Chris Coles Interview on Thai TV
Interview on TNN 2 by Suranand Vejjajiva (broadcast in Thailand April 2009):
Suranand: Hi Mr. Coles. How are you doing? I will call you Chris, Sawasdee krub.
Chris: Swasdee krub, Sabai dee mai?
Suranand: I thought you are not going to speak Thai!
Chris: Nid noi!
Suranand: You’ve been here how many years?
Chris: I first came to
Suranand: 14 years ago!
Chris: On a very big
Suranand: And you got stuck here.
Chris: I was here for 6 months or so then I have a nice office in Phuket, which is a pretty nice place to have an office. And we had boats going around Phag-nga, Krabi and Koh Phi Phi. I said Wow! pretty nice place. So after the movie, I went back to
Suranand: What did you do in the movie?
Chris: I was a studio executive in that movie, supervising the production.
Suranand: So you are a
Chris: Oh no, I am just a line guy involving with the physical aspects of the production. I was the production manager on LA Story, for instance, and Charlie Chaplin with Robert Downey.
Suranand: That’s a big transition towards art?
Chris: Well my favorite part of the film business has always been in the art department. My very first job out of film school I was working on the art department of Superman I. I was tagging around with this very high status English designer, and later I got sidetracked into the production side of it. But I always loved the art side of it. And on my family, there are quite a few artists in my family. As a hobby I always was drawing and then about 5 years ago I started doing art full time.
Suranand: So that’s when you start seriously doing art.
Chris: I started doing shows.
Suranand: Are you based here or in LA?
Chris: I kind of go back and forth a lot and go around
Suranand: I see, but you spend most of the time here.
Chris: I would say all of my visual ideas, certainly the more interesting ones, are coming from
Suranand: And that’s what we are going to talk about today because you have certainly been expressing yourself on what you see through a farang eyes, if I may say that, of what nightlife or what life in
Chris: Yes, I think there is a tremendous advantage actually for an artist to be an outsider because you are not inside the kind of bubble of received opinion of an education that each country has, including the U.S. So coming into Bangkok, my first week here working on the movie was just total chaos and disorientation. We just have no idea as an outsider what’s going on. Gradually I learned better to see some of the stuff that is behind the scene and very interesting and idiosyncratic stuff which only exist in Thailand.
Suranand: So things you see is not things I see.
Chris: Right, I see when I go to a place in
Suranand: But Thais don’t ask why, they just put it there?
Suranand: When you see that and you interpreted it, do you think Thais, the people who did that painting or that sign, subconsciously or consciously put it in. Is that what you think? Or you are interpreting it in a Western way.
Chris: I think Thais and many things Thai people do in their everyday life they don’t know why they do them actually. They just do them because Thai people do that. There is a very interesting book call “Very Thai” which explains to farang many very small Thai things and why they are done exactly that way. And farang people like myself, who are very interested in getting behind the surface in
Suranand: What kind of stickers they put on
Chris: Why the taxi dashboards have all that stuff on them. And we find that kind of thing very interesting and very revealing of Thai cultural characteristics and Thai people.
VERY THAI by Philip Cornwel-Smith
Suranand: A lot of people might not be familiar with your work on my show. The paintings here are just examples. I saw your website and on YouTube, you put your work on the screen for people who are interested to look at. But how do your characterize your art?
Chris: Well the art is every much in the expressionist style of paintings. The expressionist style began in Paris around 1890-1900, a lot of artists painting Paris nightlife scenes, like the Moulin Rouge scenes by Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin and some of the Paris artists at that time they started distorting people and colors in Paris nightlife to make them more dramatic and more interesting. Toulouse-Lautrec was a little bit representational but Gauguin and Picasso painted some Paris nightlife started doing unrealistic colors and unrealistic people’s faces. Then the Germans picked up on that around 1910-1920 especially the German artists in WWI saw a lot of killing, destruction and chaos. They came into
Suranand: I read in your website that when Hitler came to power, he ordered a lot of them destroyed.
Chris: Actually in most authoritarian rulers, Hitler, Stalin, etc., their art of choice is happy art, sunsets, blond people who look very strong who have a wife and a baby that they are very proud of, sun shining over behind them. They get very upset when they see art which shows mankind at a disturbed and a distorted negative way.
Suranand: Your paintings, you think it reflects the real
Chris: I think so. Especially, one of my favorites is “Soi Dog No. 1” and I think “Soi Dog No. 1” as you can see is a very beat up and battered soi dog. He probably has a one leg broken from a car running him over, he has teeth missing. You are not sure what he actually can see maybe he just can’t see anything any more.
Suranand: I can get this up right, yeah I am sure.
Chris: He has what I call a fighting spirit. You know he lives in the street. He got a favorite food cart that feeds him everyday. He got 3or 4 girl friends he likes to visit everyday.
Suranand: When Thais see this, in Thai “ma kang thanon,” they see stray dogs.
Chris: I noticed Thais are very kind to soi dogs.
Suranand: Of course.
Chris: They feed them and they take care of them, probably because that it gives them good karma.
Suranand: But it’s not an object of art, but for you it is.
Chris: Thai artists when he sees a soi dog he doesn’t think “oh, I should paint that soi dog.” Whereas I see the soi dog, I say, you know, he is kind of a symbol of Thai people tremendous resiliency, their tremendous ability to deal with adversity, and still keep going. And look forward to the next day. And soi dog has no bank account, he has no credit cards. He has no Mercedes.
Suranand: But he gets fed.
Chris: Everyday he eats pretty good food. You know it’s never too cold. His girlfriends look pretty good, at least as far as he is concerned. One in the corner over there is one of his favorites. And he has a pretty good day everyday and he is not too worried about the future.
Suranand: So it’s not all dark, although the image is.
Chris: No, I think what’s interesting in my paintings, although they are sort of dark in one way they are very hopeful in another way because they show people struggling with adversity and somehow find a way to survive. And they also show in an interesting way. For instance, my nightlife paintings never glamorize the nightlife.
Surnanand: Like this one.
Chris: For instance, this is a very famous neon sign among certain people, perhaps not the “hi-so” people, of the “Obsession” bar. It’s probably the most famous ka-toey bar in
Suranand: Many Thais are probably familiar with the sunshine artist. Why are you painting neon signs?
Chris: One reason I paint the neon signs because I think
Suranand: It’s a different point of view that you are seeing.
Chris: Right. In a lot of the magic of the Bangkok night which creates the magic which exists in the minds of people all over the world that Bangkok is somehow exciting, whether that’s just an illusion or not I don’t know, but they think it is. The neon signage in
Suranand: So you are now taking this to express that there is, I don’t know, another way of life?
Chris: I like to show that the Thai visual imagination is everywhere. It’s in the taxis, it’s in the signs, in how people dress, in how people do their make up, in how they decorate their restaurants, their clubs. You know, the visual imagination in
Suranand: I saw you start taking video clips of neon signs and put on YouTube.
Chris: The neon signs are very good but also the spirit houses are very visually skilled. The royal barges that exist are very interesting visually. You go all the way back to Sukhothai Buddhas, which are in the leading art museums in the world. There are pieces from Sukhothai in museums all over the world. That’s because the visual talent that existed even a thousand years ago was a very advanced visual talent.
Suranand: So it’s coming out
Chris: It comes out in everything. It comes out even when you go to Thai boxing, the colors, the costumes, what they wear around their arms, around their heads. Everywhere you look in Bangkok, E-san music show, for instance. Everywhere you go in Bangkok, especially if you are an outsider, you see very strong visual images everywhere, and they are created by Thai people not because that they are artists in the conscious sense but just because they think that this would be good and they make it that way.
Suranand: We need to take a break now, Chris. And we come back and talk about other paintings of yours. There are portraits and of course the ka-toeys. We will be back.
Suranand: I am with Chris Coles, who is kind enough to come with your paintings to this studio. Can you explain this one?
Chris: This is a painting of a Thai ka-toey, otherwise known as a lady-boy. And I painted quite a few lady-boys actually. And you noticed that when I paint a lady-boy, there is no or very little erotic or sexual implication. It’s basically painting the visual presentation of the lady-boy as she likes to present herself in the world of Bangkok, which is as a woman. And I got the idea actually from my daughter, Emavieve Coles, who is now a student at MIT university in the U.S., who came home from school one day and said “Oh daddy, did you realize that Leonardo, his studio in Italy was on a street where there were a lot of lady-boy hookers. And sometimes when he needed a model, he would go out on the street and pull one off the street to use as a model. And some people even say that the Mona Lisa was a lady-boy. That is why the Mona Lisa is so ambiguous.” And I said, “Wow, that’s a very interesting idea,” because
Suranand: Are you seeing things different from Thais because you are a farang?
Chris: I think being a farang in Bangkok is as though I got sent in from Mars on an interplanetary space vehicle. And everything I see I see from eyes of a Martian from another planet.
Suranand: But not every farang does
Chris: Some farangs are less alive visually.
Chris: Farang who have been here more than once and have a curiosity for actual Thai friends, how they live and how their culture comes about, like to go deeper into the Thai system and they are able to deal with the reality of Thailand without developing a negative point of view towards Thailand
Suranand: This is not negative.
Chris: I don’t think so. I think it shows
Suranand: Do you see the conflict between the day life and night life and whether they can exist together in the long run?
Chris: Well I think every city in the world,
Suranand: They are part of our society.
Chris: It is part of the diversity of a society and it’s also a very sophisticated complex outlook of a society’s problems and tensions. It’s a way of dealing with things in a fairly harmless non-violent way as oppose to blowing stuff up, killing people, and the other ways people deal with problems and tensions.
Suranand: When you paint something like this, how is it received in the States, you have a gallery in the
Chris: I have had shows in New York City, in Los Angeles, in Boston, and people are very attracted to the colors, the very vibrant colors, which are really coming out of the Bangkok color palette. I think
Suranand: Do they ask you whether “Oh! I saw this commercial of Thai society, it’s so different.” You don’t see Thai dancing in your paintings.
Chris: I think, you know, the people who go to art shows are already more highly educated group of people than the normal group of people and when they travel, they prefer to travel in a more complex manner than just the surface. And what they find interesting is getting below the surface so getting back to “Very Thai,” for instance, my friends who come here who are interested in learning about Bangkok, the first book I give them to read is not normal a tourist book but “Very Thai.”
Suranand: When I go to other countries, I don’t read normal tourist books.
Chris: They go in a Bangkok taxi not to go anywhere but to look at the dashboard, and then another taxi to look at another dashboard. And they will go to Chatuchak market in the morning or they will go to an E-san music show in some obscure part of
Suranand: There are a lot more art galleries open in
Suranand: We are like a junction here.
Chris: It’s always absorbed other cultures and transformed some bits into Thai things. So it’s a very unique society, unique culture, and it has the potential to be a leading culture in terms of artistic production, design. I think a lot of the fashion designers here are doing very well. A lot of the interior decorators in
Suranand: What about Thai artists; have you met them?
Chris: Thai artists I meet and I go to shows almost every weekend. There are a few farang artists but there are a lot of Thai artists. I was at a show recently at HOF Art which is down in an industrial building off Ratchada, and there were maybe 20 Thai artists being shown. There was a rock band playing and maybe 400-500 people, a very exciting night for an art show. And there was a lot of interesting stuff there. There are a lot of Thai artists who are not famous. A favorite of mine is Nantana Phonak, I think that’s how to pronounce her name, and she does very similar expressionist style paintings of Bangkok night life. And her paintings reveal the stress and tension in her own life.
Suranand: And the skills?
Chris: Very bright colors, very interesting images she chooses to paint.
Suranand: How long are you going to keep painting?
Chris: I think my goal is to be like Matisse, not that I am as good as Matisse, who painted up to the day he died. There is a picture of him in his bed, he can’t even get up, and someone has put a stick in his hand with a pencil at the end of it. They put a big piece of paper on the wall. And he is sitting there drawing something with his stick up until the day he died. And some of his best work is his last work.
Suranand: Well, I hope to see around
Chris: I hope I am not going to die soon
Suranand: No, no, no you gonna paint more and reflect the Thai life which other people don’t see. Thank you for being on our show.