The young man behind Crown Street Mall’s controversial new public art is well aware he’s stirred up debate in Wollongong over the past few months.
“I’ve been told it’s the ‘shame of Wollongong, you should be ashamed of yourself’, I’ve had someone tell me I was committing crimes against nature,” artist Mike Hewson said as the project was officially launched on Thursday.
“It’s everyone’s public space and everyone is entitled to have strong, clear views about how they see it. People come up to me and just start talking.
“There’s some really strong compliments, and some really strong opposition – it’s been a privilege to make something that has really made people care.”
After months of putting in long days and nights to finish the installation, the 32-year-old New Zealander says he is “really happy” with how the work came up.
Running almost the length of the mall from Church to Kembla Street, the project includes the now infamous “palm tree up a pole”, numerous large sandstone bollards and a playground made from huge boulders and crooked palm trees.
“It’s probably better than I imagined,” Mr Hewson said.
“It’s difficult to make a permanent public work that functions in a public space using materials that can be perceived as temporary but won’t require major work or replacements.”
“This is an ambitious public project for any city in the world, and I’m impressed that Wollongong took it on and I think it will be celebrated internationally as a milestone.”
These sentiments are echoed by curator Barbara Flynn, who chose Mr Hewson from more than 150 different artists from around the world who pitched to complete the Wollongong mall art.
“I think it’s a powerful work of art and it does elicit a strong response, which is ideal,” she said.
“It’s an extraordinarily ambitious work of art that was hard to realise… and I don’t know any other artist who would have pulled this off.
“In my opinion, he has helped to remedy the problems of the mall.”
Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery, whose council signed off on spending $430,000 on the project as the final part of the mall makeover, has stopped short of declaring whether the work is to his personal taste.
However, he welcomed the diverse reactions to the work.
“This has got to be understood within the context of the total mall,” he said.
“We’ve got a very flat surface, very angular shapes in the mall and this adds a sense of irregularly.”
“That’s why the sculptor chose these forms, which basically come from our landscape. We’ve basically got a bit of the escarpment in the mall.”
“Art is meant to irritate life, to quote Reg Mombassa, and I hope this stimulates conversation.”
But how will the trees stay alive?
One of the biggest questions from Mercury readers about the series of bent or strung up palm trees that form part of the work has been: how on earth will they live if they’re not planted in the ground.
“Part of the design was to make it look lazy and simple, but there’s an incredible amount of infrastructure and design that had to go into making them function,” Mr Hewson, who is also a civil engineer, explained.
“The trees are actually planed into soil, into a soil cavity below and there’s an automatic irrigation system on top and a tank bag system.
“No one has really done this sort of thing before so we’ve been inventing technology.”
As for the tree strung high about the amphitheatre, Mr Hewson is adamant it will not due or some down in the wind.
“All of the technology has been made to look hidden – like the trees are unattended and just there temporarily, but really they are well looked after,” he said.
“The [tall tree] is obviously not planted in soil but has nutrients fed up to it and it drains down the pole. There’s a big clamped structure that’s gripping to the root ball, and all of the weight is actually held at the root ball.
“Those straps up the top are not even really doing anything. It’s meant to look permanently temporary.”
Another of the main criticisms about the newly opened playground, which took a long time to install due to the huge mass of sandstone, has been that it will be dangerous or unappealing to children.
However, Mr Hewson said he had already witnessed many kids climbing and swinging on the structure.
“Kids know exactly what to do, I’ve seen them come running up from the street to play and they absolutely love it,” he said.