Mechanical magic

ByHELEN KAYE
July 18, 2010 23:38

The ‘Dance of the Machine’ exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum pushes all the right buttons.




Poisoned Milk

Poisoned Milk 311. (photo credit:Courtesy)

Walk into Dance of the Machine exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum and you enter an enchanted world of wit, whimsy and a whole raft of mechanical toys that bob, turn, unfurl, rise up, keel over, nod, gape, growl and grin, all at the press of a button.

For instance there’s “Poisoned Milk,” in which a cute wooden kitty laps at painted milk and suddenly collapses.

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Or go to a gorgeous metal peacock. Press the button on that case and bird preens, turns, and unfurls its glorious painted tail.

This is Sue Jackson’s Cabaret Mechanical Theater that is today based in London. It started in 1979 as a crafts shop at Falmouth in Cornwall, UK. Then came the day that Paul Spooner walked in with yet another wooden toy to sell.


“Make it move,” Jackson told him. He did, and pretty soon more and more of these artist engineers, or engineering artists – because you need the talents of both – were making more and more automata. Automata is the name given to these mechanical toys that work with never a chip in sight.

What drives them are assemblies of cogs, wheels, levers, gears, cams and other such devices. They are operated by turning a handle, but you can’t have hundreds of people doing that. The automata would break, so today they’re in glass cases and do their delightful little thing when you press the button, like the chappie sitting in a bathtub eating spaghetti, or her Majesty the Queen regally waving.

“Sharmanka” is Russian for “hurdy-gurdy” or “barrel organ,” and is the name that Russian artist Eduard Bersudsky gave the mechanical theater he and theater director Tatyana Jakovskaya established at St. Petersburg in 1989.

Eerily, magically lit, each towering contraption created of scrap metal, wood, wire, and other found objects incorporates carved wooden figures, human, animal and mythical, that bleep, ring, bang, twirl, and each fantastical structure has a story to tell. Sharmanka, which has been all over the world, is today based in Glasgow. The show is every hour on the half hour.

Take the kids. You’ll be as hooked as they. The exhibitions run through October 10.

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