Trash Talking With Eco-Artist Wishulada Panthanuvong
According to a recent World Air Quality report, Thailand is the world’s 23rd most polluted country and in 2018 it was ranked sixth largest contributor to ocean waste by SCB’s Economic Intelligence Center. There are few who would deny the urgent need to reduce and recycle here and everyone has a part to play in this endeavour, which is why Bangkok-based artist Wishulada Panthanuvong has chosen to turn her passion and creativity into an educative platform to combat plastic pollution.
“Ever since I was little I have seen alternative uses for all kinds of objects,” the 28-year-old laughs. “What others would see as simple buttons or clothes hangers I saw as potential eyes and arms for something I could create.” Given her parents run a trash separation operation, Wishulada was surrounded by an abundance of cast-off materials with which to experiment. Incorporating waste items into her art began as an attempt to get rid of some of the plastic accumulated by mum and dad.
A Chulalongkorn University fine arts graduate, it wasn’t until her university years that Wishulada’s interest in and concern for the environment started to consolidate. “I began to do a lot of research and deepened my knowledge on environmental issues. I also wanted to figure out how I could combine environmental awareness with my love for art,” she says. “Additionally, I read about the late King Bhumibol’s work for sustainability, which inspired me. Ultimately I just wanted to do my part in helping the country deal with this particular issue. I also wanted to show people that art can be an illustrative driver for positive change, a platform for progress.”
Most of us tend to toss trash in the bin without giving it a second thought but for the Bangkok native every item has value and each object considered trash can be fashioned into something new and useful. Using trash that is donated to her or sourced from her parents, Wishulada has turned old food blenders into plant pots, bottle caps into colourful bins and plastic bags and left-over fabrics into unconventional apparel and accessories. Of course, what she is best known for are her large, dynamic installations composed overwhelmingly of items you or I might have once thrown away. Since her debut exhibition at Bangkok Fashion Week in 2015 the young artist’s other site-specific works, many displayed at prestigious hotels, have included the attention-grabbing Care Whale at the Stock Exchange of Thailand.
“I enjoy what I do, but I think what I love the most is being able to share my knowledge and help people,” she says. “Every time I create a big installation I hire a team of around 10 people from some of the poorer of Bangkok’s communities to help me separate the trash and build the structures. In getting these people involved, I am showing them that they can earn money by simply helping to separate trash and that what is considered rubbish can in fact be made into everyday usable things.” Her commitment to raising awareness of plastic pollution and the circular economy also extends to giving lectures and attending seminars and workshops organised in schools and universities across the country.
“Today we are experiencing a new wave of plastic pollution because of Covid-19, from throwaways such as discarded disposable face masks and gloves. So I am focussing on trying to draw attention to this issue at the moment,” Wishulada says. She adds that she hopes in the future art will be recognised not only as a creative field but also acknowledged as a contributor to sparking necessary conversations and engaging people from all sectors in the fight against environmental pollution.
As one would expect, the artist spends an awful lot of time in her studio. “I need to learn to organise my schedule better so that I can spend more quality time with family members,” she laughs. “Prior to the pandemic they constantly travelled overseas without me as I was always so busy. It would be good to catch up.”
For someone who lives and breathes art, it’s hard to imagine having to choose another career but Wishulada doesn’t hesitate saying, “You might find this funny but I really would love to be a coin collector on a bus.” She laughs, “I just want to know how those rattling coin collecting boxes work!”
See also: Onnalin Lojanakosin On Privacy and Paint