Photo by Ted Soqui
If you happen to turn too quickly while on your way to get a lap dance at Jumbo’s Clown Room, or if you’re on your way to see the Thai Elvis impersonator at the Palms restaurant, you may come across an enigma wrapped in wire and smothered in WD-40.
Bolt Gallery, with its futuristic sign (futuristic as far as circa 1980 was concerned) is nestled amid recognizable Thai Town smells — pad Thai, cigarettes, hot, summer macadam — and surrounded by familiar sounds: car horns, boom boxes, elderly strollers chattering in Thai, Vietnamese.
The place is most likely closed, its façade teasing you with the wondrous metallic monster in the window. Seven feet high, the sculpture seems to both beckon and warn, provoke and mystify.
A sign says, “No Photographs Please!” Another sign, as you knock on the locked door, says, “No Food! No Drinks! Thank You!”
The feeling of vague, surreal disquiet continues as a tallish man in a waiter’s apron and a CIA-like earpiece lopes out of a nearby restaurant, eyeing you suspiciously.
Looking torn between the restaurant and you — are there hardhearted customers demanding rice noodles? — he might then (if you’re lucky) open the gallery door with a great key ring, gesture for you to step forth, but quickly, quickly. Unsure of why you are there, unsure of what’s happening, you go in.
Inside, fiends, ogres, aliens, shogun warriors line the walls. Upon closer inspection, you notice the fiends and ogres have been meticulously crafted of gleaming machinery. An elegant serpent, made almost entirely from washers and bolts, glitters on the floor. An astonishingly rendered R2-D2 makes you wonder, “Why?”
“For love,” you are told. “We opened this gallery for Thai metal artists. We want people to see this work. All over the world. And they will.”
It’s usually one man’s dream that realizes the impossible: in this case, three men’s dreams. The artist of much of the work in the gallery, Winyu — no last name — lost his job in the Great Thai Recession of 1994.
In case the casual-stumbler-upon-such-a-place doesn’t know there was a Great Thai Recession of 1994, the teller of the tale, James Jetmongkolrat, rolls his eyes to convey the economic horrors of the time. Many gave up on finding work in the desperate situation; others, like James’ inspiration, Winyu, decided a recession was the perfect time to chase a dream, become an artist. And so, a lover of sci-fi, of the extraterrestrial and fantastic, Winyu began to sculpt his imaginary creatures from car parts, hardware, cheap materials he found in Bangkok junkyards. Soon, Winyu was up to his neck in lock-and-nut aliens, spring-and-throttle potentiometer warlords. Bangkokians soon took note, and an art star was born half a world from L.A.
Enter his countrymen, A.K. Sutavimol and James. “We hadn’t liked art before, but we loved this,” James says. “We wanted to do something to get him known. But we were coming to America to study, and knew nothing about art.”
“Time went on. We were in college. We took menial jobs to pay the bills. We opened this gallery.”
He relates the facts easily. One imagines the actual events weren’t so easy.
Certainly, no art dealers have ever worked harder. James and A.K. still labor long hours at backbreaking day jobs as a waiter, a deliveryman. Only after hours can the two convene, tirelessly supervise the shipping of the pterodactyls and aliens from a world away. There are problems, of course. Time, mostly.
As it is, the Bolt Gallery is open from exactly 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. weeknights, when James finishes serving up endless plates of mint garlic shrimp. Gamely, he sits at the ultramodern metal table, waiting for collectors to find their way to him.
Amazingly, scores of them do.
The Bolt Gallery is, perhaps, just another dream in a city full of dreams, but it’s also an indicator that we are all many things, and we can do many things — fall in love with art, get inspired on a whim, travel across the world, start again and again and again, smash the label of waiter, student, immigrant. If only in our off-hours. For now.
“We’ll continue to look for new Thai artists,” James says.
“Our favorite thing is when people say they don’t like art but they like this,” A.K. says.
For more info, visit www.boltgallery.com.