Rocks on Wheels is Melbourne-based New Zealand-born artist Mike Hewson’s most recent commission, completed for The City of Melbourne in 2022. It is a brilliant, sprawling sculptural playground installed amongst the otherwise arid civic wasteland of Southbank. The title refers to a Diane Arbus photograph of rocks on wheels. Arbus’ photograph is taken at what looks like a rock quarry near Disneyland, California, in 1962. Her artwork is a sombre grayscale document contemplating the edges of a play zone. Hewson’s Rocks on Wheels, by contrast, dives directly to the heart of playful experience.
A sense of playfulness runs throughout Hewson’s practice, most recently becoming, effectively, the proof-of-concept. His playgrounds are literally sculptures that you play with, or more specifically, on. Making this playfulness overt to the point of design was not something that was initially planned by the artist. In 2018 Hewson completed a public artwork for the Crown Street Mall in Wollongong. The sculpture somewhat accidentally – via audience interaction – doubled as a play zone. Hewson encouraged this engagement, which surreptitiously drew upon his practical knowledge as an engineer. The artist qualified and worked as an engineer before eventually moving to New York to complete an MFA in Visual Arts at Columbia University. In other words, designing and building functional artworks is something that he fell into rather than engineered, if you can forgive the pun. A curatorial consultant once warned him: “You need to be an artist, not a playground designer”. Hewson was obviously undeterred.
The presence of the artist-engineer is not a common occurrence in the contemporary art world; nor for that matter, is it in the world of engineering. It is noticeably more commonly found in art history, Leonardo Da Vinci being the most obvious example. On present evidence, Hewson is most playful and instinctually-lead of anyone so dually-qualified. Talking to me about his process, he repeatedly emphasises the instinctive nature of his decision making.
In Rocks on Wheels this intuitive playfulness is experienced most delightfully in the details. Visiting the work, one notices numerous small moments that re-enforce the whimsical spirit of the project. There is a collapsed chain stuck on a rock underneath another smaller rock; there is a water dispenser compiled incongruously from collaged industrial materials; there is an accreted pile of glued construction odd and ends (cored rock, terrazzo and bolts) that could be used as climbing grab holds, or not.
The playfulness is also evident in his other less overtly ludic projects. Block Stack was completed in 2019 to accompany a renovated cricket pavilion in Cranbourne, Melbourne. The completed sculptural tower consists of four palleted stacks of masonry blocks placed on top of each other. The masonry blocks were leftovers from the adjacent pavilion building site. Native grasses grow at the top of the tower and with the help of an internal irrigation system, grow to extend down the sides. The leftovers find a new life as vertical grass armature; a masonry tower becomes a tree. In the process the sculptural tradition of a triumphal (or phallic) column is arboreally – playfully – subverted.
Playfulness is a way to open up our minds to new possibilities. It also a gateway to pleasure. Hewson’s playgrounds are filled with humour, often in the form of the sight gags; or, should they be called site gags? In Wollongong (Illawarra Placed Landscape, 2018) there is a palm tree hanging in the air. In Sydney (St Peters Fences, 2020) playground swings hang from what looks like the ruined interior of a house. In Leichhardt (Pockets Park, 2022) custom-made heavy duty plastic buckets are quirkily reassigned as structural columns and climbing frames. Most recently in Melbourne, even the title itself is a gag: Rocks on Wheels. The rocks that make up the primary structure of the sculptural playground are all placed on what appear to be standard 4-wheel moving dollys. If unbraked, the dollys look like they could roll anyway. Don’t fret, they will not. They are not standard dollys, just as bluestone-appearing paving underneath is non-standard as well. “There was a huge amount of complexity for such a silly idea,” Hewson reflects. All quality jokes are as such.
Play is a game of expectations. Subtle or overt shifts in expectations are the key to understanding the modus operandi of Hewson’s artworks. His playgrounds do this through direct interaction. His other projects relay this nature of surprise through the use of materiality, and the revealing of process. Whatever the means, all his projects ask the participant to playfully – there is that word again – engage with the world as a site of continual curiosity.