Saturday, April 23, 2011

James Newman Reviews "Navigating the Bangkok Noir"

Ratchada Fishbowl

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 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 as many hours in a downtown goldfish bowl. 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 because 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 a Lover’s Quarrel.

Coles describes the scene.

He’s still young and naive, learning how to live. She’s spent the last five years working in a Bangkok bar, at least three lifetime compared to him. Both twenty-three, they’re not from 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 our 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 by an excellent introduction by Christopher G. Moore – ‘Noir is more that 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 full 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, in 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 Ubon 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.

Let’s join him.

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