Essay One. Amanda Wayers interprets Graft.
Essay Two. NZ poet Kelly Malone writes Origins of Nothing in response to Graft.
Graft is a major new art project currently being developed by established New Zealand artist John Radford.
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 hearts of cities. The loss of heritage to development is a central concern in Radford’s art practice; other major works on this theme include TIP on Ponsonby Road (1998), the performance piece This Other City (2007) and the ongoing Transplastic series.
There are many examples of material culture being drastically, suddenly and comprehensively amputated from modernizing cities: in Bejing, whole suburbs were wiped away in the city’s pre-Olympics ‘sanitation’ process. In Wellington the historic Cuba Street quarter was permanently disfigured by the motorway extension slashed through it in the 1990s. Similar mass destruction took place in 1960s Auckland, when 14,000 houses in the suburbs of Newton and Grafton were obliterated to make way for the soulless section of motorway we know as spaghetti junction.
What, Radford asks in this work, do we lose in such utilitarian grafts, so surgically executed? What is severed and discarded from cities to make room for new jugular veins bringing literal and commercial traffic to the heart of the city, or the expansion of ‘efficient’ high-density living and working spaces? The artwork seems to offer an answer to this question: a suburb of turn of the century bay- and flat-front villas hovers, suspended and dispossessed; the ghosts of the houses bulldozed, resurrected for our remembrance. On closer reflection, however, we see that these ghosts are but tenuous in their connection to the sacrificed body: this is not a replacement in kind; no recovery or resurrection is taking place here (there is, in fact, no place to be taken).
Radford’s message is clear: our urban heritage is in danger and disappearing fast. The commercial and utilitarian value of property is too often allowed to triumph over the human value of place. ‘Place’ is that elusive quality that accumulates in human occupation: the layers of physical traces, worn steps, layers of paint, letter boxes, footprints in cement, garden paths. ‘Places’ are defined by the ways of living that unfold in them, layer by layer, over time: neighborhood routes and hangouts, meeting points; habits and pastimes connected to sites and inscribed on the urban landscape. To obliterate a suburb is to cut a brutal hole in the fabric of the city; it is not only a massive displacement of people, but also the destruction of a living, productive material culture richly built up over many years of habitation, adaptation and use.
The houses, which float ethereally in space in a typical suburban configuration, are predominately bronze and Hydrostone casts, appearing mostly in washed-out colours, revealing layers of sediment: dust and industrial materials harking back to the time when this style of villa was new and springing up virulently all over what were to become Auckland’s central suburbs. Graft’s villas are beautifully, painstakingly detailed: one can even look through the windows into the interiors; some have lights inside, some have furniture. But all are empty of people, and the streets and yards are nothing but empty space. Pale and vacant, this suburb models something that is patently, painfully gone. (In Grafton and Newton, not only were the houses demolished, everything was obliterated; even the very contours of the land.)
While lacking human occupation, the suspended suburb is, however, far from dead. In fact, it breathes: sections rise up and slump down, parts shake. Light flashes and shadows shift: to-scale light fittings inside the villas supplement miniature suns on tiny orbits around individual houses, while larger-scale light affects change the atmosphere of the whole installation from night to day and back again. A variety of different movements and affects occur simultaneously in little overlapping epicentres around the suburb, like drops in a pond. Graft behaves as a unified body of many various and autonomous, but interconnected, pieces, creating “a sense of different cultures, like bacteria on agar, cross-pollinating and producing hybrids within the suburb”. Or, is this “surreal estate”, with the rise and fall of the houses articulating the alternately inflated and slumping prices of a volatile market?
The work has the feel of an architect’s model, and, indeed, you can buy off the plans. In a brilliant move, the artist engages the work’s biggest fans in a parody of the very commercial activity the work criticizes. Interested parties are invited to buy villas, which they will eventually be able to take home. As a result of a financial transaction and a legal sales contract, they will have part of Graft, a piece of art-property with a market value that, if current trends hold, will ever-increase. Mortgages are available for those who cannot pay outright, and those that bring other buyers to the table are given special discounts and bonus deals. The supporters who invest in Graft are investing in something tangible – their own Graft home – but they will also, ultimately, be contributing to the work’s destruction: the dismantling and dispersion of the suspended suburb.
Graft is complex and ironic, but also deeply poignant. It manages to be both richly evocative of metaphors and memories, and palpably empty – a marker and reminder of what is lost; a simulacrum pointing to the absence of the real.
Amanda Wayers – 2010
Origins of Nothing
Stealing through the groundless streets the ether took me unprepared. It always did. It was weightless water.
House lights brightened into a battery of sanctuary lamps to reveal multiple gods. Electricity worked on the grounds of how it ran in the old world – we believed when we flicked the switch.
From house to house I sailed. The shadow of a rocking horse sat on a veranda ready for tomorrow’s magic. Music of tempo rippled through the valley. Most residents played an instrument, or at least tapped tables, and resonated pounding feet from their airborne foundations. The sound of the living was invigorating.
Land had been bulldozed and subdivided into oblivion by zealous developers. They had wanted more Le Corbusier parkways but neglected the ‘park’ part and focused on the ‘ways.’ The homes left hanging in a voodooistic history of no-man’s land were salvaged by surreal estate agent, Ron Jadford, and sold on to those of us left in ethereal limbo. You can imagine his punning euphemisms: All the space you need… Grounds for everyone… Leave the lawnmower…We bought into his sham and acted as if there were ground. The little gravity there was offered a much needed pull against the weight of nothing, while the various positions of the suspended houses gave the illusory shape of land.
Nearing my place, the wind tunnelled down the gully between the clustered houses. To feel the wind meant you had acclimatised, that you were ‘drafted’, otherwise you’d drown in the oblivion. Arriving home to 602 Apocri Road I saw Frederick. His hair lifted in the wind. Often drawn to the gully myself, I would see him hover over the Graft hill before heading down the east side of Ithelia, and onto my road.
‘Hi, Frederick, isn’t it? I’m Grace.’ I turned and stepped up to my veranda. Frederick moved back into the black.
‘You know don’t you?’ He demanded quizzically from the shadows while his hair continued to fly in all directions.
‘Well, Frederick, I’m not sure, but I’d appreciate you keeping the matter to yourself.’ I tried to sound humorous but firm.
‘You know,’ Frederick pressed, disinterested in my own concerns. My conscience played on me. The last time I’d travelled into the gully I’d glimpsed the endless yawn of the abyss beneath. From here I’d seen light catapult. My hope was this light came from a new kind of elementary particle. Even if I was wrong, I felt I was leaving him to a fate worse than the abyss.
‘Okay,’ I said, resigned. ‘I’ll walk with you.’
We strolled silently back along Ithelia toward Graft hill. Frederick looked solemn. With each stride we sunk deeper.
‘Have you seen into the abyss before?’ I tried again. My conversation left unchecked, I continued in a rambling, neurotic manner. ‘You know it’s possible, Frederick, we might be able to find the place we need.’ Still disinterested, except where I might take him, he focussed only on following my lead. Soon the wind dropped.
‘It’s this way.’ I headed to the same coordinates I’d recorded after seeing the light. ‘Here it is. To get back up to your place on Aratenon Road, head to your right and you’ll come out south west of the gully.’
No longer expecting a response I left him without another word. Before surfacing through the black I turned to see him in the distance. His figure cut the edge of a luminously green field – an interleaf between the living and the dead.
nothing embellishes something
Each morning the Major strolled through the space known as Aratenon Road with his dog, Boris, to the end of the west side, before the gully. He resided in this south west area amongst an artistic concentration like that of the Left Bank in the early 20th Century.
His hip troubled him. It was the shrapnel from an old world war wound but they’d said it was best left alone. Walking helped.
At the end of the groundless road he looked northward along the gully’s space to the groundless hill. A red dot from the black caught his eye. He whistled to Boris who must’ve seen the red too for he started to growl.
‘Hush boy,’ the Major commanded.
Boris was one of the few dogs to live in Graft. It took exceptional suspension of disbelief to have a dog. The Major would need him if he was to re-emerge from the gully. He had seen into the abyss and knew its allure. He steeled his mind.
As he moved closer he made out the figure of a man and soon recognised his neighbour, Frederick. With Boris at his side, he dragged the man by his armpits to the southern shallows and onto an imagined verge. He cleared Frederick’s blue mouth, tilted his head, and pinched his nose. His chest rose and fell in accordance with the Major’s breaths. The Major began pushing on Frederick’s chest with his hands in a pile; one, two, three…
Hope and denial are close allies.
The easterly was coming round to its usual westerly.
There was no dust, nor ash. The dead were delivered into the gully in the same fashion as on the once known Ganges, now a ceremony we called ‘mass.’ Their bodies floated for a moment before shedding light. A beacon on a tarmac at night. The light would trawl a small tail deeper into space.
The only time it rained in Graft was after mass. A black vapour drizzled pin pricks on the pores of those standing near. The ether would muffle into an eerie calm; a calm that would come in the old world when traffic silently stood still in reverence to collided cars, before the wailing.
Frederick’s house faded to an empty veranda. It continued to study a few rooftops before the black. A black you could feel breathing at the back of your neck as a tide rises and falls.
something embellishes everything
After Frederick’s drowning, the eternity of Graft plagued me. Apart from a house suspended in space by an endless lifeline, I had nothing. Restless, I remembered all I could of the old world. How the trams rattled in green and yellow, curving along the tracks next to the river. How the brown vinyl seats sometimes split, freeing their innards. Time is worn too easily on our outside.
I would start again.
From the tram’s window looking out to the grass verge before the river, it looked so inviting – the grass verge, not the murky river. I only ever passed by on the tram, travelling from Richmond to Fitzroy. Going to the Standard, or the Rainbow Hotel – was that its name? Why would someone name a pub after a rainbow? Rainbows – the time in the light aircraft looking down on a small full-circle rainbow. Over clouds, through invisible rain, the perfect circle rainbow staying in the same position as a ballerina’s gaze mid-pirouette.
The grey day in Hven. Ivar Johnsson’s light gray granite Tycho Brahe in the manicured Uraniborg garden. Brahe looked to the changing skies. Alfred Noyes wrote Brahe’s last words in Watchers of the Sky, ‘for I am ready, ready to fall.’
Time had wept to new ends. I was ready to return to the abyss.
everything and nothing
Steeped in black, Grace sunk in the direction travelled with Frederick. Edges of nothing loomed shadows. Distant, soft, explosions drew closer. Before long she was amongst a field of gypsies trawling glass balls of light. They lined up fortunes and called out to one another through the clatter. Lives were flaring and trailing into their hands as they caught the soul that beaconed. Furnaces glistened. A vapour drizzled into her pores. Flickering eyes peered at circled maps seeing diamonds in bogs. Petal led cheeks brushed by her before velocity hit. She kept her eyelids squeezed shut against the pressure that pulled them – the jouissance of gravity.
Kelly Malone 2012
(thank you Kelly Malone for your brilliant writing – John Radford)
Kelly Malone is an Auckland based writer. Since graduating from the Master of Creative Writing at the University of Auckland in 2009, she has continued with graduate study and tutors in Creative Writing at tertiary level. Her work often considers the materiality of language alongside the interaction with visual art. Origins of nothing engages with the artwork Graft® Kelly’s blog can be found here: kellymalone.me