Beautiful Garbage

"I've just come back from Cambodia with a bunch of dried toads," declares artist Jerry Swaffield, pretty much by way of introduction. Thirty minutes later, he's prowling a patch of Bangkok wasteland, cars howling past on the expressway above, a stylishly ruffled figure picking through rubbish, which—in the opinion of gawking slum dwellers nearby—has already been stripped clean of anything valuable. "Very rich pickings," muses Swaffield, before plunking himself down in a discarded armchair that is hemorrhaging orange and yellow foam. "Awesome," he pronounces.

To understand this passion for garbage—and dried toads—one must visit an eighth-floor apartment in...

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