Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bangkok Post's Sean Trembath Interviews Chris Coles

View from the dark side: Bangkok Noir artist Chris Coles has a unique perspective of the city

(May 12, 2011 - Bangkok Post - Reporter: Sean Trembath)

The Bangkok that Chris Coles paints is not the one you see on postcards. He focuses on the darker side, and the widely diverse collection of people who populate the city at night.

Chris Coles with one of his works.

Coles is heavily involved in the Bangkok Noir movement, a collection of artists, writers and film-makers whose work is grounded in what some would call the seedier side of Bangkok. He paints bar girls, sex tourists, people new to the nightlife and those for whom it is only life they've got left.

Rather than straight portraiture, Coles employs a colourful Expressionist style reminiscent of early 20th century French painters such as Matisse. The colours evoke the lights and the chaos that characterise the establishments Coles draws his inspiration from.

Earlier this year Coles released Navigating the Bangkok Noir, a book collecting paintings done from 2004 to 2007. He continues to paint, and plans to release more books in coming years.

Coles sat down with us to discuss coming to Thailand, developing the Noir style, and the different ways people look at Bangkok.

How did you get to Bangkok?

I first came to Bangkok in the mid-90s. I used to work in Hollywood, and I came here as a production executive on a really big, stupid movie called Cutthroat Island. I had never been in Asia before, and it was a great experience.

A self portrait by Coles.

The movie itself was just awful, but getting to know Thailand and Southeast Asia was a life-changing experience. I got to know a lot of Thais - we had hundreds working for us - so I started coming back here to visit.

Towards the end of the '90s the financial crisis was going on. It was 55 baht to a dollar and there were 600,000 condos for sale in Bangkok. I was going to buy a car when I got back to Los Angeles - I was still doing movies then - and I said, "Well that's stupid. Instead of buying a car why don't I buy a condo in Bangkok?"

When did you move here permanently and start painting?

I was going back and forth, still doing movies, but once my daughter finished high school in Los Angeles, I decided that I'd done enough movies to last me three lifetimes. I'd always painted as a hobby, so I decided to do nothing but paint. The Bangkok condo became my studio.

When did you start painting in the Bangkok Noir style?

I knew a lot of the expat writers, especially Christopher G. Moore. He and I would discuss various things. One day, I had been at the Kinokuniya bookstore looking through art books of the German Expressionists who had painted Berlin nightlife in the 1930s. The paintings would be somewhere like Ludwigstrasse in Berlin in 1930, and I'd say, "Oh, this looks just like Soi 4 at midnight on a Friday night".

I asked Chris if he knew any expats who were painting the Bangkok night, and he'd been living here for years and said he couldn't think of one. Then I asked some Thai friends about how many Thai artists were painting the Bangkok night, and there were very few. In Berlin, there were thousands of guys painting the Berlin nightlife. In Paris in 1900 all the artists lived in Montmartre, which was the centre of Paris nightlife. And they were painting all that stuff - Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin.

So I said to Chris, "Maybe I should do it" and he said I should. I started using the Bangkok night as a setting to do these Expressionist style paintings, which use a very unrealistic colour scheme and a lot of distortion and exaggeration to make something dramatic and exciting and more interesting than it might be in actual fact.

Do you think Bangkok Noir is the most accurate way to view Bangkok?

I think any large complex city like New York, London, Paris, Bangkok, Shanghai, Saigon, you can take various views of the city, because the city has a lot of different dimensions to it. And they all have their legitimacy. I don't think there is any single view which can encompass a large complex city.

The Tourist Authority Thailand view - serene, exotic, harmonious, tranquil, peaceful Bangkok - is fair enough. You can have that view, and take photographs of it and make it look that way, but that's really only one view, whereas the Bangkok Noir view is another, taking the same city. We sometimes make jokes about the TAT view, but we don't say it's not a legitimate view, it's just another way of looking at Bangkok.

Everyone has their own reason for consuming different views of a city they live in. Some people like the fairytale version of the city because it makes them feel better. In LA, someone might think Disneyland is wonderful, whereas I like the Port of Los Angeles, with all its industrial machines. It's the same with New York, London, Paris, and Bangkok.

What does Bangkok provide for a creatively minded expat?

The expats - who are not necessarily doing art or novels, but also blogs, journalism, or something sort of interesting - they come to Bangkok with an open mind, and they want to get to know modern Asia. They see stuff they never would have imagined would have been here.

They start reading books, they start meeting people. They go out of their way to meet diverse people, not just expats from their own little world: Thais, Asians, Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Arabs.

Their whole world is starting to change as an expat who has come to Bangkok in 2011 because they are open to the experience. They had some need inside them for a more diverse, more interesting world that they wanted to be part of. And Bangkok can give that to them, and can give them a whole new life experience which takes them some place in their life they never would have gone to otherwise.

Bangkok has so many distractions. There are so many things that are so easy to just go and do and have fun, that in order to get something done here, something of note, you have to really focus, and sort of ask yourself what do you really want to do here, in your time on Earth, and in Bangkok.

That self-creation and self-imagination that takes place among a certain group of expats here who end up doing really interesting things in Bangkok is part of what makes what they do interesting. They came here, accepted the challenge of modern Bangkok, engaged with modern Bangkok, engaged with modern Bangkok in a creative and intelligent way, and made something out of their experience here bigger than what they would have done otherwise in their life, and bigger than what would have happened in Bangkok if they hadn't been here.

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