“I was a total headache for my parents growing up,” says Danish recycle artist Thomas Dambo, perched on the trunk of a eucalyptus tree in the bushland of Mandurah, an hour south of Perth. “I had so much energy and I loved building stuff, but I was so impatient. If I had an idea, I had to build it right now using whatever I could find around me.”
When Dambo was just seven years old, he bought a mountain of cushions from the flea market to construct a games room in his parents’ basement. As a teenager, he built a “crazy” fortress in his back yard, connecting two treetop houses by a zip line and a series of underground tunnels.
The son of a theatre costume seamstress and a blacksmith, he grew up in a commune with three other families in Odense, Denmark; an environment where artistic expression was deeply encouraged, and sharing, play and creative problem-solving were interwoven with daily life.
“That definitely had a big impact on me. I was always designing games and creating something, even though we never had much money. It taught me that you can create something amazing with very little, even with items from the trash, that other people can enjoy and be a part of,” he says.
Decades later, 42-year-old Dambo is proudly surveying his latest creation: a troll called Little Lui. Towering at five-metres tall, Little Lui emerges from a wild strip of bushland not far from the centre of Mandurah, his peaceful expression crowned with an unruly nest of sticks and pine cones, entangling with the roots of the nearby tuart tree. The sculpture has only been there for a couple of weeks, but he looks as if he has been carved into the land for centuries.
Little Lui is one of the six trolls buried in secret corners of the Peel region of Western Australia as part of Thomas Dambo Giants of Mandurah, an Australian-first exhibition presented by Form and the City of Mandurah which will be on display for at least a year. The project takes Dambo’s global troll count to 99, with his gentle giants finding homes in landscapes as far afield as the United States, Belgium, China, Denmark, South Korea, Puerto Rico and now Australia.
“I grew up surrounded by fairytales and stories, and the troll is an important part of Danish folklore,” Dambo says. “For me, trolls represent the voice of nature. Sometimes they can be gentle and quiet. Other times they can be really violent and brutal, and that’s how nature is. If you’re not careful, nature will knock your whole house over.”
This deep reverence for the natural world is a central thread of Dambo’s practice. A self-proclaimed “recycle art activist”, Dambo’s trolls are made almost entirely from locally sourced recycled timber: their faces from secondhand furniture, skin from timber palettes and hair from branches and leaves.
Taking about 750 hours to complete, each troll is constructed out in nature with a local team of technicians and volunteers – a perennial highlight of the process for Dambo. “Why build in a warehouse if you can build here? It’s the best office in the world,” he says. “And coming from Denmark, the nature here is so different, it’s almost a bit trippy and unreal, like being in a fairytale.”
But Dambo’s focus on the environment runs deeper than aesthetics: Denmark’s commitment to sustainability, particularly its efficient recycling programs, has profoundly influenced how Dambo sees the world.
“We are slowly turning the world into a landfill. What will it look like in 5,000 years? Will there still be beautiful tuart trees to look at? I hope that by visiting the trolls, people will see the giant scale of the problem, and the gigantic opportunity we have to fix it,” he says.
“I want to remove some of the stigma associated with trash. People think it’s ugly, smelly and unhygienic when, really, what we should be ashamed of is discarding things that are scarce. We should be thinking of trash as a resource.”
In order to gain a local understanding of Mandurah, Dambo worked with the region’s traditional owners, the Bindjareb people, who shed light on the creation story of the lands and waterways of Mandjoogoordap. Dambo weaved these insights into a poem called The Rhythm of Raindrops, which tells the story of the journey between the giants, while touching on the drought and water scarcity that plagues many parts of WA.
Created with children and the young at heart in mind, Dambo’s multisite installation is designed as a sort of treasure hunt, inviting visitors to get lost in the unique wildlife of Mandurah as they navigate to each troll on a map, all the while discovering clues to find the sixth, “secret” troll.
“I think it’s really important that the next generation is connected to nature,” Dambo says. “You can’t isolate all the humans in a city and believe they are going to care about the natural world. That’s why I tried to gamify the giants, to appeal to younger people who are so used to discovering the world through a screen.”
In knitting together his long-held passions – storytelling, upcycling and exploring – Dambo has crafted the world he wants to live in: a place where people delight in nature, do their bit to protect it and aren’t afraid to let their imaginations run wild.
“I want people to be inspired to play and experiment. And to realise they don’t need a lot to create something big and beautiful. Go out, go around the corner and dive into whatever is there – you will find a lot of adventure and magic in your own back yard.”
Thomas Dambo Giants of Mandurah is open to the public now