outside the domain of mainstream art, his series of projects has not escaped attention. Each of Hewson’s public artworks has opened to a flurry of articles, radio interviews and social media chatter about “risky play”. By creating a rare alternative to standardised, off-the-shelf playground elements, and by exaggerating the precariousness of what appear to be improvised fixtures, blunt objects and hard surfaces, Hewson has become a lightning rod for discussions about danger, urban life and children’s autonomy. Of course, these strange and surprising spaces would not be possible without Hewson’s combined expertise as an artist and engineer. Yet the risk to kids is far smaller than the risks that the artist takes on himself as he designs, prototypes, constructs, tests and signs off on each new work.

On a late-summer Sunday morning, I accompany Hewson on a visit to Illawarra Placed Landscape. He has been back to inspect and maintain the work frequently over the past few years, replacing straps, trimming root balls and checking the irrigation system. “I’ve realised that I have to stay involved,” he says. We stop to inspect the palm tree that is growing through the rock. Originally pruned to the size of the hole, the palm’s crown has thrived and expanded to the extent that it may eventually strain its own trunk. Hewson tidies up some stray fronds and ponders whether he needs to add further strapping or support. He tells me that he is still making the rounds at all of his public projects, maintaining an active role in their care and upkeep. While we are standing and contemplating the palm tree and the rock, a little girl and her family wander up. The girl approaches the boulder and places an uncertain hand on it. She studies the stone surface, then regards a yellow tie-down strap slung over the sandstone with a doubtful look. “Is this really a rock?” she asks aloud. I am certain that many young visitors to his projects have been asking themselves the same question.

Indeed, is it really a rock, in the sense of what we once understood rocks to be? For as long as we’ve had societies, transplanted rocks in the form of dolmens, henges and zen totems have been used to ground and anchor human landscapes as an embodiment of an authentic and awesome nature beyond our walls. By contrast, Hewson’s rocks are ambiguous, dynamic and apparently unstable. “All of the things that we do to nature or make it do for us – our pot plants, our gardens, the boulders in our landscapes – they’re all performing for us,” he tells me. “You bind your pot plant in its pot, or a tree grows out of the rock cutting in a motorway. There’s always a manipulation involved in bringing nature into our world, but as soon as you make obvious the transport, the extraction and relocation and the effort involved in sustaining it out of its host environment, people find it confronting.”

In a 2020 scientific paper published in Nature, a group of researchers calculated that the sum mass of human-produced materials such as concrete, aggregates, brick, asphalt, metal and plastic had overtaken the total of all living things. This evidence substantiated what most of us already experience and participate in on an everyday basis: nature is not what it used to be. Almost everything we see around us has been made or modified by humans, including any surviving plants and animals. As someone literally shaken free from the comforting belief in an enduring world, Hewson is helping us to adjust to a new normal.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.


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