A walk along the Raidak River, Thimphu

Himalayan Headwaters: Bhutan

It was the children who started noticing the influx of trash around Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. You can not go but a few minutes sitting on the banks of the Raidak river without seeing a PET bottle bobbing down its watery course towards India. They were inspired to address the profusion of trash that has only recently become prevalent in this society that prides itself on their pristine environment.

The Voluntary Artists Studio of Thimphu (VAST) runs an array of community engaged arts programs. They welcomed ideas from the youth in their community and came up with a string of programs that has brought the issue to light in their community. The organizers at VAST recognize the value of working with children, especially around these kinds of issues because it empowers the young participants, encouraging them to carry messages into the broader community through sharing their ideas with their families and classrooms. When we reinforce the importance of these topics which the children have demonstrated are inherent feelings, then children are encouraged to actively engage their circles to change attitudes towards an issue like waste.

Bhutanese are used to organic material being the primary packaging of their consumables. The population maintains strong habits of tossing aside packaging, knowing that it will be reabsorbed by the earth. But these habits become destructive once the packaging is replaced by synthetic materials like plastic. It is a time of transition in Bhutan. The cities are growing rapidly and house nearly a third of the population of the country. As with many burgeoning cities, it can be a challenge to implement effective infrastructure systems, like waste management, which rely on public participation.

Bottlecaps from the PET bottles collected for recycling will be integrated into sculptures in the VAST sculpture park
Bottlecaps from the PET bottles collected for recycling will be integrated into sculptures in the VAST sculpture park

Artists play an key role of reflecting the ways and beings of their communities, constantly examining the evolution of societies. The artists at VAST are no exception. In regards to plastic pollution, they have come up with provocative public installations and projects which lend themselves to offering solutions to this emerging problem.

Their workshop is housed in a building across the road from a former dump site along the Raidak river. The VAST community set out to restore this dump site to an ecologically stable park. The site had been full of invasive Russian poplar trees that the government helped them cut down. Using the remnants, workshop participants pieced together the first sculpture for the park, an orb made of re purposed poplar wood. The work echoes the structure of a birds nest, and is an lovely form to start the sculpture park that has been growing on the cleared land.

They have amended the soil and planted trees to protect against erosion as the river runs strong during the rainy season. There is a spring which serves as the heart center of the park, around which they are developing a medicinal zone so that community members may find healing that is growing forth from this healed land.

The Golden Fish is built from trash collected from the land reclamation along the Raidak River
The Golden Fish is built from trash collected from the land reclamation along the Raidak River

The members of VAST collect the debris that has become commonplace, and re-purpose it into the sculptures that are installed in the evolving sculpture park. The golden fish is built from recycled waste and it is built with a very regional aesthetic. The golden color makes it a popular landmark in a culture that values the sheen used frequently in sacred spaces.

The colorful plastic bottle tops were an appealing material for the participants of the workshops, and they have been using them to make decorative skins on tree stumps among other sculptures. The organizers at VAST felt that it was not very productive in addressing the overall ecological concerns of the environmental impacts of plastic bottles, so they encouraged community members to bring in the PET bottles with their caps. The bottles were offered to elders in the neighborhood as a resource that they could sell to Indian recycling centers for a small profit. This program not only helped clean the area of PET bottles, it provided a micro economy to an otherwise marginalized community.

Prompts used in the public installation intended to encourage people to start thinking about the mis-use of plastic
Prompts used in the public installation intended to encourage people to start thinking about the mis-use of plastic

Bringing the issue into the heart of their city, the VAST community set up a provocative installation around the clock tower in the central plaza of Thimphu. Here, they installed piles of garbage that climbed bamboo lattice work that was mounted to the clock tower. Interspersed with the trash were informational signs that described the problems wrought by the presence of plastic waste, calling on the community to recognize the importance of ecological awareness in these days of transition. People were initially angry that these students had filled the plaza with trash. But the students stationed themselves around the installation to engage the public in conversation about the issue. They invited people to walk the paths that were structured through the installation as a sort of discovery journey. The paths led participants around the plaza as if they were walking medicinal wheels of self realization. Ultimately those who took the journey came away with an understanding of this issue that can be hard to digest, but which has an impact on everyone within that sphere.

Unfortunately there is no lack of plastic in Bhutan. It is a growing problem in this kingdom perched high in the Himalayas. There appears to be a thriving natural ecology. However, where there is an influx of human populations that are embracing the materials of our age, then there is bound to be plastic embedded in the trees.

 

To learn more abut VAST and to support their community arts programs, visit www.vast-bhutan.org

Bottle Water label from Bhutan
Bottle Water label from Bhutan

Published by

Lee Lee

Lee Lee is a visual artist who integrates a collaborative, social practice oriented approach in her practice. Her paintings may be viewed at www.Lee-Lee.com & collaborations at www.virtualvoices.org

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