Necks were craned, heads were scratched and eyes were turned skywards as lunchtime shoppers puzzled over the Cabbage Tree palm being fixed to the top of a metal pole in Crown Street Mall on Friday.
“Are they serious?” one woman asked. “Is it going to stay there?”
The answers: yes and yes.
The suspended, uprooted palm – unveiled in the early hours of the morning – is the previously secret centrepiece to a series of large scale natural installations which make up Wollongong council’s $430,000 public art project.
Other specimens of the native palm – which have been chosen for their natural kinks – will be used as seats and in a children’s playground built from sandstone boulders weighing up to 30,000 tonnes.
The trees will remain un-planted, and will continue to grow by about a metre each decade.
Walking past and peering into the air on Friday, Stephen Caskey summed up the thoughts of many in the mall.
“That’s not art, that’s plain crazy,” he remarked.
Many passers-by worried about the safety of hoisting a tree so high in the “wind tunnel” of the mall – with one also worried that drunks would try to climb it and tear it down – but an equal number by were willing to let the project grow on them.
A confounded Brent Storey labelled the 17-metre tall sculpture “intriguing” and said he was “not against the unconventional”.
“It certainly raises questions, and I’m actually intrigued. I think it could inspire a novel approach to the mall,” he said.
Ellen Curtis said she was a fan, as “interesting features when you come into town give you a greater sense of the place”.
And – after some puzzling – Rebecca Rachilla deemed it “a conversation starter” which helped to link the Wollongong CBD to its beachside setting.
Admitting the work was “out there”, Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery urged doubters to suspend judgement.
“Just wait until the whole thing is finished – it’s a very interesting bit of public art,” he said. “The artist, Mike Hewson is certainly staking his reputation on it, and I think it’s going to cause a lot of interest – and many opinions.”
“There’s always going to be questions about public art – it’s subjective as to whether it is likeable – but we had an art curator advise us, and have selected an artist with an international reputation.”
Asked if he was concerned about the tree blowing down – a fate which has befallen many a tree in the mall – Cr Bradbery said he had been assured that the sculpture was capable of withstanding strong winds.
“Our engineers have been working with them – because I suggested that a tree on a pole wasn’t something I thought would be safe – and I have been assured that the pole goes a long way down and is anchored in rock below,” he said.
What the artist says
Mr Hewson, who has been on site installing the art work over the past few weeks, has acknowledged his work would spark mixed reviews.
“It’s quite complicated to make it sound like it will work, but that’s okay – it will be nice,” he said.
“We’re trying to help the mall function better, and break up the regularity of the poles and trees… and I think the children’s playground will be pretty amazing.
“It’s bringing the landscape into the mall into a fun way – just wait… I think it will provide identity-forming icons for the city.”
About the art work
- It will include “tree seats”, sandstone boulders, a children’s playground and the recently unveiled 17-metre high tree.
- It spans about half of the mall – from Kembla Street to just past the amphitheatre at Church Street.
- About 200 tonnes of rock will be used.
- The sandstone and trees are designed to echo the Illawarra escarpment.
- The trees used are Cabbage Tree palms, native to the Illawarra area.
- The project was budgeted at $430,000 in 2015.
- Councillors voted to employ a high profile art curator, Barbara Flynn, who selected Mr Hewson from a range of international artists.
- It is due to be completely installed by the end of next month.