Finding the Art in Phuket
by Anthony S. Cameron
The monsoon season is when I really come alive. That’s when Phuket turns into a scrounger’s paradise, when the extreme equatorial weather deposits South East Asia’s rubbish onto the beaches. There’s nothing I like more than standing on my local beach, or one of the dozen others on the west coast of Phuket, as gale force winds batter the coastline and rain hits like a gang of thieves with knives, buzzing on the crystal meth we call climate change.
At times I feel like a demented debris connoisseur as I scan the strewn beaches and exclaim (to my dog, usually), ‘Aah, that looks like a chunk of a Burmese fishing boat’, or, ‘this one’s been out there a while’, looking at a barnacle-laden plastic bottle as I try and work out what language is scrawled on its label. Every now and then I come across a couple of humans who have cleared a square of sand and settled in amongst the garbage, smiling grimly as they enjoy their tropical island getaway, but there’s nothing about this in the brochures. Those photos are all taken during the high season when the water is smooth and clean and the rubbish a distant memory. I wonder what they make of me as I come over the rise of rubbish with arms full of lighters and driftwood, wearing the mad smile of someone in their element. For this is my Boxing Day sale, without the tragic desperation. It’s more like the morning after the big sale. The bodies have been cleared and what’s left is just the shit no-one wants. That’s where I come in.
It is the time of the year I watch the weather reports and try to work out which beaches will cop the motherlode of the daily human consumer nightmare. Which of the stunning beaches will be chosen by a volatile ocean to wear the marks of our insanity? Whichever beach wins, that’s where we’ll head for the day, aiming to get there just after high tide but before the beachchair dudes start burning everything they rake up. Often I have pulled a stunning piece of coloured fishing boat timber out of a smouldering plastic fire, careful to shield my eyes from the exploding cigarette lighters that lay beneath the flames like masked assassins. These fires and I are old friends now. I have a collection of melted lighters from these experiences to attest to that. The lighters are waiting to go into a steel sculpture of some kind in the near future, the one that gets all the melted stuff I have found: melted children’s toys, tiny flip flops, and doll appendages …
Ok, let’s just let that sit awkwardly for a bit …
And we’re done.
I can almost hear you doing the math: crazy fringe-dwelling ex pat Aussie, talks to his dog, makes dystopian sculptures and wacky furniture out of the rubbish he finds on the beach. Hmm. Well, I guess that isn’t too far from the truth, when I think about it, but I do take issue with the ‘crazy’ part.
I mean, is it crazy to look for beauty in a sea of ugliness? Is it crazy to want to play music as the ship is sinking? Is it crazy to grin like it’s Christmas when you’re knee deep in rubbish on a beach in South East Asia and the rain is slicing the moment apart? Because if it is, you might as well bring the white van with the happy drugs straight away. Get the 24 hour Fox news loop ready and begin the re-programming, because, there is no other way for me now.
I fucking love it.
Some of the finds are nothing short of amazing. I once dug up an entire boat that had been buried under sand for who knows how long. It was hand carved out of a single tree. I remember looking at the marks of the rough chisel work, a chisel held in someone’s hand a hundred years ago. I imagined that he might have been singing badly as he carved away. A bad singer, but a good fisherman, pretty handy with the chisel, too, that’s what they would have said about him, back in the day .As you can see, there’s a story behind everything I pick up or that catches my wandering eye.
I have dragged the buttresses of massive rainforest trees along the sand with the manic determination of scroungers the world over. You can muster a ridiculous amount of energy when a ‘fuckin’ gem’ has just been found and the trusty sidecar is two kays away and you somehow always make it, giggling with exhaustion and happiness at having found a beautiful thing once again. I imagine the forest it may have stood in, and the journey that has changed it in so many ways: tearing its branches, caressing smooth the scars it collected along the way to this beach. Just like my journey has changed me.
I know people who make art out of the bottle caps they find on the beach, others who make jewellery from the insides of cigarette lighters thrown overboard by crazed fishermen and chain smokers. I know someone who only makes stuff out of flip flops found on the beach near her home. There are many others, out there, screaming in their own way, using the waste of humanity to try and make sense of it all. For me, it’s the timber from the boats that really gets me going. And the translucent lighters. And the huge chunks of tropical rainforest. And those action figures they give away in boxes of cereal. And those tiny flip flops, half eaten by sea lice and covered in barnacles, by far the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
See you on the beach sometime soon.
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.