Sunday, November 04, 2012

German Expressionism and the Bangkok Night

(talk delivered by Chris Coles at FCCT Bangkok Oct 19, 2012)
"To Oskar Panizza” by George Grosz
Tonight, I’m going to talk a little about German Expressionist art.  Not as an academic or art historian, but as an artist.  What it is I find so interesting and like about it and how I use it in my series of paintings from the Bangkok Night.
Since I can remember, I’ve always liked Expressionist art and my favorite paintings are pretty much all by the various Expressionists, mostly German, like George Grosz, Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, Kirchner, Beckmann, Schmidt-Rottluf, Jawlensky, and also a few others like Ensor, Schiele and Kokoschka.
I find Expressionist paintings interesting - the subjects and scenes, the use of strong and often disharmonious colors, the distorted images and the rough technique. 
They’ve helped me in my efforts to shape my own version of an Expressionist style which I use to convey my thoughts, reflections and feelings about what I see when I wander through the vastness of the Bangkok nightlife industry’s settings and people.
"Ratchada Poseidon” by Chris Coles
I’m often asked what exactly is the Bangkok Night?  The answer usually depends on who you ask.
There’s the so-called real or objective version which turns out to be so subjective, it’s difficult to find two people who would agree on what it is.
Then there’s the mythic version which doesn’t really describe an objective reality but is more an entertaining yet hazy cloud of accumulated lore, magazine and newspaper articles, tv reports, sensational and otherwise, pop music songs like “One Night in Bangkok”, stories told by friends and acquaintances, and various blog posts, for instance, the Stickman Weekly Column or the Bangkok Eyes blog which presents a detailed, chronological history of the Bangkok Night.
The mythic version’s usually a little out-of-date as the actual Bangkok Night is always in a constant state of flux in terms of venues, demographics, geography, fashions, fads, people and, as a result, our accumulated perception always lags behind.
“Self Portrait” by Otto Dix
Other versions of the Bangkok Night are presented in the novels of various writers like Christopher G. Moore, John Burdett, Stephen Leather, Jake Needham and Dean Barrett.
Or in Nick Nostitz’ “Bangkok’s Twilight Zone”, a brutal yet brilliant Expressionist-style book of photos set in the Patpong District of the 1990’s, and "Bangkok Noir", with photographs by Ralf Tooten and text by Roger Willemsen.
There are also versions contained in films like the original very gritty BANGKOK DANGEROUS, in the recent completely dumb and often unintentionally hilarious HANGOVER II and in the recent, very evocative and powerful short film, TRUE SKIN, of Bangkok-in-the-brutal-future directed and shot by a young director from LA named Stephan Zlotescu and a young Korean-American DP who goes by the name, "H1".
There are further versions of the Bangkok Night contained in the various music videos that play on Thai tv, especially the Isan music channels, which often feature storylines of young Isan males and females migrating to Bangkok from the rural countryside and working in various nightlife venues.
And then there’s the Bangkok Night as contained in my paintings, which is the version I’m going to talk about tonight.
“Bangkok Boys Town” by Chris Coles
To me, the Bangkok Night is a vast, dark, edgy and noir universe.  It has a powerful density and velocity, a kind of Dark Energy. 
It’s full of nihilistic motifs and themes, populated by many different kinds of people from all over Asia and all over the world who, in the universe of the Bangkok Night, are often revealed in ways they might not have intended or wanted to be revealed, in ways that might contradict the version of themselves, that they project or present in their ordinary or so-called normal lives, their daytime lives, when they’re suited up for work, constrained and subdued in all sorts of ways that are necessary for them to survive, replicate and succeed in terms of careers, families, financial security.
“Metropolis” by George Grosz
Like the Paris Night circa 1900 painted by the Fauvists or the Berlin Night early 1900’s painted by the Expressionists, the “Bangkok Night” is a world without daylight or sunshine.                          
It’s all about darkness, glowing neon, and various man-made and multi-colored lighting: florescent, blinking, reflected and otherwise.                
There are multiple and constantly over-lapping music tracks and sound effects.
All different kinds of women and men, and ladyboys, dressed up and costumed for the night, not for the day.  Thousands of them, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, over the months and years, millions.  Of every size and shape, beautiful, not beautiful, young, not-so-young.
From everywhere in Thailand, Asia and the world -  Isan, Thai, Khmer, Chinese, Lao, Burmese, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Arab, Iranian, German, French, Italian, Turks, English, Scottish, Scandinavian, American, Australian, African.
“Thaniya Plaza” by Chris Coles
In my view, a key element in the Bangkok Night, is density and velocity. 
Without density and velocity, kind of like one of those gigantic Black Holes in Deep Space, the Bangkok Night would lose much of its power, its brightness, its almost irresistible attraction, its ability to pull in millions of people.
Another element in the Bangkok Night are the extreme situations, often very personal, dramatic and acted out in strange ways in full public view, many of which I use as raw material for my paintings, in which I try to convey not only the illusion of excitement and desire, but also the poignancy.
“Midnite Bar” by Chris Coles
The ugliness, the momentary glimpses of wonder and beauty and the enormous loss of human potentials, damaged lives and tragedy.                        
The Bangkok Night is full of ambiguities, every kind of shading.  Nothing is ever quite clear.  It’s complex, multi-layered.  Sometimes, it has an ironic overlay, sometimes a touch of “noir” humor lurking somewhere underneath.                              
In my paintings, the men, women, ladyboys and even the soi dogs are portrayed at their best, in-between and worst, usually caught up in a Darwinist dog-eat-dog setting, desiring, being desired, wanting, being wanted.  Compulsively, sometimes mindlessly, devouring or being devoured, consuming or being consumed.
“Australian Ladyboy Sex Tourist” by Chris Coles
It’s a world where only the strongest and luckiest manage to avoid being sucked into the vortex and to survive completely intact.
A bit like the world of all those bugs and small reptiles we watch on the Discovery Channel sometimes, often late at night before we go to sleep, simultaneously horrified and yet somehow fascinated, hypnotized as the various bugs and reptiles zoom back and forth between being predators and then suddenly, without warning, becoming prey.

The science fiction-like close-ups of the monstrous, brilliantly multi-colored grasshopper devouring the desperately struggling weevil.             
Then suddenly, the grasshopper itself devoured by the even more frightening giant spider.
And then the giant spider being consumed by some kind of almost surrealistic insatiable lizard. 
And so on.
The Expressionist lens seems to find a strange kind of pleasure in all this…                                     
In German it’s called schadenfreude, a kind of guilty pleasure derived while watching from a detached “outside” perspective, someone else’s misfortune, unhappy or tragic circumstances.
“Two Dancers” by Emil Nolde
The Expressionist artists often portrayed Berlin nightlife early 1900’s with a wild enthusiasm, using a rugged in-your-face style, with vibrant off-kilter, often startling, colors and contrast.
Often, especially in the early days, their paintings were scorned as being way too ugly, disturbing, disconcerting, and all around unpleasant.
Art critics, government officials and ordinary people accused the artists of not only being despicable, degenerate and disgusting, but also in desperate need of drawing lessons.
In my own case, I remember one particular blogger/critic who once posted, “Coles paints by sticking a paint brush in his ass and then wiggling around over the canvas….”
And another blogger/critic who, more recently, wrote, “the absurd paint-making of Chris Coles turns the red light districts of Thailand into a seedy laboratory for his masturbatory experiments in appallingly offensive applied finger-painting”.
“Midnight Patpong” by Chris Coles
Luckily, over time, in some weird almost inexplicable way, often, unfortunately, after the actual artist dies, these very same incredibly distasteful, ugly and disturbing Expressionist paintings sometimes, but not always, became beautiful and even important, and are suddenly, on a daily basis, presented to an adoring public in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, and bought and sold at auctions for millions of dollars by some of the world’s most cunning billionaires.
No one quite knows why, not even the art historians or famous art critics.  It’s kind of a mystery.
Which sort of begs the question as to why it is we’re interested and attracted to these bits of paper and canvas smeared with various colors and shapes which we call art?
I think it’s a bit like our fascination at seeing those photos of exploding galaxies and star fields - the brilliant colors, the violent destruction and creation on such a colossal scale that it kind of transfixes us, makes our brain stop in its tracks, causes us to wonder, even take a few moments from the daily routine of our lives to ponder.                                 
All of which fits in with my own effort to create a series of paintings that capture the settings and people that make up the Bangkok Night in the early 21st century, a mixture of what’s actually there and what I imagine to be there, sprawling across miles and miles of an immense, diverse, multi-layered and complex metropolis, employing and servicing hundreds of thousands of people, in the course of a single night, millions in a single year, from all over the world. 
“Soi Cowboy” by Chris Coles
The whole thing so huge, it puts off a pulsating glow and seen from above, resembles one of those gigantic galaxies or starfields in Deep Space.
But, whereas Deep Space is 65 billion light years across and has billions and billions of twinkling stars, the Bangkok Night, especially very late, say around 2am on a Saturday night, is infinite, with no precise beginning or end, with tens of thousands of neon signs, and trillions and trillions of those little fairy lights, all of them, twinkling.                                
As a final thought, let me say that, at least to me, many of the Expressionist paintings from early 1900’s Berlin seem to have an intersection point with the early 2000’s “Bangkok Night.
I think it’s interesting that Expressionist art in the 1900 to 1930 or so time frame in Germany blossomed amidst a period of social chaos, dis-integration of traditional structures and the large-scale slaughter that took place in and around World War One.
Which, while not perhaps exactly the same, is not completely unlike the often violent transformation and rapid change that has occurred and is continuing to occur, in Asia and Southeast Asia over the past 70 or so years.
“Explosion” by George Grosz
High-velocity industrialization, immense capital formation and wealth accumulation, massive population shifts from rural areas to cities, rapid structural changes and the globalization of millions of previously somewhat isolated people and cultures.
In my view, there are clearly links between Expressionist art and the social and political circumstances of the world within which it was created.            
Just as there are links between my own paintings, as well as the paintings of other artists, Thai and “farang”, working in modern Bangkok, and the social and political circumstances of Thailand and Southeast Asia in our present time.
“Siamese Smile” by Chatchai Puipia
I don’t think these links between art and the broader society are necessarily didactic, straight-forward, explicit or completely clear, nor should they be. 
Part of what’s interesting and valuable about art is that it explores and makes accessible areas of our lives, world, feelings and perceptions that might be distasteful, ambiguous, hidden or partially hidden, not easy and, perhaps even impossible, to fully understand in a rational, conscious manner.
At the end of the day, art provides us with a place where, for a few moments at least, we can put aside our words, daily worries, various fixed ideas and viewpoints and absorb the colors and shapes, the relations and implicit meanings between all the colors and shapes, and, without physical risk or danger, let ourselves be drawn into the world of a painting with our thoughts and feelings free to wander, wherever, even into and through the sometimes disturbing and socially disdained world of the Bangkok Night.

***For a French translation of the German Expressionism and the Bangkok Night talk at FCCT, go to the following link:

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