We drive into the Auckland Botanic Gardens through an archway dripping with Christmas-white wisteria. It's nature's challenge to the 23 artists competing for attention in the outdoor gallery. At every turn, nature reveals her challenge: "Top this."
There's really no competition though: sculpture and gardens go well together. Visitor services manager Mich Newton says people pay more attention to the gardens at exhibition time.
"People look at art with a particular eye. Locals who walk here every day are suddenly looking at the gardens in a different way, noticing plants they normally walk past."
At the front steps it's the art that grabs our attention first with Jim Wheeler's Regeneration: Oak Garden Fork and Spade. Mother Nature reclaims the implements with climbing oak roots, stems and leaves in bronze, mimicking the look of rusted steel.
Next is a piece by first-time exhibitors Michael Klaja and Gordon Smith, whose Carving up the Land sculpture is an oversized knife.
Klaja is a former chef and Smith a builder.
Their piece sets out to make people think about humanity's effect on nature. I think their sculpture is worthy of its place in the exhibition and is sure to be part of many visitors' photos.
By the lake is a reflective piece by Marte Szirmay called Split. It reminds me of the frames in our regional parks, with our beautiful natural landscape as the backdrop.
It takes us a few minutes to find Mia Hamilton's In Fill Housing installation among the trees. There are different types of birds' nests created from found materials and woven together. It's almost as overcrowded as Lynley Dodd's The Nickle Knackle Tree. It amuses my kids to imagine birds living as we do in such close confines, which sadly they won't need to if numbers keep dropping.
Jamie Pickernell's Oh Crabby, I do Believe We're Rather Lost! features a giant rabbit in his red and white 1920s bathing suit with a trusty crab by his side. Maybe they're looking for Pickernell's Bird Lady, which won the last event's people's choice award.
Children will climb all over the giant crab and cuddle the whimsical Mr Rabbit. Picknernell says of the piece: "I feel so bullied by science and fact these days, so, here's one for magic realism."
We walk over to the Gondwana Arboretum. Among the descendants of ancient conifers is the bright green Monkey Puzzle Pagoda, by James Kirkwood. It's like walking through a twisted Christmas forest with a children's playhouse instead of a gingerbread house in the middle.
Nearby is a bronze work by Llew Summers, titled Ariel. It's the most expensive sculpture in the exhibition at $90,000, described as a wing awaiting flight. Its heaviness contrasts with the background of a cottage garden filled with rose princesses, granny's bonnets and delicate cornflowers.
Next is Bryan Verey's Over the Farm Gate, which the kids love to climb all over. Earlier, I read the artist's proposal for the piece, which said the gate "represents a way of life that has been good for some but disappointing and financially disastrous for others".
Words from Denis Glover's poem The Magpies are carved on the diagonal brace: "and quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle the magpies said".
We couldn't agree more.
Looking through a field we spot White Horse, by Ben Foster. It's like an apparition, standing strong against its leafy backdrop and displaying equine grace in its angular stance.
Before we can take a closer look we're drawn to Oliver Stretton-Pow's Rooks, which are castle-like towers the kids can crawl into and run around: giant sandcastles of the imagination. He says about the work: "Building a sandcastle is an exercise in letting go. The work's most important role may simply be to serve as a distraction for young people from the insanely complex adult world." They helped this not-so-young person escape that world for a few minutes too.
Next is Richard Wedekin's Weather House - No Shelter from the Storm. Inspired by folk-art weather-houses, it's a red timber frame where kids can peek out as if it's a giant cuckoo clock.
Jeff Thomason's Home Sweet Home looks, from a distance, as if it is made from fabric. But up close you find it's made from colourful corrugated iron intricately woven.
We almost miss Jane Downes' Seven Days, high in the tree branches.
Her artwork is a collection of delicately patterned parasols between two eucalypts giving the appearance of gently falling to earth between two eucalypts.
We expect to see Mary Poppins jumping out from behind the tree.
The exhibition gets better with each event and this collection has been our family's favourite so far. And Mother Nature needn't worry about the competition: with three months of ever-changing garden backdrops to the artworks, we'll be back to admire her sculptures too.
A walk in the park
Sculpture in the Gardens at Auckland Botanic Gardens runs February 16. It's a free event. Everything in the outside and three indoor exhibitions is available to purchase. Every Sunday at 1pm there's a free guided walk by one of the exhibiting artists. There's also music events and a kids trail. Hill Road, Manurewa.