The Juxtaposition of Beauty and Ugliness: Sara Khamkoed Discusses John Dahlsen’s Session at the Byron Bay Writers Festival

John Dahlsen speaking with Jeni Caffin o at the Bryon Bay Writers Festival. Photograph - Sara Khamkoed
John Dahlsen speaking with Jeni Caffin at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. Photograph – Sara Khamkoed

Protecting our environment is of vital importance in contemporary society. Artists and writers have the ability to highlight environmental issues in a way that is accessible, thought-provoking, and at times beautiful.

John Dahlsen is a contemporary environmental artist and author of three books; An Accidental Environmental Artist  (Alpha Academic Press 2014), An Artist’s Guide to a Successful Career (Common Ground Publishing 2013) and Art Insights (One Creation 2009). Dahlsen uses recycled materials to examine how time affects the landscape and the place of humankind within this.

Dahlsen said he originally went to the beach to clean up rubbish. As he filled garbage bags full of debris he became intrigued. ‘I was so excited finding all this plastic on the beach; I got my pallet and I left the beach clean’ said Dahlsen. It was this moment that inspired Dahlsen to use rubbish in his work, eventually becoming known as a leader in the field of environmental art.

Dahlsen finds some unusual objects while scouring the beach. Once he found half a pair of plastic broken dentures. About half an hour later he found the other half, both of which he has incorporated into his work.

Environmental ethics are important in Dahlsen’s work. Not many people want to know about garbage patches. Dahlsen said the government needs to find a solution. He suggested that fishermen who overfish the ocean and create much of the rubbish should go and clean it up, being paid by weight for what they collect. ‘The only issue is who is going to pay?’

Making something beautiful with a sense of aesthetics is important to Dahlsen. He feels it’s a tightrope of working with something ugly and creating something beautiful.

The Absolut Dahlsen. Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi, Sydney 2004
The Absolut Dahlsen. Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi, Sydney 2004 – Photograph from artists website

Dahlsen  described how he once spent many hours in his studio sorting rubbish into piles like yellow, red, thongs and bottle tops. Yet whenever he found brown plastic he would always throw it into a corner. When he decided to document his piles of rubbish by standing on a ladder and photographing them he became aware of the brown rubbish. He realised ‘Oh my god, this is so beautiful. Who am I to judge brown?’ This was a profound moment for him.

In the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness sometimes things can be viewed as neither- they just are. By shining a spotlight on the rubbish that is washed up on beaches, John Dahlsen not only creates amazing works of art to be enjoyed, but will hopefully help to generate change in the way we respond to waste and care for our environment.

-Sara Khamkoed


Sara Khamkoed is an artist and writer based in The Northern Rivers. She is currently completing a Bachelor Degree in Visual Arts/Secondary Education with a second major in English at Southern Cross University. Sara covered the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival for Rochford Street Review.

For further information the Byron bay Writers Festival go to

John Dahlsen’s website can be found at


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