In 1962, Diane Arbus paid a visit to Disneyland in California. Only two images from her trip were printed: one, a misty night-time view across the moat to Sleeping Beauty Castle, emptied of park goers; the other, a strange and desolate shot looking towards the Anaheim Hills, in front of which stands a cluster of fake boulders sitting on truck trailers. Encountering this latter image (titled Rocks on Wheels, Disneyland), Aotearoa-born, Sydney-based artist and engineer Mike Hewson was taken by the view it offered into a fringe space: where the Disney ideal met the barren California landscape; and where its rigidly managed system of signs and symbols began to rupture.
Semiotic conceptualism, a touchstone of international contemporary art since the 1970s, is hardly the first thing one would expect to find at a children’s play park. Nor are jagged, unshapely rocks that look fit for adrenaline-seeking boulderers; yet Hewson’s custom playground-cum- public-installations feature both of these. His newest opened in Naarm’s Southbank district in November. Boulders have been staged on dollies, connected by precariously angled metal monkey-bars, planks, ropes and slides that look as though the rock has calcified around them. Rubber pavers mimic stone, underpinning an intricate arrangement that plays with the illusion of realism and chaotically pushes the visual boundaries of urban design.
With no prefigured directions for use, Hewson’s works are a chewed up, earthquake-stricken take on the standardised playground—a borderland of play where kids must assess risk and capability, find a balance between challenge and fun, and distinguish between feelings of fear and excitement.