Essay: Locational Specificity

Urban Decay: Joshua Smith

Locational Specificity and the work of miniaturist Joshua Smith

Joshua Smith’s miniatures of overlooked buildings offer a street artist’s perspective of the city and raise questions about the spatial politics of Sydney, according to Luke Tipene and Campbell Drake from UTS.

Commissioned by Australian Design Centre, Joshua Smith’s Urban Decay showcases his latest collection of hyper-realistic miniatures depicting three of Sydney’s forgotten buildings. Joshua sits these new works against two other miniatures from Adelaide and Brooklyn, New York to bring attention to the shadowy underbelly of the world’s transforming cities.

Practicing in this medium since 2015, Smith’s miniatures have received significant acclaim; they have been exhibited in London, Paris, Berlin, San Francisco, New York, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Sydney and Melbourne. Smith’s works, celebrated through miniatures, explore the current grimy reality of once-significant urban artefacts.

In spite of Joshua’s recognition, one gets the impression he still sees the world from the window of his studio in Norwood, South Australia. A former self-taught stencil artist, Joshua ran the Espionage Gallery in Adelaide for four years prior to his creative shift from stencil art to building architectural miniatures. His website humbly conceals the sheer volume of time and technique put into each of his exquisitely-laboured artworks. Keeping his friends close, and turning to social media for “follower-led” research, Joshua keeps his practice local in its fruition, curation and promotion. 

The transition from stencil artist to architectural miniaturist may seem odd at first, although when considered through the eyes of a local street artist, both mediums speak to a unique and insightful appreciation of the city. The street artist reads the city like no other inhabitant. In their interventions, street artists validate buildings as art and not by their use. They separate the building’s form from its function and allow it to be read as an object with individual personality. Abandoned spaces offer inspiration to the street artist. Quiet and often forgotten structures are sites for creative exploration. Looking at the city in this way, less as something to use and more as something to appreciate, lets one imagine the unique sense of importance the street artist sees in its quiet lanes, free from the functional and professional drivers of the everyday.

The street artist’s way of seeing the city appears to carry through into Joshua’s architectural miniatures. No longer sites to produce stencil art, his 1:20 scale buildings have become the object of urban art themselves. Joshua’s miniatures offer his personal appreciation of the city, helping us to see its urban fabric in a new, or perhaps, forgotten way. 

In addition to understanding the evolution of Smith’s work from a street artist perspective, Urban Decay can also be contextualised within an established community of practice in which a variety of contemporary artists have intervened within redundant and obsolete buildings. An artist of note practicing within this field is Rachel Whiteread who, in 1993, adopted a soon-to-be-demolished council house in Bow, London, as a site of exploration.  Commissioned by Art Angel, the project involved spraying the interior with concrete, then removing the exterior building fabric, resulting in a monumental negative cast. By virtue of the work being located and clearly visible in the public realm, House provoked unforeseen public interest from art practitioners to councillors, cab drivers to columnists. Even the artist herself was shocked by the public response: “I knew it would be controversial, but I had no idea how controversial. People seem completely involved in it, and come from all over Britain and beyond to see it. I can’t come to terms with the way people are flocking there.”[1]  In executing House, Whiteread placed the vernacular object of the domestic dwelling at the centre of public attention. By manifesting a shift to negative spatial representation in the form of a concrete cast, the work gives presence to the tangible realm of lived experience.  In adopting a council building highly visible in the public sphere, House became a catalyst for public debate, raising such issues as the shortage and privatisation of public housing. This ability of House to engage and provoke public debate suggests contemporary art engaging within redundant and obsolete buildings can operate in a domain that transgresses “the limits of art and architecture to engage with both the social and the aesthetic.” [2]

Foregrounding the spatial politics that emerged from Whiteread’s House, the locational specificity of Smith’s Urban Decay also provokes a critical dialogue with Sydney’s current housing crisis and lack of affordability. The three Sydney buildings Joshua has chosen to depict include: the Karim Building on Wentworth Avenue, the Olympia Milk Bar on Parramatta Road, and the Chinese Ginsengs & Herbs Co building in Haymarket. At the centre of Urban Decay is the provocation of a series of obsolete buildings in which the pressures of privatisation have deemed their former use outmoded. These buildings, scattered throughout the city, have long since lost their intended function and have ossified into urban artefacts that fall beyond the sight of those too busy to notice them. Joshua’s depictions bring them back into sharp relief, insisting that their past as well as their futures play a role in how we construct our urban identities and the inequities of the current housing market. In the fleeting space between redundancy, demolition or renewal, Smith’s models provoke a questioning of the relationships between Sydney’s residents and the urban fabric, and those who can and can’t afford to live within the city.

Offering an explanation of such spatial acrobatics, Jane Rendell writes: “social relations of production are both space forming and space contingent. It is not simply that space is produced, but that social relations are spatially produced.” [3] This dialectic interactivity between social and architectural spatial formation infer a dynamic connectivity between people and the urban realm in which Smith has interpreted and transformed the architectural language of the built environment to reveal and produce moments of social, cultural and political significance.

This article was commissioned by Australian Design Centre to coincide with the exhibition Urban Decay: Joshua Smith shown from 2 August – 25 September 2018. Explore the exhibition Urban Decay: Joshua Smith here.

[1] Searle, A. (1994). "Rachel Doesn't Live Here Anymore,"  Frieze, Issue 14. January–February, 1994, 26–29. 

[2] Rendell, J. (2006). Art and Architecture: A Place Between. London: I. B. Tauris. 

[3] Ibid.

Images: Joshua Smith, City Block Sydney 2018. Photo: Ben Neale.