THE Commonwealth of New Bayswater has transcended its humble roots and is reaching for the “Glorious Being” in this year’s Fremantle Biennial.
For those not familiar with the Commonwealth, it’s a faux fiefdom of ramshackle buildings on South Mole, just off Bathers Beach, created by artist Jessee Lee Johns.
He started work on it six years ago, creating an embassy, then added a tourist economy with accomodation, general store and bar/restaurant, and for the previous Biennial tacked on a postal service, department of public works, museum and art gallery.
But Johns was spending too much time tinkering with the Commonwealth bar and his tiny municipality needed some spirituality, so this year he’s built a temple.
“It’s ‘A Temple Devoted To The Glorious Beings Of Small Favours’”, he says.
“I guess I started to worry about the soul of New Bayswater and thought it was time to create the department of Spiritual Welfare to allow the nation to grow and define itself beyond basic services.
“If the temple and the state religion of New Bayswater has a philosophy, I think it’s something like imbuing mundane things and simple acts of kindness with a certain weight, attached to them by their proximity to the Glorious Beings.
“Creating ritual and significance in little things, it maybe makes it easier for me to be grateful for them.”
There will be “devotional performances” at 7pm today (Saturday November 11) and tomorrow, and then at 5am from Thursday to Sunday next week.
“It will be interesting to see how that develops over the next couple weeks,” Johns says.
“Who wanders by, who has come specifically to see them, if anyone comes at all, or if it’s just me and the performers, making a noise solely for the benefit of the Glorious Beings.”
So is the Commonwealth a wide-ranging satire on immigration, unaffordable rents, lack of housing, the tiny home movement, the nanny state and now religion? Or is it just a bit of a giggle?
“I think it holds within its humorous pokes at Australian politics and culture, but that might just be a by-product of the fact that I’m not that clever, and it’s hard to build a country,” Johns says.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a satire on religion. I think it could be more accurately described as an attempt to model a state religion that confers real benefits upon those who engage with it.
“And a way to think about government services that might exist outside of an economic rationalism that feels in this day as the only way we are able to think about such things.
“I think what I end up making is something like a children’s drawing of a country – naive, missing most of the detail, and in that there is certainly plenty of humour to be found.”
Johns has been planning the temple for the past 18 months, but only had 30 days to build it on South Mole.
He sourced materials from here, there and everywhere including “bits” he found on the side of the road, rubber from a water treatment facility in Bussleton, old materials he used on previous Commonwealth buildings and even water from nearby rock pools.
“I thought it might have been a bit much to take the sand off the beach,” he says.
“People started bringing things as I was building, including a wonderful round piece of toughened glass (thank you). I got some branches after the City of Fremantle did some pruning nearby, before they sent out the chipper.”
Johns says one of the highlights of the temple is meeting random folk who wonder what the hell he is doing.
“I’ve made a few friends there, people who stop by to check on progress and have a chat,” he says.
“That dimension of the work is really interesting to me. Before the temple was really much of a building at all, it was already functioning as a social space and bringing people together. A huge proportion of the people that have come by the temple don’t know anything about the Biennale, and just encounter me, building a temple at the edge of Bathers Beach.”
The Fremantle Biennial is on until November 19. For the full line-up of shows and events see fremantlebiennale.com.au.
by STEPHEN POLLOCK