Berlin to Bangkok Night Line
Jade Conrad interview with Chris Coles -
ENCOUNTER Dec 2012
something is nothing but an act of profound
― Rainer Maria Rilke, The Poet's Guide to Life
When Expressionism as a movement
and as a painting style first appeared in Germany in the beginning of the 20th
century, it was not only a reaction to the previous reigning era of
Impressionism in art, it was also a response to a widespread anxiety about
humanity’s increasingly discordant relationship with the world and the loss of
feelings of authenticity and spirituality. Capitalism was on the rise,
rapid urbanization shattered the safety of traditional social molds and it’s
by-products, alienated, wandering, suffering individuals sprawled across the city of
Berlin and by the 1920’s, the rest of Europe.
The subjects depicted by the Expressionist artists like
Beckmann, Nolde and Kirchner were very often the creatures of the night, the
decadent consumers, drinkers and customers of the bars, brothels and dance
halls, the prostitutes, dancers and cheap street girls, all tired, weary,
troubled, horrible and horrified. And apparently all having fun, or at least pretending to have fun, while the world
was falling apart…Expressionism grew later into the abstract expressionism
confirming perhaps that the more senseless the world is, the more abstract the art
The last we saw of Expressionism was, again starting in
Germany, the Neo-Expressionist School of the 1980’s. And then – surprisingly,
but not at all unlikely, another Expressionist artist surfaced in Bangkok. Chris Coles is
an American painter who worked in a movie industry before settling in Bangkok
in the late 1990’s – to paint. He is a member of the Bangkok Noir Movement and
the only painter among the well known artists who gather around it, like the
writers John Burdett and Christopher Moore.
When I first saw his paintings, the swirling, swaying,
exaggerated brushstrokes often outlined in deadly black, they reminded me of
just how destructive and life-enhancing the power of the Expressionistic style
is. And, strangely, how these last almost hundred years since Nolde walked the
night streets of Berlin, have passed
seamlessly, travelling home on the night train to Bangkok.
Chris Coles has had four
exhibitions in Bangkok,
the latest one at the FCCT will run until mid-January 2013. He is also
an author of “Navigating Bangkok Noir”, an utterly fascinating book presenting
some of his works, all accompanied by the stories of people inhabiting them.
Coles is incredibly articulate, informed and deep in his observations. For
someone who is really an outsider, an observer of the world he paints,
struggling not to get sucked into it, he is an unusual Expressionist painter,
but no less authentic for that.
Which of your Bangkok
exhibitions has been the most comprehensive?
My first one. It was in a gallery owned by one of the
richest farangs who ever lived in Thailand. He had a company here
with 25 thousand employees, made millions of dollars and was one of the most
significant modern art collectors in Thailand. His name was Liam
Ayudhkij O’Keefe, he had this huge gallery with four floors of exhibition space
in Pattaya, now closed, when he became ill and died this past year. He was
displaying not only art by painters like me, but also showing works from his
private collection which includes almost several thousand paintings, mostly by
the best Thai artists. He had a great eye for art. If works from his collection
were displayed in a national gallery people would go there in thousands to see
them. He chose only the best, edgy, innovative, most interesting. He could get
all these pieces because rich Thai collectors didn’t like them. When I had my
show there, over 100 of my paintings were exhibited , and at the same time some of the
best Thai artists were also shown.
Were you the only foreign painter who had an exhibition
There were also some other foreign artists who had shows
there and some works from very famous foreign artists like David Hockney, one
of which was right next to one of my paintings. I was in an artist’s heaven. I
was in this great gallery and I was greatly honored. And that was my first show
The theme of your latest exhibition at the FCCT is the
link between your work and that of the German Expressionists. How do you
explain this link?
The exhibition is entitled “The Paintings from the Bangkok
Night”. It reflects the settings of my paintings which are also the setting of
books by John Burdett and Christopher G. Moore. The paintings show scenes and
faces, close-ups of actual people from the Bangkok Night. FCCT is frequented by
writers and international journalists, many of whom like my work and have
written about it. I'm showing some of my large canvases. But as I often note when I
talk about my work, all my paintings start as small watercolors and some of
which I later develop into larger formats. I picked up this technique from Emil
Nolde who used to start all his paintings as 5x7 inch watercolors. He is my
favorite Expressionist artist and I thought, well if it worked for Nolde, it
should work for me. I always start small, finish it, look at it later and if I
still like it, I make a big version of it. I also like working with
watercolors, you can get many different visual effects with this technique
which you cannot get with acrylic.
Now, about FCCT: it is a very special place at a very
special location in Bangkok. It has been there for 50 years and in that same
room sat kings, prime ministers, diplomats, people who ran financial systems,
bankers, really famous authors. That room has had within these 50 years almost everybody
who has done anything of note in SE Asia. That’s why I felt I needed to give a
talk. It’s FCCT!
This was also the first talk I ever gave in my life. I
talked about my obsession with German Expressionism and about how I acquired the
expressionist style and way of looking at things, as a way to convey my
thoughts, feelings, views and ideas about what I see when I go out into the
Bangkok Night: the people, the economic structure and sociology of it. I look
at it in a very similar way, at least in my view, as the German Expressionists looked at Berlin from the 1910’s and into the
1920’s. When I first set my eyes on the night life in Bangkok, I thought, wow, that looks so much
the German Expressionist paintings. I went to the Kinokuniya boostore at
Emporium, which at that time had a wonderful art section and looked up the
monographs of Grosz and Dix and I was
stunned, thinking, this looks just like the street scene I saw last night, this
guy from a Berlin street of 1920’s, that’s the same guy I saw at a bar on Soi
3! Some of Expressionist paintings look so much like Bangkok today, as if they painted them there…
"Old Mamasan" - Chris Coles
Would you therefore call yourself an Expressionist
Well, the style is the same, or it is very close to the
Expressionist style, most particularly to that of Emil Nolde.
This closeness is quite intriguing. The Expressionists
were showing their own attitudes to and feelings about the social situation of
the 1920’s which was very harsh, very decadent, often ugly and painful. Like
Kirchner, one of them, said: “Everyone who renders directly and honestly
whatever drives him to create is one of us“. These artists, they lived those
times, they were part of that world, not just observers. Those were the times
when people started to fall out on each other, times of disassociation, of
alienation… We do live in a similar way today, but this is still a very
different world from our Western world. Here, you are an outsider. Can you say
that you really feel and understand this world? Are you expressing yourself
through your paintings like the Expressionists did or are you just recording
what you see in a way similar to theirs?
I’ve been in and out of SE Asia since 1995 now, which is 17
years and I’ve been all over, I’ve seen a lot of people, seen and been a part
of a lot of situations and to me the SE Asia of 2000’s, although not the same
as Berlin of 1920’s, shares some deep similarities with it. For example, SE
Asia is going through a tremendously rapid social change, old structures are
under terrific pressure and new structures want to be born, there is a huge social
movement from the countryside to the cities, very similar to what was happening
in Germany of the 1920’s. Millions of people are moving from their villages and
coming to Bangkok to work at factories, to work at night clubs, hotels,
restaurants. They are no longer rural people, they are urban people. This is
very similar to the Central Europe of the
1920’s. There was so much violence in Europe between 1905 and 1920, millions of
people were killed in wars, riots, repression, strikes, social chaos… Now look
at the SE Asia: Khmer Rouge, all the insurgencies in Burma, in Southern
Thailand, Red shirts, Yellow shirts, the coups in Thailand, the war in Vietnam,
millions have died, tremendous levels of violence have swept across SE Asia over the
past 50 years. Parts of it are still reflected in what we are looking at in Bangkok….Another similarity is a great technological change
and development that happened in Europe of
1920s and that was so threatening to people. Those who were in power felt
threatened by the ones coming up with new ideas and new technologies. They felt
that they were stealing their money… Just compare that to the enormous rise in
sales of mobile phones in Thailand.
Just some fifteen years ago maybe 10,000 people had mobile phone, now we are
talking about 70 million mobile phone users, even the poorest people have them.
Before it was the commodity of the rich, then mobile companies lowered
their prices and made fantastic profits. Again, in Germany of the 1920, most
economic power was in hand of newly rich entrepreneurs, old German elites who
owned lot of land felt pressured and threatened by the social and technological
How does this great, on-going change in Thailand reflect itself in every day life or, rather every night life in Bangkok? Is, for example,
the motif of a prostitute as powerful here and now as it was in the 1920’s for
the German Expressionists? They used it a symbol of a relationship between
people without any emotion, something that capitalism brought to the world.
They still symbolize alienated relationships. They are the
symbols of commoditized labor. The transition we experience here is as great as
it has been in the beginning of the capitalist era. People here make
interplanetary travels within the space of few years, months sometimes. Just a
while ago these bar girls were in their villages, surrounded by rice fields,
now they’re moving among huge plasma screens, among people from all the world,
communicating and doing business with them. It is hugely bewildering and
disturbing. The speed of change, that is. Europeans went through some dramatic
changes between 1910 and 1945, but it was perhaps a slower moving change in
"Party TIme Nana Plaza" - Chris Coles
At a deeper level, are you trying to express your own
view on this particular symbolic commerce? The consumers, be them Thai or
foreign, in your paintings are terrifying, sad, grotesque, lost, decadent,
dangerous…. All of these things and so much more. What are your feelings for
the people you paint? And for their business?
When I started painting the Bangkok Night, which was
probably eight or nine years ago (now I have almost a thousand paintings of the
Bangkok Night), I was just painting the actual situations and actual people.
However, over time, as I learned more and more about the structure of the
Bangkok Night, I began to understand the underlying economic structure of it,
how it was working, who was benefiting and who was not, and how the labor was
being organized, and how much labor was required to make it all go, and who the
labor was and where did that labor come from, and what happened to this labor
over the years.
There is this girl, the Patpong Mona Lisa, a Khmer Thai girl
I knew, I’ve known her for about nine years, I’ve seen her work in many
different places, I’ve never been her boyfriend, I just knew her, talked to her
and painted her. She used to go to Malaysia to work too. I learned a
lot from her, precisely because I’ve never been a customer. She talked to me in
a way she never would to a customer. I gave her copies of the paintings, I gave
her my book… through her I followed the whole process of what happens to these
working girls, from the moment when they come in, live and work in this huge
factory which is the Bangkok Night and how they eventually, with some
exceptions, become a collateral damage, become casualties. Most of the girls
who come to the Bangkok Night, without whom there would be no Bangkok Night,
suffer very negative effects coming out of this enterprise. In order to make it
run smoothly, the Bangkok Night needs every year another fresh 100,000 girls.
Are these acquisitions organized in some way?
It’s an organic system. There is an organic organizational
structure to it. There is no one with an excel sheet and an MBA in Night Life
Labor Organization out there, there is no need, everyone knows how it works.
The basic premise of the 100,000 girls in my view, is that they have to be
girls from very poor families, with some rare exceptions, they have very low
level of education, generally speaking they have one or two children before
they reach the age of twenty, and they
have great financial obligations towards them because there is no husband or
father to contribute. And of course they, if they are oldest daughters, have
absolute obligation to help their parents financially and most of the girls’
parents are rural farmers and never make more than one or two thousand dollars
a year throughout their whole life. Once they are too old to work, there is no pension, the only
money they could possibly hope for is coming from their daughters. So, these
girls who have all these obligations and very little educational skills, can
either work for minimum wage which is about 7000 THB a month or they can go
into the night life where an average lowest monthly pay is 15-20,000 THB per
month. There are a lot of girls who make 30-40,000 THB a month, even with no farang
customers. And then, some girls are making a lot of money, 200,000 THB +.
They only work with very wealthy customers, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, at the top
level, they own their own condos, their own cars, and basically become fixed
for life. They have very high level of
social skills, are very beautiful, often quite talented, they are the winners
of Bangkok Night system. So, there you have it, this is the scope.
"Late Night Rainbow Agogo" - Chris Coles
I read in one of the reviews about your art you were
being compared to Toulouse-Lautrec, who was also very close to women that they used
to refer to in his times as the “Friends of the Night”…. Are you as close and
deeply understanding to your “Friends of the Bangkok Night”?
I know many people in the bars I usually go to as an
observer, the girls, mamasans, customers. I have accumulated quite a bit of
knowledge about them over time.
Toulouse-Lautrec was really close to his girls, yes, spending time with
them when they were not working, when they were just doing every-day things,
taking baths, sleeping. I haven’t done those things. There are other things
that separate us too. I think that in Thailand,
the difference between how girls look and behave when they are working and when
they are off is so stark, it has very little in common with Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris. And I don’t really
know how I would paint those girls in the daylight. When you see some of them
in the daytime, on the Sky Train or in a shopping center, for instance, some of
them look so “normal”, even middle class. That’s probably why I haven’t done
On the other hand, what I have as subjects are people that
Toulouse-Lautrec could not even dream of. The ladyboys, for instance. They
fascinate me as human beings. They are often highly skilled, completely self
made, self designed. Very often the only thing by which you can tell them from
girls are their shoulders, their bone structure; some of them are so thin, they
don’t eat, they so passionately want to look like women, fragile, feminine
They also exercise a lot, many of them a health fanatics
really and because they don’t want to build up muscles, they do a pilates-style
exercise, to elongate the muscles, gain shape and tone…When I ask them how they
do it, how they manage to achieve this look, they can go on for hours
explaining it in detail how hard they work…but they don’t last very long, maybe
till they are in their mid thirties when all the silicone, homones/drugs and
plastic surgery wears off. Then they disappear into the night.
"Girl from Chiang Mai" - Chris Coles
What are your feelings, as an artist, for these girls,
for the ladyboys, for the customers as well?
I am very empathetic towards them all. And I have a great of
affection for some of these girls. Had I met them in California, they could have been my girl
friends, but here, I cannot do that. In order to paint them, I have to remain
on a non-customer, non-boyfriend basis with them. Because, once you are a
customer, you are a customer, that’s it. You are treated in a certain way that
cannot fundamentally change, they don’t open up. If I want to paint them, I
need to know them, I need to know what’s going on, underneath the smile,
underneath the make-up. I don’t need to see their moves, I want to know how
they feel, I want to paint what’s inside really. I’m not painting the surface.
A lot of these girls in my paintings look in pain, sad, they look distorted.
When you look at them moving around the bars, just passing by, they look great.
They look like Miss Universe sometimes, but I know that under that Miss
Universe look, they have so many problems, so many thoughts going on…
How about the customers? How do you see them? I can
imagine they must interest you as well, this amazing range of men, driven by
desire, coveting, looking for new sensations, all different, all united in this
There are so many, so many of them…from the lowest to the
top. Some I like, some I dislike, some I simply find revolting. You first have
to grasp just how big the Night Life business in Thailand is; it’s not just
this big, or this big….it’s almost incomprehensible how huge it is, far more
huge then, let’s say, General Motors or Mercedes factory plants. This structure
involves millions of people. I think that there about two million girls
involved and as for customers, anything between 80 and 100 million transactions every year.
Most of the customers are Thai, 90 percent probably. But the Thai guys behave completely
differently than your cliché farang customers.
They would never walk openly down Sukhumwit taking girls for shopping, never.
The style is completely different, the style is behind closed doors…There are
members-only clubs, like Pegasus, Poseidon …which represent a completely
different level, very, very high level. But there also very low level places
for Thai customers, motorcycle taxi drivers, poor workers… every level is
serviced accordingly, whatever their income bracket. But whatever level of
customers we are talking about, the meetings are always off the streets, behind
the closed doors. That’s why the general impression is that the Night Life
customers are mostly farang, because you can see them going about what
they’re after. But what you can see as a bar action is only a small part of
this universe. Most of it is invisible. You look at this building, you think
it’s a hotel. No, there are at least 700 girls working there, but you don’t see
it, you don’t know it.
Amazing as these figures are, what one can see is the
fascinating part, isn’t it? This was what attracted you to this scene the first
time you came here. The night with all the colors, lights, movement…or was the
social component, the human condition?
The visual side is very important, of course. And Thais are
very skilled at arranging the visual effects, they have very acute visual
sense, when it comes to the design, interior and exterior, of the night life at
Rachada or Soi Cowboy. It is very clever, the use of color, the use of
lighting, the neon, the little blinking lights, millions of them, the use of
mirrors, the constant sensation of movement, of something going on. Then, there
comes the use of sound, there are not one or two, but hundreds of audio tracks
going on simultaneously. It all looks so exciting, you’re so overloaded with
stimuli, including that of smells, because there are thousands of food stalls
all over the place. It’s a complete overload. Can you imagine, someone coming
from Sweden or Northern Germany or Scotland where things are kind of quiet, and
being immersed into all this at once?! Their senses are so assaulted they
cannot think straight. Which is the whole idea! Look at them, be they European,
Iranian, Arab, Russian or Chinese, they all look so dazed and confused, they
can act on a crazy impulse that they never thought they could before…this is
the kind of a world that exists out there, in the Bangkok Night.
That’s what my paintings reflect, this visual density, the
pulsating colors…they are just saying; “Paint me.”
So, yes, my first impulse to paint the night scene was
triggered by the visual. I didn’t know anything. I wanted to paint this visual
magic. As I worked my way in, from the outside into the inside, I got to know
how it all functions and then I got really interested. And I kept painting, more, more and more....
With you background and your many talents, you could live
wherever you want. You chose Bangkok.
Is it the Expressionist in you responsible for that? Is there really no other
place in the world that could drive you to make such paintings, to paint every
day with such fervor?
it is. My lasting commitment started when I got to know the people, the girls.
I have met and got to know well so many beautiful, skilled, personable young
Thai girls who are in this business and who are being destroyed by it. It is
just heart breaking. This is where the social component comes in. I kept asking
myself “Why? Why are they all here? What’s driving them towards this business?”
I got my answers and somehow became part of the fabric of this system, not any
more just the guy who admires the neon lit exteriors.
"Waiting" - Chris Coles
How much of you is there in your art? The persona of the
artist is so crucial to the Expressionism, the world painted is the world
distorted, or rather, revealed by the
feelings of the artist.
I was just caught in this multifaceted world, the world that
is SE Asia. Thailand is one of the most
beautiful and most interesting places, but it’s not the sunsets of Phuket that
I admire. It is the small every day things as described in the “Very Thai” book
that I find so fascinating, so different from anything we know in the West. We
never learned about the East in school. It is so complex and so vast, there are
bits and pieces of so many different things around here: of Hinduism, Buddhism,
Taoism, Confuciusism, Islam, animism, a bit of Portugese and Persian influences
from the 1400’s... I find this world such an amazing intellectual puzzle. And I
love the density, the diversity, 16 million people, different cultures,
religions, they all look different, speak different languages, all kinds of
foreigners have been coming here in the past and are still coming now.
And what is so important and interesting is this great
change is still happening here, the rapid modernization, the fast growth, it is
all so modern…and then there is a gap; you get off the Sky train, wander into
some sub soi and you find yourself two hundred years back in time. And that is Thailand too.
It is so amazing. Just compared to South Korea, in terms of colors, it
is so rich, it’s off the charts what you can see and find here, there are no
limits as to what Thais can do with colors. Just to make an even more striking
comparison, take for example, Maine, USA, where I
come from: if you’re after gray, dark green and brown, that’s a place for you. What you
have here is a pure abandonment, it is an orgy of colors…
What is so different about Bangkok when you compare to other places that
also have rich and diverse night scenes? What is it that draws so many
foreigners to come, and stay, here?
There are other interesting cities, known for their night
life, like Prague, Hamburg, Rio, Las Vegas, but there is, to my knowledge, no place
like Bangkok. This is the biggest night entertainment zone in the world, in the
history of mankind. Like right now, tonight, there are at least three hundred thousand
people in the Ratchada Night Life District alone, looking for fun. Paris of the 1920’s would
be a relatively close comparison. Montmartre,
just a lot bigger, with much more neon and a lot more diversity. There is so
much energy flowing here, the craziness, the wackiness, the horror, this
constant flux of people, of lives, you feel as if you live right in the moment.
This is it. It is all happening here. And there is so much happening. You are
in the middle of a volcanic eruption.
How about those foreigners, who are artists, like
yourself, writers, musicians? There are quite some in Bangkok. How do you cope with this endless
You really have to be very careful not to get sucked in and
disappear. My friends and colleagues from the Bangkok Noir Movement, the
writers, John Burdett and Christopher G. Moore, some very astute journalists,
we all observe, we try to understand this world and to do something with it,
something which is beyond consuming it or using it, with our different artistic
expressions. We are all studying, analyzing, writing, painting this world, this
city. We are bringing it closer to the world, telling the world that Bangkok is
not just one street called Patpong, which used to be a common cliché. This
place is dense, complex, multi-layered and real, however unbelievable sometimes.
"Party Time Voodoo Bar" - Chris Coles
Tell me about the reception of your art in Thailand
and in the West.
There some Thai art collectors of note, some of them quite
wealthy, who buy my paintings. Some of my Thai customers are related to the
royal family, some are middle class. When it comes to Thai art students, they
are intrigued by my art, but they have been taught not to paint ugly,
disturbing things. For them art is about beauty. They cannot understand that I
am not interested in painting "beautiful" or "suay". They see their task as artists is
about painting something beautiful that makes people feel good and relaxed. Not
all Thai artists are like that, but most of them are. Most Thai art collectors
are like that too.
I sell lot of my paintings in Singapore, I had some great
exhibitions there. They have a number of first class art galleries there. I had
several exhibitions in LA, one in New
York. My great wish is to have an exhibition in
Berlin and bring my Bangkok Night paintings to the home of Expressionism.
I would like to see more Thai artists painting the night
life scene, because it reveals all kinds of social and personal issues which
are not just Thai, but are universal. It is a wonderful visual setting with a
lot of exaggerations and extremes. This was the reason why so many German
Expressionists used the night life as a setting. I would like also to encourage
farang artists to live in Bangkok
and paint. But it is difficult not to be sucked into the gravity field of this
strange planet and disappear. That’s happened to a lot of people here. It takes
a certain type of a farang to endure this world, to stay focused and tell a
story about it, like Burdett, Moore, Stephen Leather, myself.
I am kind of like an Odysseus, tied to the mast of my art,
resisting the call of the sirens of the infinite, endless Bangkok Night..
"Party Time" - Chris Coles
Labels: Bangkok night, Beckmann, Berlin, Chris Coles, christopher g. moore, Dix, Emil Nolde, Encounter magazine, expressionism, FCCT, Germany, Grosz, Jade Conrad, john burdett, Kirchner, Liam Ayudhkij, Noir