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 has 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.”
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.
ACROSS THE SHORES
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.
The New York art scene brought Bickerton into contact with Jeff Koons, Peter Halley and Meyer Vaisman, and together they made abstract works that came to be known as neo-geometric conceptualism, or neo-geo for short. New York magazine described them as “The Hot Four” in an effusive story in 1986.
Less than a decade later, though, Bickerton found himself moving clear across the Pacific. The New Yorker said he “dropped out of the art world,” but Bickerton sees it differently. “When I first got here, I had no interest whatsoever in becoming one of these wispy artistic souls you see cruising around Ubud,” says Bickerton, who is represented by Lehmann Maupin gallery. “I was basically looking at it as this: I spent most of my life in the tropics, this is my part of the world. Other artists were moving out [of New York City] to rural Pennsylvania and upstate New York. When I made my move, it was a bit further away.”
In those early days, Bickerton saw Bali as a place to live, work and surf—that’s it. “My first studio looked like any white room anywhere from Beijing to New York to Berlin,” he says. That eventually changed. “In 2004, after I’d been here just over a decade, I was looking at my paintings and it hit me that the entire palette had changed—the layout, the entire thinking. While avoiding Indonesia very scrupulously, it had snuck in through the vents, under the doors, down the air ducts. It permeated every aspect of the work. It was ironic.”
Bickerton’s entire palette had shifted from what he calls “industrial colours”—unmixed reds, yellows and blues—to something more subtle: “bluey greeny grey browns and browny greeny greys. And the layout was very much like the Batuan school of painting, this famous Balinese group that came out in the ’50s and ’60s. They would do very crowded paintings without a sliver of sky at the top—so many things going on in this crazed jumble of life.”
PAINTING A PICTURE
At the same time, critics and journalists began drawing a line between Bickerton and 19th-century French artist Paul Gauguin. Bickerton found it ridiculous. “I have nothing to do with Gauguin,” he says. “I live in 21st-century booming Asia—capitalism in overdrive. But people are a bit naïve. They have very quaint and possibly uninformed notions.”
He decided to lean into the image. “I posed a photo that was a total send-up of my studio,” he says. “I put up all the surfboards, I was in a sarong, my son was in a Hawaiian shirt. My girlfriend at the time, who was Balinese, was making offerings. It was a complete campy send-up. And people said, ‘Wow, what a nice life you lead.’ People don’t want the truth. They want a nice story.”
That coincided with a lucrative period for Bickerton that finally allowed him to buy a piece of land and build his own house on the Bukit Peninsula. He had been living in Seminyak, a beachside town that was quickly becoming a hub for nightlife and tourism, and he was desperate to leave. “I was flush, so I didn’t hold back,” he says.
He ended up building an extravagant hillside compound perched atop traditional Balinese retaining walls. One building was imported from Java and rebuilt to house a kitchen and dining room; other structures were modelled on Dayak [the native people of Borneo] longhouses, only with roof lines that curved and swooped as if in a fever dream. Bickerton’s studio was housed inside a structure made of black river stones, with a terracotta tile roof. The walls of an open-air living room were festooned with Balinese masks, sculptures made from sinuous tree branches and a water buffalo skull.
It seemed to embody the role of “an alien in paradise,” as the writer Paul Theroux described Bickerton in a 2017 profile for The Guardian. “If I enter the headspace I was in when I envisioned this project, I held no truck whatsoever with modern tropical architecture,” says Bickerton. “At that time there were a lot of cookie-cutter modern white villas popping up, lots of glass. The whole thing made me frankly nauseous. Now they seem more sensible. I threw buckets of cash at this thing and it was completely impractical. But man, the lines were ravishing. It was a thing to look at. As a thing to live in it was peculiar.”
And ill-fated. Bickerton says he was “set up from the get-go” by corrupt notaries and lawyers who schemed to steal his house—not an unusual thing in Bali, where foreign residents are often the victim of property scams. “There were gangsters involved, crooked cops, heavyweight politicians, utterly morally dysfunctional lawyers,” he recalls. “I used to have to wear reflector sunglasses to court because the opposition always had black magic people following me around to put a spell on me. Not necessarily because I believe in black magic, but it’s better to be protected.”
LIFE IN FICTION
He is reluctant to share more detail, on the legal advice of his wife, whom he says “did all the heavy lifting” to save the house. But the experience certainly shaped his experience of Bali, which can perhaps be reflected in his Blue Man series of works that offer a withering critique of the crass consumerism and over-tourism that have re-shaped the island. “When the Gauguin label was applied to me, I laid on those things and I laid them on thick,” he says. “I had fun for a while. I went really baroque and over the top.”
As Theroux cautioned in his profile, however, “attempting a summing up of Bickerton’s vast and subversive body of work is pointlessly reductive.” Bickerton is quick to note how varied his artistic career has been. “If you see any kind of retrospective of my work it looks like a group show,” he says. The same can be said for how he leads his own life. “I get bored. I’ll go through a period where I only wear black shirts. And then I’ll go through a period where I only wear batik and Hawaiian shirts,” he says. “They’re interchangeable psychic fabrics in my mind. They represent a comfort gestalt.”
When it comes to rebuilding his house, Bickerton says he and his wife are taking their time. “I don’t think it’ll be as unique or absolutely freaking bonkers as it was,” he says. “We’re changing the tile to have a whole bunch of chickens and dragons on the roof. I can’t stay away from silliness. But I’m married to somebody really smart now, so she reels in my more impractical flights.” And he’s sure of one thing: “It’s going to be a great house again.”