Since he was a young boy growing up in his adopted Australia, Alfio Bonanno knew he wanted to be an artist. At the age of 14, with the full support of his Italian family, he embarked on his apprenticeship in art. From the outset, he was drawn to the materials and the look of the natural world. He’s been on a global walkabout ever since.
I’ve been working with nature installations and natural materials all my life. I grew up in the tropical rainforest of Queensland, Australia. The relationship with nature has always been very important to me. – Alfio Bonanno
From his home base on Denmark’s Langeland Island, he has conceived a distinctive body of site specific work, a prolonged love affair with landscapes and natural materials. His signature installations are peppered across the planet in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America.
In Copenhagen, tucked away on Amager Island’s southwestern reaches, is a landlocked boat. It seems to have materialized from some distant time and place. The Amager Ark is one component of Bonanno’s Himmelhøj (Sky High), a four piece installation commissioned by the Danish Ministry of the Environment.
There is a touch of wildness here. Occasionally, deer can be found grazing in the overgrown grass. Sometimes large puddles collect on the ground’s surface. They act as mirrors reflecting earth and sky until the water is slowly absorbed by the clay strata beneath. We can almost believe that the 60 metre oaken vessel might be floated away with a crew of children at the helm. In reality, civilization is encroaching on this playful enclave. Himmelhøj is just over a 10 minute walk from the West Amager metro station.
Bonanno’s art is not exclusively focused on children (see his CO2 cube) but he does draw on over 30 years of work creating multimedia projects with school age kids. He has hit the right note with Himmelhøj. Since opening in 2004, it has become a popular destination for families and school groups. It has also been in the running for the most popular playground in Copenhagen.
People are very positive about the installation because they can use it. It’s not complicated, it’s integrated into the landscape and it opens people up to the beauty of the materials. – Alfio Bonanno
For Bonanno, Himmelhøj goes far beyond the traditional concept of playgrounds. It is an installation where young and old alike can get involved visually, physically and mentally. It’s an area to experience, a space to stimulate the imagination.
Himmelhøj is a tactile wonderland of wood, stone and earth on the edge of the city’s steel, concrete and glass. Activities here are rooted in the natural world. Kids scrabble over the mound of rocks inside the Ark, explore the interior of the oh so tall Insect Forest’s circular thicket and warm themselves in the glow of the giant hearth. And what of the nest perched in a tree large enough for a giant weaver bird, large enough to welcome kids attracted to the challenge of a good climb?
When you create interesting forms and put them in the landscape, they get used and inspire people to play around them. I also hope that maybe we can get parents and grown ups to get back to how they were earlier as kids, get inspired and loosen up a little bit. – Alfio Bonanno
The intallation is helping the area take on a new identity. The structures provide a base that kids can build on. Imaginations are set free to create stories, games and adventures. You can read some of the artist’s thoughts on Himmelhøj here.
There is no admittance fee to Himmelhøj and it’s open 24 hours a day. Under the cover of darkness there have been problems with vandalism. Planks have been ripped off the Amager Ark and burned and other pieces of the installation broken. Fortunately this activity has been isolated and has not had a serious impact.
Although he works almost exclusively with organic materials in natural surroundings, Bonanno is not a purist when it comes to play. He has seen some of the new computerized playgrounds and understands their potential in terms of encouraging kids to get active using a technology that is frequently a defining cause of their physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour.
He also believes that even playgrounds at the top of their game – those that are incredible in concept and design and are challenging for kids – will only have a negligible impact unless Denmark’s schools undergo significant reform. From his perspective, the schools are not stimulating at all and kids are losing their lives inside them.
I refuse to even so much as talk about doing an exciting playground beside a school when the school itself needs to be lifted up into another dimension. It’s like putting a plaster on the sore but not really coping with the problem. – Alfio Bonanno
So for now, if you’re lucky enough to be in Copenhagen, Himmelhøj is really the place to go if you’re interested in tracking down an original play experience. I know that I will be adding Bonanno’s installation to the growing list of playscapes that I hope to get to play at one day with my kids.
Thanks so much to flickr’s seier + seier where I saw my first image of the Amager Ark. Thanks too to Alfio who took my call in the midst of putting together a new project and preparing for a big trip off the continent.
I hope we’ll hear and see more from Bonanno in the future. Who knows maybe he’ll be coming to a city, or a country near you. In the meantime, here’s an interview that will give you a greater appreciation for his outlook – In Nature’s Eyes.
Enjoy Google’s bird’s eye view.