The Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere

MY TWO OLDEST FRIENDS ARE IN MELBOURNE FOR A MONTH! Casey Ayres and Nathan Beard have been friends of mine since the age of about 13, and they are spending time in my adopted home city this month, along with another friend, Abdul Abdullah (all of whom live in Perth), because they are all working together as an artistic collaborative trio for the Next Wave festival: , held from the 19th-27th.

The name of their project is The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. They give a wonderful explanation of their purpose on their website: but if you don’t have the time to read it as well as this column (though it will only take a couple of minutes), I will attempt a simplified, non-academic version (because there are already quite a few of those in existence thanks to the excellent amount of coverage of the project in the media in the last few weeks).

These guys each have an Asian mother and an Australian father, and the project is in essence both an exploration and celebration of their cultural backgrounds. It’s about being Eurasian. The exhibition they’ve created for Next Wave festival is a faux embassy in the NGV Studio in Federation Square, in which the artists portray themselves as ambassadors of the Sphere, guiding the public through the cultural program they’ve created for the duration of their exhibition- dancers, blessings, a Japanese tea ceremony, a Cosplay competition, a calligraphy lesson, tai chi demonstrations, pretty much anything you can imagine relating to the cultures of various Asian countries.

Within the embassy are beautifully painted portraits of the ambassadors and the king of the Sphere (Keanu Reeves), as well photographs taken by collaborators in Australia and Asia, three thrones made especially for the project, various shrines, fake letters by Ambassador Ayres to world leaders, a collection of kitsch Asian bits and pieces, plus a karaoke machine and a Nintendo Wii. It’s a visually arresting space, full of red and gold and shiny things and rich things; the ceiling is covered in hundreds of red paper lanterns, and one cannot help but smile at this huge display of grandeur and self deprecation.

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time at Nathan’s house, and I recognize most of the kitschy aesthetic as coming straight out of his family home. He studied Japanese in highschool, and now works in a retail store that sells all things anime and manga… to me, this project screams “NATHAN’S BRAIN”, and is visually and conceptually pulled together with the trio’s artistic talent and art education (at Curtin University in Perth), their sense of humour, and their shared experience of “otherness”- not belonging completely in either of the cultures they were raised with. It makes me so happy to be there, and even happier to be given the task of documenting it all in still photography.

When they first told me about the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere idea about 12 months ago, I was giddy with excitement, a feeling that has been building in intensity as time has gone on. Strings of successful grant applications, research trips, meetings and conferences for the Next Wave festival… through each of these events I’ve seen the progression of this idea (usually thanks to the wonders of Facebook and Skype), and I offered them as much of my time as I could to help the project reach it’s full potential.

So here I am, sitting on my bed writing this column, tired and sore and behind on my schedule, from my fifth day of following them around with my camera. I have hundreds of photographs, so many of the boys in their shiny golden crowns and their golden tailored suits, sitting on their thrones or talking to people at the events, singing karaoke (sober karaoke singing is far more difficult and terrifying than regular [see: drunken] karaoke), playing Wii tennis, eating food… and all the incredible performers and instructors who have helped make it all happen.

We’ve got 3 more days to go- two days of events, and then the closing party on Friday night. And then maybe I will get a chance to check out other work in the Next Wave festival, which is seeming less and less likely as my hard drive is filled up every day with more and more images of inspiring people, situations and events… I have so much work ahead of me, not only in terms of getting all of the images ready and giving them to the sphere, but in terms of my own artistic practice. The level of inspiration I’ve gotten from this project and the people I’ve spent time with throughout it will probably see me not wanting to leave the house for any reason other than to stock up on food and art supplies for a few weeks.

Glory to the Sphere!