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next wave 2012

the embassy will be open

sheridan coleman: the greater asia co-prosperity sphere

Perth-based artist and writer Sheridan Coleman has a Masters in Art from Curtin University and is addressing contemporary Australian landscape art for her PhD. She writes about film on her blog, An Opinionated Education.

Nathan Beard, Casey Ayres, Abdul Abdullah, Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere Nathan Beard, Casey Ayres, Abdul Abdullah, Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
photo Tada Hengsapkul assisted by Lee Anantwat

Family history is something many of us only discover at funerals. Unbeknownst to us, Great Aunt Mabel was a glamorous socialite who seduced prominent thespians, or Poppa John had crossed the border into Austria as a fugitive. For Australians, discovering notoriety or exoticism in the bloodline seems a kind of jackpot. We speak with bright-eyed pride of convict ancestry or our genealogical fractions of Romany gypsy or European royalty, despite the manifestation of this rare link in our lives being minor.

Perth artists Casey Ayres, Nathan Beard and Abdul Abdullah have begun the excavation of their familial heritage early, making sure to fully absorb every ounce of romance, humour and melodrama into their ostentatiously titled collaboration, The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The three early career Perth artists were drawn together by their shared backgrounds: each has an Asian mother and a white Australian father, and was brought up in a Western Australian household that maintained traditions from both cultures. This meant the co-existence of primetime sitcoms with Buddhist ritual, pork buns beside fairy bread at birthday parties, and at all times a heightened awareness of the way Asian culture had been translated by their parents into everyday Australian life.

Nathan Beard’s father met his mother on holiday in Thailand in the late 1970s, during a break in his job as a federal policeman. After their move to Australia and the birth of their son, Beard’s mother ensured her traditional Thai cooking and a strong dedication to Buddhism “tethered” the boy to Thai culture. “I’d always sympathised more with my mother’s side of the family. I think as I got older and started to realise the cultural alienation that she took upon herself, divorcing herself from her heritage, I started to feel sorry about it. So I wanted to investigate that further.” Beard has been working on ‘quasi-collaborative’ pieces with his non-artist mother for years, contracting her to paint family portraits or asking her to model for his photographic recreations of classical paintings.

Casey Ayres’ mother is Malay-Chinese and his late father the son of English immigrants. He guesses this makes him a second generation Australian, though his laid-back attitude, penchant for backyard barbecuing and laddish accent suggest he’s got more than his share of the Antipodean in him. Ayres’ examination of his roots began only recently: “When the project came up, I really knew nothing about my cultural heritage whatsoever, so I thought this was a good way of exploring it. Also the food! Any place that makes so much good food, I want to know more about.” A skilled machinist with both camera and car, Ayres’ practice usually involves the photographic glorification of his beloved Ford Escort.

Clearly fascinated by the complexity of his background, Abdul Abdullah details his family biography as though he’s memorised it: “My mother is Malay, my father is Australian, I am seventh generation Australian, descendant from convicts despatched here in 1815 for stealing two stamps and a watch chain.” Abdul’s father converted to Islam and his parents moved to Australia to make their home in the early 1970s. As an Archibald finalist and 2011 winner of the Blake Prize for Human Justice, Abdul’s thriving painting practice has opened up discussion about what it means to be a Muslim Australian.

Nathan Beard, Casey Ayres, Abdul Abdullah, Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere Nathan Beard, Casey Ayres, Abdul Abdullah, Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
photo Tada Hengsapkul assisted by Lee Anantwat
Thrown together by otherness, Beard, Ayres and Abdullah have formed a kind of artistic solidarity. Not only do they have Asian mothers in common, but each has experienced parental suspicion or confusion about their art practices, particularly when it came to researching family history. Collaboration seemed natural.

The trio consider themselves emblematic of an Asian-Australian nexus. At first this led to casual experiments into culture jamming, in particular forming a hypothetical boy-band called Beige. The name had an unexpectedly decisive effect on the way the artists worked together. Beige, being the colour of non-specificity, allowed them to consider their very varied heritage under a single category—as Asian-Australian heritage in general. It gave them permission to hybridise their autobiographies, research themselves, each other, the West, the East and all Asian nations with equal attention, attachment and entitlement.

It was at this point that Abdullah, Ayres and Beard became The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Named after an anachronistic proposal penned by Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe in the 1940s, the artists used their collaboration to pool their experiences with Asian culture. What formed was a kind of ambassadorial unit, documenting an often humorous “glance at all of Asia,” as Abdullah puts it. The Sphere made research trips to Singapore, a once imperialised multicultural hub, and Thailand, a country with unusually strong mercantile ties with the West.

The GACPS project, which will be exhibited at the 2012 Next Wave festival, and is supported by Next Wave’s Kick Start program, will take the form of a comprehensive, experiential and highly multi-media installation: a pan-Asian embassy. Built in Melbourne, the embassy will be filled with an array of Asian decorative objects manufactured by the artists, representing the whole spectrum from traditional to kitsch. Think brush-painted banners, red lanterns, Maneki Neko waving cats and gold thrones as well as a full program of dance, music, craft and cooking activities.

The artists have merged themselves into the project as gaudily dressed yet sombre dignitaries, for an embassy certainly requires the presence of ambassadors. They will don a uniform they call the “Plada suit,” a bright gold silken two-piece topped with a gilded Thai headdress, perhaps as incongruous to Australian life as Imperial safari outfits were to jungle outposts in the 30s, or an Indonesian batik shirt on John Howard. In costume, the trio must perform their ambassadorial duties, explains Beard: “Importantly, what we’re going to be doing is facilitating an engagement with the space for audiences, trying to get people to think beyond the immediate experience and open up a dialogue. How were they raised with ideas of multiculturalism in an Australian context?”

A kind of pastiche of a World’s Fair pavilion, the embassy will provide gallery patrons with an experience that is equal parts sincerity and humour. The GACPS ambassadors have practised developing humorous access points between themselves and an audience. Recently, they’ve appeared in full costume at karaoke bars, for studio talks at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts and attempted to correspond with some of Australia’s most prominent Asian-Australians such as Penny Wong, Lee Lin Chin and Shaun Tan. This willingness to point out and then embody the absurd dissimilarities that exist between all cultures has quickly endeared the artists to their audiences. Ayres attributes this to their willingness to demonstrate “a sense of communal humiliation.”

While the object of the embassy never approaches social activism, it certainly exists within a climate of what Abdullah calls “increased multiculturalism” and cultural sensitivity. Perhaps it is fair to say that Australia’s complex historical relationship with Asia, the strength and diversity of Asian culture here and also the laconic Aussie sense of humour have created the perfect environment for The GACPS collaboration to thrive.

If everything about this project is loud—gold veneer, manifestos, cultural clashes and comical performance—it is still autobiography that has allowed the artists to foreground the issues of nationality, family and borrowed culture. This is a personal project for each artist. They have reclaimed a place for themselves between two cultures that would once have been described as marginal, other or “neither here nor there.” In this territory they have made themselves educators, cultural liaison officers, translators and ambassadors to both Australia and Asia, helping us to comprehend and relish a world in which language, art, music, food and tradition may all be so easily borrowed and just as easily misunderstood. The collaboration “reflects upon that innate sense of confusion that arises when you’re stepping in between two cultures. We want to open up an earnest exploration to allow people to figure out, bearing in mind all these differences, how they negotiate their own sense of identity, their own sense of cultural confusion.”

The embassy of the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere will be installed in the Ian Potter Centre by Federation Square in May 2012 during the Next Wave Festival: The Space Between Us Wants To Sing.

Perth-based artist and writer Sheridan Coleman has a Masters in Art from Curtin University and is addressing contemporary Australian landscape art for her PhD. She writes about film on her blog, An Opinionated Education.

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 15

© Sheridan Coleman; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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