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troublemag | September 17, 2021

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Finding the Art in Phuket

Finding the Art in Phuket

The Art of Letting it Find You

Anthony S Cameron

I’ve seen some decent circuses in my time, but nothing conjured up in a big tent can compare to the daily human circus that is Phuket. Humans on holiday have a feverish intensity and a unique ability to cluster around sunsets, and what better place to witness the human spectacle than Laem (Cape) Promthep, the southern-most protrusion of this mad little island.

It is late Sunday afternoon and buses arrive constantly, disgorging the thousands of mainly Chinese tourists keen to photograph the shit out of the moment; and Promthep doesn’t disappoint. Not only is the view spectacular, but the sun has applied its make-up, done its warm-ups and is ready for the 6pm show, flexing its performance muscles by sending a few premature splashes of colour across the fading horizon. Phones are thrust out in front of people’s faces, lips pouting, chests expanding, arses stuck out like speed bumps to a true experience as we sit down with our phones at the ready, poised to capture a slightly different spectacle.

Watching people experience unexpected art is always fascinating, but more so this time because my wife and my mother-in-law had created it on our dining table, and now we were at the exhibition opening, if you like, waiting to see what the fickle crowd would do with it. This gallery had no walls, no cheap wine and crumbling cheese to cushion the moment, no bullshit speech by the curator or loud, knowing guffaws to pepper the experience. The art was happening right in front of us.

Our rock art, or should I say pebble art (let’s not get ahead of ourselves here), had been strategically placed throughout the tourist mecca, on benches, handrails, statues, walkways and next to lookout binoculars, which is what we were all staring at now as we got the first bite. A middle aged Chinese man noticed it first. It wasn’t more than a glance, but then he did a double-take, picked it up between two fingers, put it back down and walked off. A young European woman saw it next. Her hair was drawn back in a rough ponytail against a no nonsense face. She walked towards the rock like she knew it was there. She held it in her hands for a long time, rolling it over and over. A smile crept out of the corners of her mouth as she read the label glued to the underside of the pebble, then turned it over again and we watched as the smile she’d been working on overtook the street face that gave away nothing, and for a brief moment you could see the world pouring in. She closed her hand around our pebble and walked off purposefully. I could see the whites of her knuckles as she squeezed it tight.

A little girl was busy having a conversation with the next rock when we arrived. She was holding it up to her mouth and whispering secrets, then putting it to her ear for the reply. Once or twice she laughed, as if the rock was telling her jokes, or sliding her a few witty observations as the crowds walked blindly past and the girl and her pebble crouched down in their own private universe. She kissed our little rock, put it back down on the long bench and ran off happily.

A large group of Chinese tourists with expensive cameras and watches settled down noisily, spreading themselves across the entire bench and began mopping the sweat from the parts of the body they could reach. We lost sight of the rock for a little while. The men had various combinations of checks and stripes of all colours competing for dominance with the multi-layered, old fashioned knee length floral print dresses the women were wearing. They all seemed to be talking at once and at a very high volume before walking off en masse towards the Buddha shrine. All except one middle aged woman.

It was a minute or so before she noticed it teetering near the edge of the back of the bench. She looked repulsed at first, screwing up her nose like a horrible stench had just wafted through. Then she was poking it with an outstretched finger, curiosity contorting her heavily made-up face, then expensive fingernails were pulling the rock towards her. Soon enough she was cradling it in the palm of her hand and staring down at the picture my mother-in-law had painted a day before, a picture of a Tim Burtonesque tree and the words ‘You Matter’.

The woman stared off into the crowd, locked in thought, then got her phone out and started typing, all the while holding the rock in the palm of her hand. After a while she put the phone down, looked out at the crowd again, then down at the rock. That was when the tears started. They were streaming down her smiling cheeks as the crowd blocked her from view, and when the crowd had thinned she had gone, and so had the rock.

The concept behind the little rock art is for the finder to photograph the rock, then post it on the Facebook group it is associated with, in this case a group called ‘Cape Town Rocks’. After that, the finder can either keep the rock or relocate it to another place.

We spent the rest of that week and the next putting our little interactive rock art at all the tourist hotspots, and others too that maybe the tourists didn’t know about yet. Those places you go to on your delving days, the ones without other people, just raw nature and a few precious moments to take stock, with a view that can take your breath away, and a little painted rock perched on a boulder that may make all the difference

Sometimes you have to look for art and sometimes, if you are lucky, it finds you. Improvised in the moment, a myriad of human responses are possible.

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.
Photos by Joy Hichens