“I recently had my eyes checked and they said I had more than perfect vision,” Joshua Smith assures me. Lucky. The Adelaide-based artist works full-time creating intricate miniature worlds with extreme attention to detail.
“There’d been some mornings where I’d wake up and things were fuzzy at a distance and I thought, ‘Shit,’ but it’s just because I’ve been focusing up close that it takes longer for my eyes to adjust.”
A quick glance at his Instagram reveals the culprits – tiny replicas of dilapidated, abandoned buildings and miniscule remnants of urban decay. Scattered around his creations are discarded cigarettes, trampled rubbish, graffiti, paint cracks, weathered paste-ups and old posters. His recent works include a bodega in Brooklyn, a milk bar in western Sydney and a vacant apartment building in Hong Kong.
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But his latest job is closer to home. Traders along the cafe and retail strip known as Queen Street (it’s actually Elizabeth Street) have asked the artist to point his shrink ray at their shops in an effort to bring people back to the area.
In the past two years traffic and road closures caused by the long-running South Road works and an upgrade to the Croydon railway station have deterred many would-be customers. Operators along the street reportedly took out loans and sold their homes to keep their doors open.
“It’s cool to make miniatures of buildings and stuff, but it’s even better to have it help a cause,” says Smith. “The traders there were given a raw deal.”
The Croydon streetscape, shrunk down to a scale of 1:30, includes Queen Street Cafe, Croydon Social and Red Door Bakery, replete with its iconic green mural. The work is on display in the window of Croydon Social as part of SALA Festival.
“It’s weird to know it’s going to have the miniature of itself, in itself,” Smith says when we visit him at his studio. “If I had more time I’d build a miniature of this miniature to go inside the miniature.” Very meta.
Smith’s work has earned him a throng of eagle-eyed followers – 74,000 and counting – which is why he’s steering clear of our photographer’s lens.
“I get recognised when I’m running about getting groceries now,” he tells us. The other day he was approached by six strangers in a six-kilometre radius – in Norwood. “Initially I was saying yes to selfies because I didn’t want to come off like an asshole, but nowadays it’s like, ‘If you want to photograph something take a photo of my work’. That’s the product.”
While Smith is usually drawn to decaying, often soon-to-be demolished buildings, he says the row of “Queen Street” shops still fits the bill. “My work looks at the overlooked aspects of specific buildings [and] this is an overlooked area,” he says.
“You can see it’s a staple in the community. It feels very local when you go there. It’s a really magical place. I’m trying to capture that as best as I can.”
Smith made “four or five” visits to the street to take note of every single detail. “All the things that people would probably overlook, like the stickers and tags and where chipped or missing tiles are, the mosaic planters, old signage … I’m trying to focus on those very small details that maybe even the traders don’t notice.”
On one of his visits he spent an entire afternoon “counting every single paver-brick out the front. And counting how many bricks between the pillars and the chairs and the planter boxes … so this should be accurate,” he says.
We move into Smith’s workspace; a rigorously colour-coded bookshelf is cluttered with books, magazines and figurines he’s picked up on trips overseas. Previous projects – including stencil works, pieces from a Stranger Things exhibition he curated, and his very first prototype miniature – are strewn around the place. Pop culture is a huge inspiration, right down to the music that soundtracks his practice.
“When I was making a bodega, a little corner shop in Brooklyn, I was listening to hip-hop. With this one [Queen Street], it was that band, West Thebarton – I was listening to a lot of that, and AC/DC as well.”
As we study the miniature, which is still a few hours from completion, Smith points to a small opening below Red Door Bakery’s mural, way, way below eye level. I’ve never noticed it despite regular visits to the shop. He recounts a story told to him by the current operator. “In the basement there’s a cellar and someone crawled through this hole one day,” he begins.
“There used to be a wine cellar in the bottom of it … and the thief made it into the cellar and found all the wine and he got so drunk that he couldn’t get himself out ... so when the police arrived he was still drunk in the cellar.”
Stories like these are woven into the fabric of the shop. “And that’s just one story, from one of these shops,” he says. “I’d like people, when they look at this, to not only think about the traders who are there currently, but the history of the building in general, in its entirety.”
His only other Adelaide replicas are the original Rhino Room and Urban Cow building on Frome Road and the heritage-listed, long-dilapidated Bell’s Plumber shop on Payneham Road.
He’d still like to tackle the former Gerard and Goodman building in the East End, which was demolished last year to make way for a high-rise apartment building; and the long vacant Gawler Chambers building on North Terrace.
“There are some cool buildings in Adelaide if you look about,” says Smith. “But they’re very isolated. Somewhere like Melbourne there are so many old, beautiful buildings it’s like sensory overload. But in Adelaide you’ve got small pockets of them dotted about the place, but they kind of blend in with everything.”
Smith’s “lifelong ambition” is to recreate the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, which, according to reports, was once the most densely populated place in the world.
“Photography is awesome but I don’t think it can capture the spirit and the essence of a building to the extent that the models and the miniatures can,” says Smith.
“I try and pack in as much detail as possible, because it is those layers – the build up of grime and dirt and decay and all the old signage and graffiti and all of these old elements of time layered on top of one another … and to have it as a physical 3D object that people can move about, it’s about the closest thing you can have to being there once these buildings are gone.”
Meet me at the corner store is on display at Croydon Social now.