Chris Coles on TNN 2 by Suranand Vejjajiva (broadcast in Thailand April 2009):
Hi Mr. Coles. How are you doing? I will call you Chris, Sawasdee krub.
Swasdee krub, Sabai dee mai?
I thought you are not going to speak Thai!
Suranand: Youíve been here how many years?
I first came to
Suranand: 14 years ago!
On a very big
And you got stuck here.
I was here for 6 months or so then I have a nice office in Phuket, which is a
pretty nice place to have an office. And we had boats going around
Phag-nga, Krabi and Koh Phi Phi. I said Wow! pretty nice place.
So after the movie, I went back to
What did you do in the movie?
I was a studio executive in that movie, supervising the production.
So you are a
Oh no, I am just a line guy involving with the physical aspects of the
production. I was the production manager on LA Story, for instance,
and Charlie Chaplin with Robert Downey.
Thatís a big transition towards art?
Well my favorite part of the film business has always been in the art
department. My very first job out of film school I was working on
the art department of Superman I. I was tagging around with this
very high status English designer, and later I got sidetracked into the
production side of it. But I always loved the art side of it.
And on my family, there are quite a few artists in my family. As
a hobby I always was drawing and then about 5 years ago I started doing art full
So thatís when you start seriously doing art.
I started doing shows.
Are you based here or in LA?
I kind of go back and forth a lot and go around
I see, but you spend most of the time here.
I would say all of my visual ideas, certainly the more interesting ones,
are coming from
And thatís what we are going to talk about today because you have
certainly been expressing yourself on what you see through a farang eyes, if I
may say that, of what nightlife or what life in
Yes, I think there is a tremendous advantage actually for an artist to be an
outsider because you are not inside the kind of bubble of received opinion of an
education that each country has, including the U.S. So coming into
Bangkok, my first week here working on the movie was just total chaos and
disorientation. We just have no idea as an outsider whatís going
on. Gradually I learned better to see some of the stuff that is
behind the scene and very interesting and idiosyncratic stuff which only exist
So things you see is not things I see.
Right, I see when I go to a place in
But Thais donít ask why, they just put it there?
Spirit House Japanese Karaoke Bar Sukhumvit Bangkok - Chris Coles
When you see that and you interpreted it, do you think Thais, the people
who did that painting or that sign, subconsciously or consciously put it in.
Is that what you think? Or you are interpreting it in a
I think Thais and many things Thai people do in their everyday life they
donít know why they do them actually. They just do them because
Thai people do that. There is a very interesting book call ďVery
ThaiĒ which explains to farang many very small Thai things and why they are
done exactly that way. And farang people like myself, who are very
interested in getting behind the surface in
What kind of stickers they put on
Chris: Why the taxi dashboards have all that stuff on them. And we find that kind of thing very interesting and very revealing of Thai cultural characteristics and Thai people.
VERY THAI by Philip Cornwel-Smith
A lot of people might not be familiar with your work on my show. The
paintings here are just examples. I saw your website and on
YouTube, you put your work on the screen for people who are interested to look
at. But how do your characterize your art?
Well the art is every much in the expressionist style of paintings.
The expressionist style began in Paris around 1890-1900, a lot of artists
painting Paris nightlife scenes, like the Moulin Rouge scenes by
Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin and some of the Paris artists at that time they
started distorting people and colors in Paris nightlife to make them more
dramatic and more interesting. Toulouse-Lautrec was a little bit
representational but Gauguin and Picasso painted some Paris nightlife started
doing unrealistic colors and unrealistic peopleís faces. Then the
Germans picked up on that around 1910-1920 especially the German artists in WWI
saw a lot of killing, destruction and chaos. They came into
I read in your website that when Hitler came to power, he ordered a lot
of them destroyed.
Actually in most authoritarian rulers, Hitler, Stalin, etc., their art of
choice is happy art, sunsets, blond people who look very strong who have a wife
and a baby that they are very proud of, sun shining over behind them. They
get very upset when they see art which shows mankind at a disturbed and a
distorted negative way.
Your paintings, you think it reflects the real
I think so. Especially, one of my favorites is ďSoi Dog
No. 1Ē and I think ďSoi Dog No. 1Ē as you can see is a very beat up and
battered soi dog. He probably has a one leg broken from a car
running him over, he has teeth missing. You are not sure what he
actually can see maybe he just canít see anything any more.
I can get this up right, yeah I am sure.
He has what I call a fighting spirit. You know he lives in
the street. He got a favorite food cart that feeds him everyday.
He got 3 or 4 girl friends he likes to visit everyday.
When Thais see this, in Thai ďma kang thanon,Ē they see stray dogs.
I noticed Thais are very kind to soi dogs.
They feed them and they take care of them, probably because that it gives
them good karma.
But itís not an object of art, but for you it is.
Thai artists when he sees a soi dog he doesnít think ďoh, I should
paint that soi dog.Ē Whereas I see the soi dog, I say, you know,
he is kind of a symbol of Thai people tremendous resiliency, their tremendous
ability to deal with adversity, and still keep going. And look
forward to the next day. And soi dog has no bank account, he has no
credit cards. He has no Mercedes.
But he gets fed.
Everyday he eats pretty good food. You know itís never too
cold. His girlfriends look pretty good, at least as far as he is
concerned. One in the corner over there is one of his favorites.
And he has a pretty good day everyday and he is not too worried about the
So itís not all dark, although the image is.
No, I think whatís interesting in my paintings, although they are sort
of dark in one way they are very hopeful in another way because they show people
struggling with adversity and somehow find a way to survive. And
they also show in an interesting way. For instance, my nightlife paintings never
glamorize the nightlife.
Like this one.
For instance, this is a very famous neon sign among certain people,
perhaps not the ďhi-soĒ people, of the ďObsessionĒ bar. Itís
probably the most famous ka-toey bar in
Many Thais are probably familiar with the sunshine artist. Why
are you painting neon signs?
One reason I paint the neon signs because I think
Itís a different point of view that you are seeing.
Right. In a lot of the magic of the Bangkok night which
creates the magic which exists in the minds of people all over the world that
Bangkok is somehow exciting, whether thatís just an illusion or not I donít
know, but they think it is. The neon signage in
So you are now taking this to express that there is, I donít know,
another way of life?
I like to show that the Thai visual imagination is everywhere. Itís
in the taxis, itís in the signs, in how people dress, in how people do their
make up, in how they decorate their restaurants, their clubs. You
know, the visual imagination in
I saw you start taking video clips of neon signs and put on YouTube.
The neon signs are very good but also the spirit houses are very visually
skilled. The royal barges that exist are very interesting visually.
You go all the way back to Sukhothai Buddhas, which are in the leading
art museums in the world. There are pieces from Sukhothai in
museums all over the world. Thatís because the visual talent that
existed even a thousand years ago was a very advanced visual talent.
So itís coming out
It comes out in everything. It comes out even when you go to
Thai boxing, the colors, the costumes, what they wear around their arms, around
their heads. Everywhere you look in Bangkok, E-san music show, for
instance. Everywhere you go in Bangkok, especially if you are an
outsider, you see very strong visual images everywhere, and they are created by
Thai people not because that they are artists in the conscious sense but just
because they think that this would be good and they make it that way.
We need to take a break now, Chris. And we come back and
talk about other paintings of yours. There are portraits and of
course the ka-toeys. We will be back.
Suranand: I am with Chris Coles, who is kind enough to come with your paintings to this studio. Can you explain this one?
This is a painting of a Thai ka-toey, otherwise known as a lady-boy.
And I painted quite a few lady-boys actually. And you
noticed that when I paint a lady-boy, there is no or very little erotic or
sexual implication. Itís basically painting the visual
presentation of the lady-boy as she likes to present herself in the world of
Bangkok, which is as a woman. And I got the idea actually from my
daughter, Emavieve Coles, who is now a student at MIT university in the U.S.,
who came home from school one day and said ďOh daddy, did you realize that
Leonardo, his studio in Italy was on a street where there were a lot of lady-boy
hookers. And sometimes when he needed a model, he would go out on
the street and pull one off the street to use as a model. And some
people even say that the Mona Lisa was a lady-boy. That is why the
Mona Lisa is so ambiguous.Ē And I said, ďWow, thatís a very
interesting idea,Ē because
Are you seeing things different from Thais because you are a farang?
I think being a farang in Bangkok is as though I got sent in from Mars on an
interplanetary space vehicle. And everything I see I see from eyes
of a Martian from another planet.
But not every farang does
Some farangs are less alive visually.
Farang who have been here more than once and have a curiosity for actual Thai
friends, how they live and how their culture comes about, like to go deeper into
the Thai system and they are able to deal with the reality of Thailand without
developing a negative point of view towards Thailand
This is not negative.
I donít think so. I think it shows
Do you see the conflict between the day life and night life and whether they can
exist together in the long run?
Well I think every city in the world,
They are part of our society.
It is part of the diversity of a society and itís also a very
sophisticated complex outlook of a societyís problems and tensions. Itís a
way of dealing with things in a fairly harmless non-violent way as oppose to
blowing stuff up, killing people, and the other ways people deal with problems
When you paint something like this, how is it received in the States, you
have a gallery in the
I have had shows in New York City, in Los Angeles, in Boston, and people
are very attracted to the colors, the very vibrant colors, which are really
coming out of the Bangkok color palette. I think
Do they ask you whether ďOh! I saw this commercial of Thai society,
itís so different.Ē You donít see Thai dancing in your
I think, you know, the people who go to art shows are already more highly
educated group of people than the normal group of people and when they travel,
they prefer to travel in a more complex manner than just the surface. And
what they find interesting is getting below the surface so getting back to
ďVery Thai,Ē for instance, my friends who come here who are interested in
learning about Bangkok, the first book I give them to read is not normal a
tourist book but ďVery Thai.Ē
When I go to other countries, I donít read normal tourist books.
They go in a Bangkok taxi not to go anywhere but to look at the
dashboard, and then another taxi to look at another dashboard. And
they will go to Chatuchak market in the morning or they will go to an E-san
music show in some obscure part of
There are a lot more art galleries open in
We are like a junction here.
Itís always absorbed other cultures and transformed some bits into Thai
things. So itís a very unique society, unique culture, and it has
the potential to be a leading culture in terms of artistic production, design.
I think a lot of the fashion designers here are doing very well. A
lot of the interior decorators in
What about Thai artists; have you met them?
Thai artists I meet and I go to shows almost every weekend. There
are a few farang artists but there are a lot of Thai artists. I was
at a show recently at HOF Art which is down in an industrial building off
Ratchada, and there were maybe 20 Thai artists being shown. There
was a rock band playing and maybe 400-500 people, a very exciting night for an
art show. And there was a lot of interesting stuff there. There are
a lot of Thai artists who are not famous. A favorite of mine is
Nantana Phonak, I think thatís how to pronounce her name, and she does very
similar expressionist style paintings of Bangkok night life. And
her paintings reveal the stress and tension in her own life.
And the skills?
Very bright colors, very interesting images she chooses to paint.
How long are you going to keep painting?
I think my goal is to be like Matisse, not that I am as good as Matisse,
who painted up to the day he died. There is a picture of him in his
bed, he canít even get up, and someone has put a stick in his hand with a
pencil at the end of it. They put a big piece of paper on the wall.
And he is sitting there drawing something with his stick up until the day
he died. And some of his best work is his last work.
Well, I hope to see around
I hope I am not going to die soon
Suranand: No, no, no you gonna paint more and reflect the Thai life which other people donít see. Thank you for being on our show.