Artist Chris Coles’ recently released photo essay Noir Nights in Phnom Penh is a prelude to a book that will provide a fleeting glimpse of the capital’s neon allure. He spoke to 7Days about the rapid, unpredictable transformation Cambodia continues to undergo, as well as hope that underlies his often bleak images
Your most recent photo essay, Noir Nights in Phnom Penh, captures what you call an “immense transformation” taking place here. One of these changes is the proliferation of Lexus SUVs, which you juxtapose with a subsistence prostitute sitting on a barstool. Where do you think this transformation is heading?
I first visited Phnom Penh about 10 years ago. I remember a very dark city at night with almost no street lights ... some of the cars – there weren’t that many of them, mostly really beat-up old taxis, hardly any shiny new SUV’s or Mercedes at all – weren’t using their headlights, supposedly to extend their lifetimes ... you could hear occasional gunshots ... there were bullet holes in the walls here and there, I remember even in the cement floor and walls of the duty-free section of the airport ... it gave the feeling of being a very dangerous city, barely under control … and incredibly poor … people on the streets, the tuk-tuk guys, the motorcycle guys, the bicycle guys ... the working girls ...they all seemed absolutely desperate for even very small amounts of money ... one dollar meant a lot, made a difference.
Now, in 2012, many of Phnom Penh’s streets at night are lit up with streetlights, with the lights from restaurants, bars, businesses, public buildings and landmarks … there are mini-traffic jams of huge SUV’s – Toyota Land Cruisers, Lexus, Land Rovers, even a few super-expensive Porsche SUV’s – as well as Mercedes, ordinary cars, thousands of small motorcycles and tuk-tuks. Many people are wandering around with some kind of smart phone pressed against their ear, dressed pretty well compared to 10 years ago, definitely taking in a lot more calories, even to the point of being a little bit “chubby” whereas 10 years ago people were very thin.
There are still very dark, crumbling areas and streets, still lots of people with almost nothing who are living day-to-day and desperate for more, but things are definitely changing. There seems to be a gigantic transformation going on, a huge acceleration of capital accumulation and wealth formation, mainly by a small elite, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands – is anyone keeping track? – of young people from the impoverished rural countryside immigrating to Phnom Penh to seek a better life, tens of thousands of foreigners along with billions of dollars of investment capital from China, Russia, Korea, Europe, Australia, South Asia, North America and even Africa, a seeming infinity of small businesses being started, so many NGOs that they seem to be competing with each other to “do good”.
The question is not whether or not Phnom Penh and Cambodia is changing but how, in what ways, and for whose ultimate benefit – just a tiny elite, plus those managing to rise into a sort of middle area, the millions who are living day-to-day without any bank accounts, no savings, no property and no security, the foreign business/investor/NGO people and their families?
Besides the growing gap between the wealthy elite and the rural poor, it seems the expat community here is becoming more solipsistic and detached from Cambodians, except for those who work in the service industry. Do you notice many differences between expats who live in, say, Bangkok and those who live here?
I would say the expat scene in Thailand is much larger and much more diverse in terms of nationality, income levels, occupation, and activity than the expat scene in Phnom Penh and Cambodia. Bangkok is in some respects a very large and modern world city inhabited by (at least in my opinion) about 16 million people from all over Thailand, Asia and the world.
Although Bangkok and Thailand, like Cambodia, has a very small elite group which is extremely wealthy, influential and powerful, there is also a large middle and upper middle class, many of whom have been overseas on business, for education, for work or holidays, many of whom speak at least some English and who have had and have friends, intimate and otherwise, from outside of Thailand.
I would say that many of the circles that a Bangkok expat with a regular job moves in include Thais and people from other Asian countries who share similar levels of education, workplace skills,
international experience and even income/savings. So in many instances, the relationships are less one-sided, a bit more “equal”, than they might be in Cambodia where, at least to me, it seems as though most expats are earning far more than Cambodians, living in a far more expensive manner and having most of their everyday relationships with other expats except for their Cambodian girlfriend/boyfriend who is probably nowhere near at their economic and educational level. Of course, there are exceptions, especially for the small group of Cambodian expats who can speak Khmer.
I would also say that it seems to me there is very little everyday contact between the different groups of expats in Cambodia, those from China, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Russia, France, North America, etc. whereas in the larger Bangkok setting, expats often have friends and associates from many different countries.
What got you interested in Phnom Penh as a subject?
I first visited Phnom Penh in connection with a possible movie project that was going to be based on the Christopher G Moore novel called Zero Hour in Phnom Penh – I used to work in the LA film industry before I became an artist fulltime – and despite the decrepit and impoverished state of Phnom Penh at that time, there was also something quite wonderful – hard to pin down – maybe something to do with the resiliency of ordinary Cambodians who were so desperately but relentlessly and with determination trying to claw their way back into a more normal and decent life for themselves and their children.
I liked the music, Khmer Pop music, it’s a bit different, has an odd but wonderful note structure, a beauty and poignancy in the female vocals. Sophea Chamroeun who sings on the upcoming Songs from the Noir is a good example.
I remember stumbling upon a very large Cambodian wedding party, nothing too expensive, being held in the middle of a rather rundown, closed-off street, but everyone dressed up in very bright colours, a great live band doing Khmer music, people dancing on the pavement, enjoying piles of spicy food and litre bottles of Angkor beer. Watching the wedding couple and the surrounding family and friends, I sort of felt the Cambodian people and Cambodia were somehow on their way back, the social fabric was being organically repaired, the women were willing to bring babies, new life, into the world despite all the poverty, barriers and odds, and Cambodia was going to get re-populated and reborn.
As an artist looking for material, I saw it as a new world rising from the ashes and a very determined and interesting people with a kind of unique look and style ... so I started visiting every so often and thinking about what I could do.
Neon scenes pop up everywhere in your paintings and photographs. What’s the attraction for you?
To me, neon and well-done neon signs are mythical ... they glow, there’s a warmth, a seduction, there’s a magical blending of different colours, shapes and curves. They are pre-digital, often done by hand, without exact angles and plenty of improvisation depending on the glass and the amount of heat.
Neon implies something exciting, creative, away from the humdrum … yes, it’s all just an illusion, trickery with light, colour and shapes ...just “shadows on the wall of the cave”... but it’s great show-business, artistic craftsmanship, entertainment. I think the Khmer script particularly lends itself to great neon signs due to all its curves and complications ... and also because I don’t understand even one letter of Khmer script, many of the neon signs in Phnom Penh are abstract for me, just pure visuals.
While the working people in Phnom Penh who design and make the thousands of neon signs probably don’t think of themselves as "artists", to me, they are unconsciously carrying on some of the fabulous design, interesting use of colour and artistic talent of those great Khmer craftsmen and artists who went before them, all the way back to Angkor Wat.
Your captions are poetic and evocative, and there’s a sense of a narrative underlying your photo essay. How carefully do you select the photos to fit this narrative or does it come out spontaneously?
The photos were taken on a number of visits to Phnom Penh, hours of wandering around the nighttime streets, hanging out, looking, watching, thinking. From the hundreds of photos, I want to get down to about a hundred for the book Noir Nights in Phnom Penh. I need to cut out about another 30. It’s getting harder and harder to let each one go.
I wanted to not just objectively record the Phnom Penh night, but to convey what it feels like: the feeling of darkness, the endless bits of random trash, lots of people living on the edge, the feeling of the foreign intruder/observer as an “outsider”, a sort of “alien” from the faraway and very different planet (in my case the US).
I tried various ways of “stylising” the photos, blurring them, adding grain, changing colours and tones, framing them in certain ways, choosing deliberately un-photographic subjects, images that were not beautiful, in focus or properly framed. I want the viewer to feel like they are wandering around a wildly imperfect nighttime Phnom Penh wearing a set of night-vision goggles, looking at something they will never actually know, that they can barely see but that they can at least get a glimpse of.
The words and text plays as counterpoint, almost like a different instrument or sound, and hopefully helps the viewer, especially someone who’s never been around the Phnom Penh night, who’s maybe never been outside a zone of first world comfort, security and prosperity, to stop and ponder how most of the world lives and what a difficult struggle most of the people in the world face almost every minute of every day.
The photos of stray cats and dogs (and the captions) suggest that you don’t see much difference between them and the people who prowl the venues and sites you photograph. Is this assessment fair?
I have often done paintings of Bangkok’s many stray dogs, called soi dogs, and it is true, I see the stray dogs and cats wandering around an urban landscape like Bangkok or Phnom Penh as almost allegorical human-like creatures who, if we observe them closely enough, can teach us valuable lessons about what life is and how life should be lived.
There’s also a little bit of the Buddhist re-incarnation thing, too, in my ongoing interest in stray dogs and cats as Thais are often quite kind to them, giving them food and a place to sleep, seeing them as perhaps the re-incarnated spirits of some relative or friend who screwed up his karma for some reason or another and got re-incarnated as a stray dog or cat.
Do you see the noir movement as a social critique and do you think this is spreading to Cambodia?
There is so much noir embedded in Southeat Asia: in the politics, the often harsh economic circumstances, the huge income and wealth disparities, the widespread impunity, the lack of transparency and absence of any meaningful rule of law, in the traditional social structures and customs that are under tremendous pressure …
As a result, and in response to these actual circumstances, the noir artistic movement is a growing and unstoppable force, much like Expressionism in early 1900s Germany ... it is the lens that you look through to see what is actually there ... not what we wish was there or would want to pretend is there ... but what is actually there, however “unpleasant”, “impolite” and “ugly” it may be.
After all, how will there ever be less noir, how will there ever be more light, how will things ever really change … unless we first understand and acknowledge what is actually there. But in the midst of the dark noir vision, there is also the dream and hope, that someday, against all the odds and despite all the circumstances, humanity will somehow find something better.
Chris Coles is an artist and filmmaker who divides his time between Bangkok and the coast of Maine. Prior to becoming a fulltime artist he worked in Hollywood as line producer and production manager on numerous films, including Chaplin, LA Story and Superman. Visit www.kris-koles.blogspot.com to view more photos from Noir Nights in Phnom Penh.