Friday, January 25, 2013

Three Reviews of NAVIGATING THE BANGKOK NOIR

from the Goodreads site, reviews by Kevin Cummings, James Newman and Tom Vater........

Kevin Cummings:

Since writing pros James A. Newman and Tom Vater have both written extensive reviews of this book and both review are excellent, I'll keep mine brief.

I remember discovering the art of Chris Coles over 10 years ago.  My first thought was: this guy seems interesting.  Nobody is doing what he is doing.  Dozens had written about the Bangkok Night before and dozens have written about it since but in the 21st century, Chris Coles has been the indisputable leader in painting the darkness and neon of Bangkok's notorious night paths.

But he does more than paint. He provides the quintessential social commentary needed with every colored frame.  Chris Coles is to Bangkok Noir as Gary Trudeau was to Washington D.C. politics.  The efficiency of what he gets across with the written word is classic story telling, usually with conflict involved, not often with catharsis.

Like many great artists, Chris Coles is misunderstood at times. There are some who see him as a proponent or cheerleader for the pay for play sex industry in Thailand.  Not true.  Chris has merely been making an extensive documentary in his art for over a decade.

The word prolific is overused but it is not overstated in his case.  In NAVIGATING THE BANGKOK NOIR, the very best of Chris Coles over 1,000 paintings have been selected.

Christopher G. Moore writes an excellent Forward to the book explaining the world of noir that Chris Coles captures so well.

I have no idea which authors will be remembered best in the 22nd century for having written about the Bangkok night in the early 21st century, if any at ll.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that the legacy of Chris Coles, the art of Chris Coles and the words of Chris Coles will; linger well into the 22nd century and beyond.  His art, his documentary will be a reminder of a dark time.  A time that once was and never will be, exactly, that way again.

James Newman:

At first glance I thought negotiating would be a better transitive than navigating to describe the Bangkok bar-scene.  The way one negotiates an obstacle course, or say a bar fine.  A metaphorical obstacle course, fraught with dangers, the hurdles and the prices oscillate in accordance with the negotiators strengths, weaknesses, experience and beer Singha consumption.

Then I got it!

Nobody truly understands the city!  She does not really understand herself!  SHe is a new city, two hundred years and counting and full of a hodgepodge of crazies from around the world.  The word navigate spells uncharted territory.  It is a better word than negotiate.  Bangkok is for the tourists and the sex workers that find themselves washed up on her muddy banks a city yet to be navigated fully.  These are the subjects of Chris Coles' paintings.  Women working in bars.  Wenches as lost and as mean and as cruel and as happy as the men drinking in those bars.  It's a long dusty, winding road from Isaan.  A long flight back to the West.  Twice as long if you're going back.  Back empty-handed.

Bangkok noir is the end of the dream, the horrific memoir, the realization that what has motivated us for so long may not have been wholesome for the soul, the liver, nor the pocketbook.  Bangkok noir is the waking up in a hot tub with a gaggle of nubile North-Eastern women and wondering where it all went wrong.  Bangkok noir is the hundredth client serviced in an many hours in a downtown fishbowl.  The flicker of hope in a soi dog's eye.  The Arab's bent dagger.  The bargirl with a heart of gold.  The washed-out mamasan.

This is noir.

Bangkok noir is what it is becasue it isn't ever what it seems.

I arrived here ten years ago at the age of twenty-five.  I foolishly considered my previous incarnation as a Lloyds of London litigation broker would prove helpful in keeping afloat above the scams and the scum and the schemes of the city.  I was wrong.  I naively considered romance and commerce to be two separate items.  I would learn....  For the women of the night they are inseparable and absolute....  Money and love... There is no such thing as love without money and I'll say whatever you want and do whatever you please as long as the lolly keeps on coming, honey....

One of my favourite pieces in the book is Lover's Quarrel.

Coles describes the scene.

He's still you and naive, learning how to live.  She's spent the last five years working in a Bangkok bar, at least three lifetimes compared to him.  Both twenty-three, they're not frm different planets but separate solar systems, intersecting in the Bangkok night.

It's these descriptions alongside the paintings that bring Navigating the Bangkok Noir to life.  We can cook up out own stories from the paintings, but what Chris Coles does is describe them in a way that really hits the spot.  All any artist in any given medium can ever hope to achieve is to show us what we already knew, or didn't know that we knew.  But somehow we knew it.  Coles achieves this with each piece in the book.  The thrill of realization is overwhelming.  I had seen many of the paintings before the book was published and had perhaps seen some of the paintings before they were painted.  This is the magic of Bangkok noir.

The book begins with an excellent introduction by Christopher G. Moore - "Noir is more than paintings laced with plumes of cigarette smoke, bottles of beer, angry tarts and dissolute drunks" - It is and it isn't.  Moore concludes - "It is a universe of clashing colours, dramatic contrasts, jagged lines, extremes of behaviour and personality, mankind tilted on a primitive edge."

The dilemma that Chris Coles brings to light in his work is that of the struggle between the sexes and the cultures of desperately different wants and needs satisfying each other, or not, the neon-lit dollar-hungry underworld of Bangkok.  It is a world of abuse where nobody knows who is abusing who.  Who holds the power?  Is it the banker from New Jersey or the hooker from Udon Thani?  Or is it her Thai boyfriend, or the parents back home?  His job, his wife?  The weather?

This book is not only one of the finest art books to have been published thus far this year, it also points the way ahead for a colony of Bangkok artists to produce work that can be appreciated globally.  A Bangkok art movement could be afoot.  I hope it is. Coles is leading the way.

Tom Vater:

Producing great art in Thailand is difficult. It is even harder producing great art about Bangkok, the Thai capital.


On the one hand, Thai artists are constrained by wide-ranging limits on self-expression and freedom of speech. Decades of repression – occasionally both violent and deadly – of intellectuals, left-field politicians, social activists and artists, as well as high profile campaigns by the Ministry of Culture that appears concerned primarily with Thailand’s image abroad (in the same way the Catholic church or a multinational corporation spin alternative history) and countless, anything but subtle attempts to push a narrow elitist view of what it means to be Thai down the population’s collective throat, appear to have taken their toll.

Musicians, painters, film makers, poets and writers, for the most part, produce bland, non-confrontational, easy-to-consume fare, in tune with autocratic opinion-makers in the government and military. Those who do produce genuine masterpieces – like highly acclaimed film makers Pen Ek Ratanaruang, whose most recent film Headshot played Thai cinemas with a limited release for little more than week or Apichatpong Weerasethakul whose excellent Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which one the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010 – are occasionally lauded abroad, yet ignored at home.

Civil society has almost nothing to say about Thailand’s political shenanigans, and academics who raise their heads above the common swill are vilified and attacked by army generals and policemen. Sadly the quasi-fascist governments Thailand suffered through in the wake of World War II, supported by the US during the Cold War, have done terrible damage to Thailand’s current Zeitgeist.

On the other hand, millions of foreigners visit the country each year, in search of cheap holidays, beautiful beaches, great food and cheaper sex. Try as it might, Bangkok has not shaken its reputation as one of the world’s notorious sex capitals – though one might argue that Pattaya, a collection of high rises and brothels that puts Miami to shame, located a couple of hours east of the Thai capital, should actually be holding the crown as the number one Sleazeville in the region. In Thailand, if you have the money, you can buy anything readers of this page are likely to be able to imagine.

Some of the visiting foreigners love it so much, they stay. They just can’t stop rolling around in it. And some, a few, produce work about their experiences – books, films, visual art. Almost everything they write or shoot or paint is crap – cliched rubbish populated by sad stereo-types even more disturbing and one-dimensional than the Fellinis, tweekers, sex-pats and creeps that swarm from international flights into Bangkok’s airport and into the lonely tropical nights beyond, every single day of the year. Stand in the arrivals hall for an hour and watch what comes off the plane and you will see what I mean.

In recent years, several small independent publishers have given rise to a couple of genres of piss-awful ‘literature’ dedicated to those wallowing in Bangkok’s nighttime muck. On the one hand, writers like Christopher Moore and John Burdett, the best of the lot, lead a small pack of crime writers dispensing twisted tales of nefarious on-goings in the Thai capital, while there’s another batch of much worse authors who churn out books, both fiction and non fiction (it hardly matters) focused entirely on Bangkok’s sordid and tired sex for sale nightlife, dreaming up badly written tales of hapless, happy or predatory hookers. In these crummy tomes, the myths of the happy whore, the seedy but decent private eye fighting the forces of evil and the land of smiles are copied and pasted over and over again. Sadly, those millions of punters who spend most of their time propped up on a bar stool in a go-go bar in Patpong, Nana or Cowboy (those Bangkok’s nightlife areas that are frequented by foreigners), relate to most of this literary dross and provide a market for it. There are enough dumbbells out there buying into the story of swinging Bangkok to enable a whole roster of useless scribes to eke out a living, or at least provide themselves with opportunities to stroke their egos.

There are exceptions of course – artists and writers who try to approach Bangkok’s high and low life from their own personal and unique perspectives without getting their private parts caught in the recesses of passing ladyboys. The Windup Girl by Pablo Bacigalupi is an excellent novel about the Thai capital, set in the 23rd century, a time when a Monsanto-type corporation has destroyed the world and the Thais own the world’s last seed bank. Gripping drama, and yes, there’s sex thrown in, as well fascinating politics, social comment and rip-roaring action. For me, literary visions of Bangkok almost end there.

Navigating the Bangkok Noir, a book of paintings by American artist Chris Coles, takes a different route into Bangkok’s underbelly. This series of expressionist paintings in book form, published by Marshall Cavendish and accompanied by sensitive and insightful captions by the artist, somehow manages to take us to the same places that the Bangkok hacks frequent without falling for the same cliches. Perhaps painting is a better medium to portray the sadness and beauty, the darkness and the occasional rays of bright shining light – in short the unearthly glow of the Thai capital – than the written word. Perhaps, because Thailand prides itself on its anti-intellectualism, Coles’ images transcend the prostitute Disneyland of countless wasted pulp novels and bring some real dignity and, most importantly, substance to its subjects.

Coles’ paintings have a bitter-sweet glow all of their own, taking us down the crummy sois, letting us look at the city from a street dog’s perspective (who is really a German sex tourist, we are told), helping us understand that the world is unfair, and that as soon as it gets dark, unfairness goes at a premium in the City of Angels. The artist manages a difficult hat trick. His night girls are beautiful and tragic at the same time. His johns are as gross as in real life and yet they have charisma. His world is sleazy, sure, but it exists and the artist has a gentle way of explaining why it has a right to do so, just as much as any other world out there.

There is reason to paint these people – that appears to be the central premise of Coles’ work – and the artist knows how to pick his characters, men and women of an inconsequential neon-netherworld that exists primarily because it offers an escape from the equally sordid and boring but less exotic real world its inhabitants came from. The girls leave their villages because girls have very very little opportunity in Thailand and the men fly in from around the world because they can no longer cope with their lives and loves and prefer to pay for female (or otherwise) company or are so lonely that they will accept semi-literate rice farmers as MCs providing psychiatric discourse on the hang-ups of the western world.

Chris Coles catches the nuances, the small pains and tiny losses and gains that are made each night on Sukhumvit, Bangkok’s main downtown thoroughfare: he captures the tide of emotional refuse that washes up on the Thai capital’s pavements. The women emerge with dignity intact, while the men don’t emerge at all. They are what they are, empty, broken human beings who roll around in it.

Navigating the Bangkok Noir is an excellent introduction to Southeast Asia’s Interzone, to the black patches on the global map of capitalist indifference, and to the lost opportunities of thousands of young Thai women who get screwed, both literally and metaphorically, day in, day out, by their government, by society, by the cops, by peer pressure and by foreigners. I don’t see this book in the Top Ten of the Ministry of Culture any time soon.  It's got too much soul.

Labels: , , , , ,

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Artist Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory