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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyJuly 22, 2023

The lost Christchurch icons being rebuilt in miniature

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Alex Casey visits the studio of Mike Beer, aka Ghost Cat, the Ōtautahi artist bring pre-quake icons back to life – with one small difference. 

In a suitably tiny New Brighton studio behind a suitably magical secret bookshelf door, a Christchurch rebuild of a very different kind is taking place. “I mean, just look at this,” Mike Beer, aka Ghost Cat, booms excitedly while peering into the front window of the Atami Bath House. “We had a bright pink brothel! How random is that?” Inside the Atami, a weak orange light flickers, illuminating the carpeted stairs to the mysterious second floor. Outside, the stained glass window is adorned with a near microscopic blue and white Armourguard security sticker. 

Along with roughly 10,000 other Christchurch buildings, the real Atami Bath House on Tuam Street was demolished following the catastrophic Christchurch earthquake in February, 2011. Over a decade on, scratch build artist Beer is working to recreate the Atami, and nine more iconic buildings from pre-quake Christchurch, in miniature. Standing just 25cm high, the small scale creations still appear to delight Beer – even after eyeballing their finest and most frustrating details for weeks on end. 

“See these? These were supposed to be netting,” he continues, gesturing at the discrete pulled curtains on the second floor of the Atami. “So I actually bought net curtains from Spotlight, folded it up and put it in there, but it just looked so fake.” He couldn’t understand why it looked so out of place and struggled for days to find a suitable simulacrum. “Sometimes using the real material looks much faker on a small scale, it’s weird.” One day, the solution came to him in the most unlikely of places. “That’s actually toilet paper,” he cackles. “What a shit artist.” 

The real Atami and the mini Atami. (Photos: Moata Tamaira Collection and Ghost Cat)

Shit artist or not, Beer’s work has already made a tremendous impact in the two short years he has been working as a miniature scratch builder in Ōtautahi. Originally hailing from Birmingham in the UK and moving to Christchurch in the late 2000s, Beer chalks up his journey to miniature artistry to a mid-life crisis of sorts. “When I came over here I was a carpenter. Miserable, hated it,” he explains. “Our generation was always told you’ll never make money as an artist. So I had to get a trade and do this and do that.” 

He lost his carpentry job during the recession and retrained as arborist, before getting a job at Christchurch’s Court Theatre as a prop technician. “For my CV I ended up building this giant tombstone, carved ‘The Court Theatre’ into it and then put a skull on the front with a movable jaw. It cost me like 400 bucks,” he laughs. “I got my CV, wax stamped it, put my CV in the skull’s mouth, and dropped it off.” It got him the job, but it also awoke a deeper desire to become a “more creative weirdo” and take the plunge as a full-time artist. 

His first solo artistic venture was the Monster Mailman, a made-to-order service where he would sculpt tiny replicas of beloved cult classic films on VHS and mail them around the world – mostly to America. “I started making a bit of money off that, which gave me that reinforcement of ‘man, you can actually be doing something with this. Something you’re actually good at’,” Monster Mailman become such a hit that he even created mini VHS versions of Nightmare on Elm Street for Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) himself, and Halloween for Michael Myers (Tony Moran). 

The Monster Mailman with the stars. (Photos: Ghost Cat)

Beer had just bought a house in Sumner when the second earthquake hit in February, 2011. “It got absolutely trashed. We’ve got pictures of a massive boulder in the middle of the lounge – we were so lucky we weren’t there because someone could have been killed.” In the months and years after the tragic quakes, which claimed 185 lives and saw the demolition of thousands of homes and buildings across the city, Beer began to see glimmers of something new emerging. “We lost so much, but what was amazing is that there was a real flourishing of art,” he says. 

“People were using things like the rubble, all the stuff that represented such a horrific time for people of Christchurch, as a platform to put out their art.”

Inspired by the urban artists in the city and miniature artists like Joshua Smith and Charles Matton online, Beer began to explore the forgotten, abandoned and derelict parts of the city in his work. “I’ve always loved graffiti, I love the urban landscape, I love abandoned places,” he says. His first miniature scratch build came in the form of a tiny skip bin full of rubbish against a graffitied wall, soon followed by a grotty toilet cubicle he discovered while picking through an abandoned building in the city with some friends. 

‘I love abandoned places’. (Photos: Ghost Cat)

“I thought I’d make it as disgusting as possible,” he explains. “It was really gross. It was filled with shit and there’s toilet paper coming off it, condoms on the floor, gross graffiti everywhere. But what made it funny is that I put it on a plinth, so to look into the cubicle you had to look over the door to see what was inside.” At his first “packed” exhibit at Fiksate gallery in Ōtautahi, the worst toilet in New Zealand was the very first piece to sell – snapped up by a wealthy couple in Merivale, one of the city’s most affluent and expensive areas. 

“She told me she was going to put it in the lounge and I was just like ‘awesome’” Beer recalls. “With art, you just never know what different things will speak to different people.” 

Scratch building itself is what you might expect – building everything from scratch. Beer tries to find as much recycled material as possible for his builds, scouring op shops and secondhand stores for the perfect bit of metal piping, or an eye-catching cardboard tube. From these found materials, he has since made everything from Lilliputian urinals to gargantuan cigarette lights, eventually moving on to his most ambitious project yet – a collection of Christchurch icons lost to the quakes, accompanied by a book written by art historian Dr. Reuben Woods. 

A boosted campaign for the project, titled Ghosts on Every Corner, soon cleared its $50,000 goal, and Beer got to work. “This is a celebration of what we had in the city,” he says. “It’s about the ghost of the buildings that we’ve lost, these places that still exist in a lot of people’s minds.” With Woods he whittled down a shortlist of 10 iconic establishments, ensuring the spread captured a broad range of experiences and industries. “After talking to so many people, we got an idea of what hits the hardest – places like The Doghouse, Wizards-” 

He stops himself mid-sentence, lunging to another drawer to find another dazzling trinket. “This is an actual coin from Wizards,” he beams, handing me a tarnished token. “We’re gonna build Wizards with the arcade inside and light the whole thing up.” Other places on the list include Java cafe, The Smith’s bookshop (frequented by one Kate Sheppard), the central city police station (“it was this hexagonal, wild UFO just sitting there”), and Digger Tattoo studio (“they had Australasia’s biggest aquarium, honestly it was the weirdest thing.”)

For now, the Atami and the Repertory Theatre are sitting coyly on Beer’s studio bench. Inside the windows of the Repertory, you can see the patterned green carpet and the show posters lining the mint walls. “There’s a few things that were a bitch on this one,” he says. “Like those spiral pillars? I initially tried to sculpt them and it wasn’t working, so eventually I had to put wood into a drill, then spin the drill and use it as a mini lathe.” He also grouted the tiny bricks himself with actual grey grouting, and dusted the exterior with real dirt to make it appear more worn. 

While he’s learning new things about his craft everyday, Beer also says he’s learned so much more about the city he calls home. “This has just been such an amazing way to connect with people and place,” he says. “The more I’m interviewing people, the more knowledge I’m getting about the history of places, the more I just feel so deeply connected here. This sounds cheesy, but it’s true: I’ve never really felt like I’ve belonged anywhere before I lived here.”

Mike holds the Repertory Theatre. (Photo: Supplied)

With the project not set to be completed until the end of 2024, he’s always open to hearing more stories and memories from people, whether it’s Diggers debauchery or the ghosts of the Repertory. “I just love Christchurch man. The old city was just so architecturally beautiful, it just had so many quirks, but I’m all about moving forward with the new city as well. Hopefully these stories celebrate memories of a time and a place that people are still very fond of.” He gazes up at his corkboard of research, littered with old photos and memos, drawings and clippings. 

“It’s kind of cool really, isn’t it? One place can create a million memories.” 

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