Surreal estate

17:00, Jun 18 2011
Artist John Radford's miniatures represent Newton Gully's demolished homes.

Dismayed by the destruction of our architectural heritage, artist John Radford has recreated a suburb in miniature. And he's selling the houses off the plan. By Kim Knight.

DOUBLE BAY villa on the slopes? Has Ron Jadford got a deal for you.

Enter the real estate agent: cellphone clamped to his ear, top lip curled over gapped teeth. Is that an American accent?

The Graft development is inspired by suburban demolition and relocations.

"I want to give people homes and I want them to be happy. That's my job in life. You need a home. Furnished or unfurnished. At least it's a shelter."

Artist as a piece of work: Jadford is just a temporary alter ego played for laughs. It's sculptor John Radford (get it?) who is selling houses. Two-hundred-and-fifty miniature villas that exist in a suburb – and an artwork – called Graft.

"Graft is inspired by mass suburban demolitions, removals and relocations caused by urban development. Graft both celebrates and mourns the material and social history that is lost by these processes," writes Amanda Wayers.


Radford's protest at his Western Park sunken building, TIP, in 2005.

"The project has no conceivable end; there can only ever be 250 houses in the project and these will be bought and sold infinitum. Once Graft has been exhibited for the last time the houses will disperse to their various owners around the world."

Log on to and there is Radford's suburb. Buy off the plans or make an appointment to see the showhome. Mortgages are frowned on but not impossible to secure. Furniture packages are available to those who introduce new home owners. One has on-sold for twice its original value. Maybe, muses Radford, he should charge rates. He has already written in a resale royalty – 10% back to the artist, thank-you-very-much.

"I've done that for quite political reasons. I think the resale royalty that Labour was going to bring in [where a percentage of profits goes back to the artist in perpetuity] was going to be a hell of a hassle to implement, but it was a really important thing."

Graft is a geniously beautiful project born out of loss.

Radford sits in a cafe at the Ponsonby end of Karangahape Rd – past the "bridge" that sits over the motorway feeding traffic across the harbour bridge. Once, says Radford, 14,000 houses filled that gully. "They knocked down almost a whole suburb . . . now you walk across that bridge, with the wind blowing and the buses stopping and there's a drunk sitting on one of the seats, and you look out towards Mt Eden through the shitty old glass windows in their oxidised aluminium frames – there's an overwhelming feeling of desolation."

Back to Wayers' essay on the work: "A `graft' is a piece of living tissue or an organ surgically transplanted into a patient's body. `To graft' is to work hard, and the term also describes the corrupt activities of people in politics or business who use their influence to gain money or property. All these meanings come into play in Graft, Radford's latest artistic investigation into the loss of material history that occurs when new constructions are grafted into the historic heart of cities."

There is precedence for this theme. Walk down Auckland's Dominion Rd, and in the park opposite a KFC, the very first of Radford's tiny houses (a community board commission) is on display.

Across town at Western Park, the work TIP – three sunken buildings – is another commentary on the destruction of Auckland's architectural heritage. It's also the sculpture that consumed Radford. In 2005, he learned Hallensteins had printed images of the work on a T-shirt. The artist went to court. He lost two cases and had to pay $3000 in costs. Turned out the Copyright Act allows anyone, "including players in the market", to make two-dimensional copies of three-dimensional works permanently situated in the public domain.

The dispute was finally settled, confidentially, last November. Radford says he's "happy about the settlement" but can't talk details. Last week, his lawyer Earl Gray gave Culture the officially sanctioned statement:

"Hallenstein Bros Limited and John Radford have agreed to discontinue their longstanding legal dispute concerning the production and sale of T-shirts bearing a graphic representation of Mr Radford's TIP Sculptures located in Ponsonby, Auckland. The case has raised questions concerning the copying of artistic works in public spaces.

"Hallenstein Bros Limited agrees that the commercial industry ought to consult with artists before making commercial use of their works.

"Mr Radford acknowledges Hallenstein Bros Limited's use of his sculptures was unintentional and Hallenstein Bros Limited has apologised for that use. Mr Radford intends to lobby for change to the Copyright Act in respect of the protection of artists' rights."

Radford used to fight the system. Now he makes it work for him. Part of Graft's delight is its parody of all things commercial. The original plan was to build the suburb, tour a few galleries, and then get a real estate agent to auction off the bronze and dental stone homes. "A friend said, `It sounds like a lot of work, it's a great idea – why don't you sell them off plans like developers do?"' Radford has, so far, sold 100 completed homes which will go to their owners only when the exhibition stops touring – a so far unspecified date.

"But you do own the house... it's insured, the owner's name is on the website... they're protected, they're sheltered and they've got a little nest egg."

Next week, Graft will hang in Karangahape Rd's Ironbank building. Home owners will be invited to a street party, and the suburb that permanently exists on a website (hover on a house to see who owns what) will start to "live" in what Radford hopes will be the first of many exhibition locations.

The artist says he has configured his suspended suburb according to walks he's taken in towns and cities throughout the country. Its contours "are all about the dismembered. The what was there".

Graft's supporters, writes Wayers, are investing in something tangible.

"But they will also, ultimately, be contributing to the work's destruction: the dismantling and dispersion of the suspended suburb."

Sunday Star Times