Trouble in Paradise
Tatler Hong Kong|March 2020
Nearly three decades after he first moved to Bali, artist Ashley Bickerton tells dramatic tales of building, then nearly losing, then rebuilding his tropical hideaway—and how the island’s dark side inspires his work
Christopher DeWolf

Ashley Bickerton used to have a nice house on the south side of Bali. “I dare say I had one of the better-looking houses on the island at one point,” says the Barbados-born American artist, who has lived in Indonesia since 1993. “But this is the tropics—things don’t last long.”

When Tatler’s photographer arrived to shoot the property in November, its traditional straw roof, made with fibres from the ylang ylang tree, was in ruins. Parts of it barely clung to the house’s wooden frame. Big clumps were piled near the swimming pool. A row of Bickerton’s latest artworks—colourful collages that blur the line between painting and sculpture—hid beneath a trellis as workers hammered away at what was left of the roof.

“It’s high maintenance, it only lasts about 10 years and it costs a fortune to replace,” says Bickerton as he prepared to depart for Los Angeles, where he now spends the winter—Bali’s rainy season—with his wife, Cherry Saraswati Bickerton, a Balinese lawyer. “Ylang ylang looks very beautiful when you put it up, thick and yellow and happy looking, and gradually it turns grey and there are missing parts. Little insects multiply in there and fall down on your bed. And it leaks.”

To make matters worse, the couple have just spent the past several years fending off an attempt by local gangsters to seize their property, a fate they narrowly escaped thanks to Cherry’s legal acumen. “At the height of the case we had to put US$30,000 of razor wire around the place,” says Bickerton. “We had CCTV cameras everywhere. And dogs all over the place. When the gangsters get involved, they’ll try to move into your property and squat on it. It got very, very heavy.”

Bickerton in his home studio. Opposite: an old Javanese house Bickerton moved to Bali and rebuilt

A corner of Bickerton’s home and studio compound. Opposite: plastic Bickerton has collected from Bali’s beaches to use in his art

And yet he sounds more bemused by the situation than anything. After nearly three decades in Bali, the place has come to inhabit him and his work, even if that was never the intention.

A corner of Bickerton’s home and studio compound. Opposite: plastic Bickerton has collected from Bali’s beaches to use in his art

Bickerton’s story starts on another island, far, far away. He was born in 1959 in Barbados, where his father, the British linguist Derek Bickerton, was conducting research on creole languages. That research took the family around the world until they finally settled in Hawaii in 1972. Bickerton became an avid surfer, but he was also interested in creating things, and he eventually moved to California and New York to study art.

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