I was sitting behind the back of a recklessly driven motorbike on my way to the airport catching a flight out of Cambodia. It was a short holiday to renew my Thai visa when I decided to make a detour and visit the Tuol Sleng (S-21) Genocide Museum. It was a strange place, rooms full of photographs of people, pictures taken before these people were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Some corners were full of torture instruments that looked like an installation made by the famous German artist Joseph Beuys. I took some pictures of these enlarged portrait photos with my cell phone. After my visit I went to a nearby street vendor for some delicious Khmer food, but my appetite had gone. I had the strange feeling that I knew some of these people, the small girl in one of the pictures looked exactly like my young daughter, and another one looked like my former girlfriend back in Holland, one of the pictures even resembled my dear old father, the same bald scull, grey hair and smiling eyes. It was a harrowing experience.
Once in Bangkok I immediately started to paint using the mobile phone pictures I took earlier as reference material. It was as if the portraits painted themselves,
I was in a meditation state or trance, dancing, body painted and naked around the campfire in my head. Like a lunatic shaman of the good old days, I became “one” with the person I was painting. This normally only happens to me when I am portraying people who are alive. Before you realize it, you even take over the nervous twitch of someone’s eye or even worse: you transform into a person of the opposite sex. Normally I need to see the models face to face, smell them, hear them talk, see the back of their heads to paint the front. I need to see their body language, the expressionistic wild geometrical moves that they make. The insides of their pretty heads, their brainwaves and mine and these deep and secret thoughts...yes what goes on in their minds, how do you paint that? Trying to capture the invisible, that undefined soup of life. You have to let all your enlightened reasoning go and just use your instinct like a wild animal looking for prey for survival. So normally painting a portrait from a photograph is boring and I usually refuse to do this unless of course I am paid a substantial amount of money.
There was however only one difference this time, these people where dead, but nevertheless these simple mobile phone pictures gave me enough energy and inspiration to paint through the night and make five paintings where all the above came together.
A few weeks later I went back to Phnom Penh on another visa run, but I decided to stay longer this time. I rented a small 75 US dollar a month room in the Smile Guesthouse in the backpackers area near Buong Kak Lake. I continued painting portraits of people I met on my daily and nightly haunts in Phnom Penh. In my mind the faces of the dead started to mix with the living, influenced by the poisonous and fluorescent colors of the night, the earthly Paynes greys, shady yellows, golden terra di Siena and Burly browns of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
Phnom Penh is a city filled with life and energy for 24 hours a day, A city full of friendly and beautiful people, from the street booksellers and tuk tuk drivers to ‘les fleurs du mal’ of the night). It is hard to imagine all the cruelties that took place in this country not so long ago. Perhaps the secret American bombings were working as catalyst for such a paranoia that the Khmer people started to kill each other. It is a political story so who can tell? Nobody knows what started this auto-genocide. In my own way I am trying to give life back to the victims of these confusing historical circumstances. The paintings are in memory of the dead and a tribute to the very alive and sympathetic people of Cambodia whose grateful guest I have been now for almost one year.
The main forces of painting a portrait are construction and destruction, just like an interrogation peeling off layer by layer looking for the truth. One could compare it with a psychiatrist and his patient on the couch or a serious interview with a newspaper reporter or of course the interrogations and narrative confessions of the prisoners in S-21. If you want to see the true nature of the people you paint, you have to deconstruct their personalities and your own until they become one. Just like a kid taking apart his grandfather’s antique gold chain watch just to see what is inside out of curiosity and scientific interest; but after examining them closely I want to put back the pieces of the puzzle again, so I will be able to see the whole picture.
One could compare a painting to looking at life through a looking glass. In a painting everything comes together: love, politics, hope, fear, lust and of course all the formal problems of making a painting as what paint to use? What style to paint? How thick will the layers of paint be? Am I going to use expensive oils or spray paint? Is there even money for all this? Or do we have to row with whatever paddles we have left. Then there is the feeling of hunger, paranoia or whatever sentiment that comes up and makes you decide to paint a face gangrenous green instead of a soft virgin flesh colour. Higher authorities sometimes command you to paint a corner black even if you do not want to do that and it is not part of your pretentious, intelligent, well thought over conceptual plan, so what can you do? As an artist you are just an instrument and it seems you haven’t got a will of your own. Anyway I hope I succeeded a little bit in this vain attempt to bring the living, the dead and parts of myself together, thereby creating a mysterious way, a universal portrait of mankind compressed* synthesized on canvas and you will enjoy looking at my paintings as much as I enjoyed making them, although making a painting can be a manner of torturing oneself too, like a flagellant of medieval times.