Finding the Art in Phuket
Junk Art Adornment: Hanging Around with an Ocean Alien
by Anthony S. Cameron
Some of us wear our art on our sleeves, others spray it out in all directions hoping to leave a stain of some sort. Some people put a frame around it whilst others look for the places where there is no frame. Some scream in disbelief or wonder while others howl along quietly. Some need to define it while others run away from what it means and as fast as they can. It’s a beautiful dance when you get it right. You need to be aware and blissfully unaware simultaneously, or else you will drown in a sea of artist statements that make it sound like you have just solved world hunger, and any chance of a great creative moment slips away like a distant relative at a family funeral.
I pick my art up off the beach, out of the creeks and rivers, or in secondhand yards full of broken machinery and tattered dreams. I pick up the pieces that have been thrown away, tossed overboard, or smashed off in a storm, and try to make them sing again. There is art in the everyday, and others see it too. You won’t see us with a glass of chardonnay in our hand in a gallery somewhere. You won’t find us discussing the nature of art culture anywhere soon or sucking up to a curator who might get us an exhibition sometime.
So when you come across a like-minded soul in the sea of narcissistic fury and consumer excess called Phuket, it’s a good and rare day.
I came across Michelle one day a few years ago, walking along the same high tide line I was, scanning for treasures. As we approached each other I could see that she was carrying old plastic bags full of the stuff she was collecting. I was intrigued, staring at the bags as we met on that high tide line. I could see that she had lighters too, their translucent blue, yellow, red, green and purple hues contained behind the plastic bags she held in her hands. I could also see the tears in her eyes.
We both looked up and down the beach, surveying the piles of rubbish washed up with the tide, and an angry ocean pounding away at the land like a spiteful sister kicking you under the table.
I remembered that I cried too during my first wet season here, on just about every beach on the west coast. It was hard not to.
Not only was Michelle a fellow Aussie, but it turned out she pulled apart the lighters and used the washers, springs and silver shafts for jewellery she had started making since she landed in Phuket. They were the parts of the lighter that I threw away before using the outside casing in sculptures, functional art furniture and lighting.
We have been exchanging lighter parts ever since.
She also collects plastic bottle caps, old toothbrushes and even cigarette butts and has used them in sculptural works and murals which now adorn her house, just like her jewellery adorns the necks, wrists, ears and ankles of those passing through this tattered paradise. Post industrial waste hanging off people’s ears. It would impossible for me not to like this concept.
In Michelle’s world, the minute internal workings of the ubiquitous disposable lighter become polished gems and are strung together to make bracelets, necklaces, anklets, even headpieces. An unsuspecting flint wheel may find itself forever entwined in a casual dance with two rubber washers hanging off someone’s ear if it isn’t careful. Little plastic spacers and perturbed brass sleeves may find themselves suspended on a string of multi coloured gas tube housings that you would swear look like a modern day pearl, saved from a short and inconvenient life as a fire source and years in an ocean of purgatory swirling around the equator in the South East Asian soup. And don’t even get me started on the springs.
In Michelle’s world, the disposable lighter parts become a thing of beauty, stripped down, cleaned, polished and strung together with a unique eye for colour and form that makes every piece she creates a brilliant testimony to the power of positive thinking. To be able to find the beauty in what the rest of the world sees as rubbish is a victory in itself in these mad times we live in, don’t you think?
The old Thai fishermen who sometimes give me their old timber warn me that broken timber from boats has bad energy and will bring darkness into my life. I used to tell them that after I have cut it, sanded it, peeled away the layers of paint and revealed its tortured beauty, then it is more beautiful to me than even their ocean worn faces. And it always gets a laugh. You find the art wherever you can.
So, sometimes I find the art walking towards me on a debris strewn beach while the wind howls and the palm trees bend but never break, where the waste of humanity is spread around you like an all-you-can-eat buffet and your spirit is stretched thin like rolled pastry trying to feed more mouths than it can as we teeter and stumble, all in our own way, into the early 21st century, trying to make sense of our folly before it’s too late.
Michelle Doherty’s work can be found on Etsy.
Anthony S. Cameron is an Australian ex-pat living in Phuket, Thailand, and the author of two novels, Driftwood (2014) and Butterfly on Bangla (2015). Born in Melbourne, he escaped in his early twenties to central Victoria, where he designed and built a sustainable house and raised two sustainable children. His books are available on Amazon here.
Photos by Michelle Doherty