written by Ewen Mcleish
Thailand has seen rapid increases in personal consumption in recent decades, resulting in the escalated use of plastic bags, cups, straws and takeaway containers. These single use items find their way into our oceans.
Anchalee Pipattanawattanakul, Ocean Campaigner for Greenpeace South east Asia, is concerned by recent research into mismanaged plastic waste. According to the journal Science, Thailand ranks 6th out of 192 countries, in terms of mass of improperly disposed plastics. ‘In 2016, Thailand produced 2.7 million tons of unwanted plastic and styrofoam,’ Pipattanawattanakul adds.
Pipattanawattanakul goes on to explain that marine plastic pollution arises not only from mindless littering, but also from gaps in the waste management system. These gaps allow discarded plastic to find its way into the marine environment either when dumped inland and blown by the wind or washed via waterways into the sea.
“This has an impact on sea life,” Pipattanawattanakul continues, “for example floating plastic bags look similar to jellyfish, which turtles can mistake for food. The items also break down into micro plastics and release chemicals into the sea. These are then ingested by juvenile fish, potentially affecting humans if these fish end up on our dinner plates,” she says.
Environmental artist Prasopsuk Lerdviriyapiti has spent years trying to tackle these issues. Lerdviriyapiti, or ‘Eco Artist Pom’ as she likes to be known, hopes to use her art to highlight the plastic tide engulfing Thailand’s seas.
Eco Artist Pom grew up inland in Thailand’s north but always dreamt of the ocean. Eventually moving to Phuket, she began earning a living sketching portraits for tourists, filling her spare time with boat trips on the Andaman Sea.
“I was amazed by the bright blues and greens of the ocean; the reds and oranges of the sunlight, the blackness of the night, and the silvery shimmer of the moon,” she muses. But the young artist had yet to experience the ocean’s true powers.
The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami brought this mighty power home to Lerdviriyapiti. Luckily she escaped drowning as the water crashed ashore. “My portraiture stall was down by the beach, but I decided to set up later than usual that day, narrowly missing the terrifying tsunami.”
“Afterwards I rode my bike up to higher ground and took in the scenes of destruction. I visited every single beach on the island and was horrified by the destruction, broken homes and dead bodies.”
There was the obvious horror of the human tragedy, but the eco artist also recounts how she was also shocked into noticing our abuse of the oceans. Lerdviriyapiti saw how the tsunami had picked up rubbish, dumping it back onshore, spreading it everywhere, and smothering once pristine beaches and swathes of mangrove forest.
Lerdviriyapiti resolved to collect this plastic debris up and create with it. “I wanted to repurpose it to show people how things once lost at sea could be used again” she said. This resulted in her 2004 mixed media work ‘The Remains of the Day’ and a range of handbags made from recovered plastics, which she now sells at her small gallery on the island.
Art with a message
Lerdviriyapiti’s most recent work focused on the seriousness of marine plastic pollution. In conjunction with Greenpeace Southeast Asia she constructed an impressive 3.5 metre high pavilion-like installation entitled ‘Blue Ocean’ and exhibited at Bangkok’s Arts and Culture Centre.
Bringing home the enormous variety of objects swirling around in our oceans, Lerdviriyapiti’s display included hundreds of discarded plastic bottles crammed with small collections of washed up items – from lighters to bottle caps to dangerous used syringes.
The artist relates how the contents of each bottle fascinated her in its own way: “There’s ‘a never to be told’ story behind all these things. They could have been carried for miles by the waves, but where from? Who owned them? What could the owners’ story be?” she wonders.
The installation included brightly coloured coral, a large sting ray, many tropical fish, a whale shark and dozens of jellyfish. The striking colours reflected the natural beauty of our oceans, but were synthetic in origin: the creatures were made from plastic bags, bottles and other debris from Phuket’s beaches.
“The animals were not just there to look cute, they are stuffed with old plastic representing how the material is ingested by them,” Lerdviriyapiti explains.
“People may know about plastic bags taking centuries or decades to decompose; I used plastic collected from over a decade ago to show how long this stuff lasts,” the eco artist continues.
Can art stem the tide?
Lerdviriyapiti talks passionately about her art, her ideas and feelings about humanity’s environmental crisis. She is making ecological art with a message her life’s work. But can art do more than share one artist’s concerns? Can it really make a difference to Thailand’s plastic pollution problem?
The artist explains that everybody relies on our environment to live and breathe, meaning that environmental problems are actually international problems. At the same time: “visual art is an inter-cultural language that everyone can understand,” she says. “It’s ideal for highlighting cross-border issues that ultimately effect us all.”
“Ultimately, art cannot solve this crisis. But by raising awareness about the problem, I hope to help my people and my country. I don’t expect to change everyone’s mind, but I would like people to ask why our oceans are filled with trash, and what they can do about it,” Lerdviriyapiti explains. “What art certainly can do is start the conversation,” she concludes.
And with campaigners like Pipattanawattanakul from Greenpeace stating: “The marine plastic pollution problem will worsen unless society changes its mindset and behaviour,” this is a conversation that not only needs starting but also needs acting on.
The artist can be contacted through her Facebook Page
Eco Artist Pom.
• Greenpeace South East Asia estimate that the average Thai uses 1080 plastic bags a year. If we laid all these bags out from end to end they would stretch from Bangkok to Chiang Mai 42,251 times.
• Similarly it’s believed that each person in Thailand consumes roughly 720 disposable straws per year. If everybody’s straws were piled together they would fill Bangkok’s Sanam Luang three times over!