Finding the Art in Phuket
A Drop in the Ocean
by Anthony S. Cameron
The steel comes out of the forge the colour of straw and trapped in the liquid moment that has had me mesmerised for years. In the liquid moment, the steel can take any shape you choose: you can persuade it into a sharp point, a Fibonacci curve, a stout square counterpoint to the fluid roundness of its body, or a spiral that terminates in the cold blue crossover between the liquid moment and the frigid indifference of its normal state. In the liquid moment, the steel is transformed into something you want to run your hands over, a tactile thing that winks flirtatiously at you and runs a hand half way down its thigh; a volatile seductress that might just drive you beautifully mad.
When it comes to persuasion, the ball-pein hammer is my tool of choice, and as you can imagine, I have many different weapons of mass persuasion. I have a brutal transformer for every occasion. There is something really satisfying about bashing steel to make art. It’s like I am bludgeoning the beauty into something, squeezing art through the cracks like overflowing toothpaste out of a tube, and, like the toothpaste, there always seems to be some there. Sometimes I know what shape I am looking for and sometimes it finds me. Usually it comes to me after a few heats of the steel and more than a few minutes of staring hypnotically at the white hot coals and listening to the quiet roar of the blower. Lately it has been teardrops and egg shapes that have sprung up out of the flames like grasping hands and had me sweating over the anvil, a rag tied around my hammer hand to stop the sweat loosening my grip and sending the hammer careering off into an unsuspecting corner.
I flatten and draw out the end of the steel and plunge it back into the flames before I have had time to be consciously aware of what I am doing. I stare away from the fire at the lump of fishing boat timber that will be the base of this latest work and try to fathom the beating it must have taken in its life. Tattered rope hangs off its scarred, partially burned face, the remnants of a dozen paint jobs streak across its surfaces like a pile of empty beer bottles in the early morning light, catching the bursts of sunlight, however brief, that point to better days. An array of gouges scream across the four sides, testimony to the brutal beauty that exists out there. How many tired men had hung onto this piece for dear life as the Andaman did its best to add them to a sea floor already littered with the debris of three generations of plastic worshippers? How many ropes had been wrenched taut around its base during a storm? How many hooks had embedded themselves in this lump of timber before it had finally broken free and ended up on my local beach?
One of my favourite phrases in blacksmithing is ‘upsetting’. I mean, what do you have to do to upset a hot piece of steel? Talk derisively about its mother? Rubbish its football team? Turns out all you have to do is hit the cold end and squash the hot end on the anvil, which ‘upsets’ the steel and creates a bulge like a 40 year old beer gut. And I guess I would be pretty upset too if I was ‘persuaded’ to look that way.
So here I am, about to sink an over-persuaded, fairly upset, tear dropped shaped piece of steel into a tortured chunk of timber and then hang used cigarette lighters off its hollow heart.
They say you shouldn’t stare into a forge, that it will make you mad. But I was already mad before I got here, way before the forge and I came together as a team. Mad for life, mad for experience, mad at the world, and mad that I felt helpless in the face of the institutionalised insanity we call consumerism. I was mad as hell, like any other person with their eyes and ears open, that the profit-driven decisions by the powerful few were driving humanity to extinction, and not only that, they were marketing the extinction to us and profiting from that as well.
I pull the steel out of the forge one more time and fine-tune the shape that will house the one single teardrop I have formed out of the red, yellow and white lighters that I find strewn across the high tide line of the beaches here. I lay the steel down on the concrete floor to cool and stare at the flaming teardrop of lighters I had laid out earlier. And then I remember at last, the question that had me bending steel over a hot forge on an equally hot day in Thailand. I remember asking myself one night, if the ocean could shed just one tear, what would it look like?
Call it bleak if you like, but if you make art out of the rubbish of humanity, how can it not be bleak?
Some of us scream, some howl, some laugh sarcastically at the human condition. Others look the other way, or stare at a TV screen for their daily dose of a favourite show which is nothing more than a lobotomy on the instalment plan. Some deny it, some drink it under the table, or fuck it into next week when they have a bit of time off work to go and buy more shit that they don’t need. Some make music or a movie out of it, or turn it into a musical and tour the world with it. Others jump in front of whaling ships, chain themselves to old growth forests or float over reefs to try and stop the carnage. We all have a way to make it through, to make sense of it all.
It doesn’t matter how you scream, it doesn’t matter whether anyone else is listening. You don’t have to post a status update about it or a selfie with your arms wrapped around it. The important thing is that you are screaming.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go back to bashing steel now and dreaming of a better world.
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 Anthony S. Cameron