‘It’s just gay.’ A forest of fanciful cacti pops up in the Navy Yard

Matty Geez’s immersive art environment “Greetings from the Mirage” is the latest temporary, pop-up art installation at the former military base.

Matty Geez poses for a photo next to his colorful cacti creations.

Matty Geez arranges his soft sculptures inside a 25-foot tall geodesic dome at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A geodesic tent has been installed on one of the Navy Yard’s expansive lawns in south Philadelphia. Inside, artist Matty Geez (aka Matty Guiliano) has planted a colony of neon-colored cacti, some 12 feet high. It looks like some kind of extraterrestrial desert terrarium.

“It’s not a desert,” he said. “It’s just gay.”

“Greetings from the Mirage” is the latest temporary art installation commissioned by the Navy Yard’s development organization, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), as a way to attract attention to the former Naval base being transformed into a neighborhood.

Matty Geez looks up at his colorful cacti creations.
Matty Geez arranges his soft sculptures inside a 25-foot tall geodesic dome at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Our public art program seeks to deliver unique projects that showcase local, national, and global artists to create long-lasting impressions on the Philadelphia community,” said PIDC’s senior vice president Kate McNamara, who worked with the anonymous curatorial team Group X to bring Geez to the Navy Yard.

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Last year the PIDC released its master plan to develop over 600 residential units, with hopes to attract retail businesses. A spokesperson said groundbreaking is expected later this year.

In an area still used by the Navy as a scrapyard for retired warships, “Mirage” offers visitors an immersive environment that is softer, more tactile, and – according to Geez – more fabulous.

“It’s over-the-top and saturated,” he said. “Queer community in general has a reputation sometimes to be over-the-top and in people’s faces, which I don’t think is the case. I think we’re just being who we are. But it’s fun to make it even more saturated, even louder, just to show that: ‘Hey, we’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.’”

A dome is visible in a green field.
A geodesic dome occupies an open field at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where artist Matty Geez has created “Greetings from the Mirage,” an immersive exhibit featuring colorful, towering plush cactuses in a black-sand desert. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Any horticulturalist entering the biodome won’t see anything conforming to reality. Geez designed his plants from his imagination.

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“I’ve been to Joshua Tree a few times,” he said, referring to the California desert’s Joshua Tree National Park. “I’ve walked around and experienced it in my own way.”

Geez said his cacti are inspired by the visual style of early Nickelodeon, the children’s cable channel known for its bold colors, clashing patterns, and neon green slime. The cacti are made from spray-painted upholstery foam, adorned with multi-colored floral effects made of felt and foam.

Geez said the infrastructure of each piece is made from the cardboard of Amazon delivery boxes in which his craft supplies arrived.

Geez recently installed similar cacti in an exhibition at the Phillips Museum of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, where the artist is based. He found that people were so attracted to the whimsical cacti that they wanted to touch them, even hug them.

A close-up of a colorful cacti creation.
Matty Geez’s botanical creations fill a 25-foot tall geodesic dome at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Touching is allowed, but be warned: there are also about 2,000 painted toothpicks poking out of these fanciful succulents.

“I like playing with the contrast between soft and hard,” he said. “Cacti in general, they could look beautiful but they have sharp spikes on them. So I don’t recommend hugging them. But get as close as you possibly can without hurting yourself.”

“Mirage” opened with an invitation-only party on Thursday evening featuring drag performances amongst the cacti. Starting Friday, it is free and open to the public every day during daylight hours – there are no artificial lights inside the dome – until June 18.

Geez has no plans to program the space with events, but said he is open to considering events staged by other people.

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