Finding the Art in Phuket
The Art of Keeping it Safe
Anthony S Cameron
Regular readers of my tropical ramblings (I know you’re out there, even if I don’t know what you look like) may argue that I circumvent the predominant art practise that you can find on this strange chunk of an island called Phuket. They would point out the tiny strip of art studios on Phang Nga road in Phuket town as a glaring omission, and I guess I would have to agree. The guys down there are doing great stuff (and yes, sadly, they are nearly all male), but it is nothing you wouldn’t find on a thousand funky little streets all over the world. Sadly, there is nothing there that grabs me by the throat and puts that wicked smile on my face. There is nothing that has me stroking my imaginary goatee in ponderous wonderment or has me wanting to race home, full of inspiration, and start the forge. It took me years to form an understanding as to why the art is a bit like the famous Thai smile: beautiful on the surface but with an underlying howling emptiness that I can’t quite grasp. Alluring as it is to have a beautiful Asian woman smiling at you, I find myself, more often than not, looking away.
Great art engages, confronts, hangs out the dirty laundry for all to see. It challenges you, makes you squirm in your chair, makes you spill your coffee. It is an Instagram photo with all the filters removed, and all the blemishes, all the lines, all the scars exposed. Great art says things in a way that words cannot, and, interestingly, the safety of art’s subjective interpretation may even help to keep you out of jail, should you happen to be living in a military dictatorship.
And that’s the thing: it is a dangerous practise in any military regime to discuss, write, or paint anything that in western democracies would be considered healthy discourse. Don’t get me wrong here, I haven’t been out of Australia long enough to have the rose-coloured glasses glued to my face. Democracy in Australia, like everywhere else, is a thin veil at best, but as far as I know you can still take the piss out of just about anything and remain free to enjoy your Colombian de-caff latte with those complimentary biscottes as you ponder the fall of capitalism and the free market economy during your lunch break.
It’s not like the artists here are running scared. Twenty years of exposure to an authoritarian education system cures all but the strongest desire to voice dissent. And those few that do speak out, like some academics, are swiftly arrested and locked away for years, free to scratch their ‘free thought’ into their prison cell walls with a spoon.
Add to this the ever-present delightful distraction of food, some of the most bizarre TV soap operas I have ever seen, and a prediliction to keep things light and fluffy and you will start to get the picture.
As long as the art matches the curtains, its job is pretty much done.
Hopefully by now I have raised some ire amongst you, dear faceless readers. Bangkok has a very vibrant art scene, and if you manage to find the galleries hidden away in the basements and laneways, you will be pleasantly surprised at the diversity of the stuff on offer. Just don’t go looking for originality. Was it Picasso that said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal”? [ed – for more info on this quote see: quoteinvestigator.com ]
If that is the case, then the Thai art scene has it down, dare I say, to a fine art.
Phuket is different to the rest of the country. It is a Thai anomaly. Some argue that it’s not even a part of Thailand, and let’s hope they are right.
There are more ‘copy’ art shops on this island than any other kind of art shop. They are everywhere, nestling up against the ubiquitous Thai massage shops, straddling hastily constructed Esan food restaurants and jockeying for prominence next to twenty baht shops (the Thai equivalent to two dollar shops). Al Pacino from Scarface and Heath Ledger’s Joker are thick on the ground here, as is the Afghan girl with the piercing green eyes. Mohammad Ali often gets a guernsey, as does Bob Marley, and I’ve even seen Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood painted on trucker’s mud flaps (another curious subculture worthy of an entire article on their own).
The art of the copy of the copy of the copy is in full swing here, and the beauty of it is that, over the years, the portraits have altered slowly, so that Clint is barely recognisable, having become a kind of juicy visual rumour, a haunting reminder of the clash between Western iconography and Asian culture.
Painting this kind of stuff will never get you arrested, never get you written up by a visiting art critic from the New York Times, and sadly, never give your soul a place to howl.
Besides, screaming the truth with paint on a canvas can really clash with the Lanna-style rug you bought for an absolute bargain, which was made by the northern hill tribe slaves. Art awkwardly confronts your leather sofa and your big ass TV. And if art doesn’t sell, or reach an audience, why fucking bother, right?
Call me a freak, but the art that confronts me makes me feel more alive, makes me feel like singing, gives me a feeling that this strange human experiment was worth it. Art’s job, as far as I see it, is to fuck me up a touch, unsettle me, and, dare I suggest, make me re-think my privileged position in the human soup.
ABOVE: An array of choice mud flaps.
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. You can find his sculptural furniture on Facebook here.