It is like something out of a strange dream – a dream that is fascinating and
entertaining, but also dangerously close to becoming a nightmare at any moment.
The place is silent and the setting is dark.
What little lighting there
is serves only to make everything in the scene look shadowy and
All at once, a burst of light illuminates what appears to be a
giant smiling crow, formally dressed in top hat and tails. The crow rings a bell
it is holding in its beak. Loud circus music then begins to play, reminding one,
perhaps, of an old novel by Ray Bradbury about a weird carnival that comes to
town one dark October night and sets up its tents at 3 a.m.
As the circus
music blares and the crow returns to darkness, another figure is illuminated,
this time a somewhat comical-looking man with shoulder-length hair and a porkpie
hat. Suspended from straps around his shoulders is what looks like a hurdy-gurdy
organ, which he begins to crank. Instead of making music, however, the man
cranks a scroll of pictures of people’s faces – a kind of “family
On top of the man’s head, meanwhile, is what appears to be a
small bear, standing upright, cranking a hurdy-gurdy box of its own, and
revealing its own scrolling “family album” of pictures of animals. Both figures
stop moving and return to the shadows as the music changes and another strange
moving thing is revealed – then another, and another.
gymnastics, fox- and bird-like creatures row boats and drive carriages, and a
reclining donkey strums a guitar as the music plays and the dark carnival
The carnival is the Sharmanka Kinetic Theater which, along
with the equally beguiling Cabaret Mechanical Theater, is currently “performing”
at the always surprising Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.
(Russian for barrel organ or hurdy-gurdy) is a bizarre circus in which all of
the performers are machines.
These mesmerizing automatons are made of
scrap metal – one is in fact constructed out of pieces of an old Singer sewing
machine – and wood carvings depicting humans, animals, hybrids of different
kinds of animals, and hybrids of animals and humans. The resulting moving
sculptures look like figures in a painting of Hell by Hieronymus
The audience sits wide-eyed as the machines light up, whir,
rattle, ring and clang, each machine doing its “act” and telling its individual
story, one after another.
This peculiar circus is the creative work of,
perhaps, an equally peculiar artist.
Eduard Bersudsky, 70, was a
dissenter and conscientious objector who became voluntarily mute under the
Soviet Union’s communist regime. What he could no longer say with words, he
began to vibrantly express in art.
He created his first “kinemat,” or
moving sculpture, in 1967. Other pieces quickly followed, filling the intimate
but rather limited performance space he was able to create at his home in
Leningrad (St. Petersburg).
On the heels of Perestroika and the generally
more relaxed atmosphere of the Soviet Union in its latter days, Bersudsky and
his wife and collaborator, Tatyana Jacovskaya, were allowed to tour with the
collection overseas, ending up in Glasgow, Scotland, where Sharmanka is based
“EFFECTIVELY, THERE are three people in Sharmanka,” says Robin
Mitchell, 47, a Sharmanka technician who helped install the current exhibition.
“There’s Eduard, who makes all of the machines; there’s Tatyana, his wife, who
is responsible for running the company, booking the exhibitions, doing all of
the administration and looking for funding; and there’s Sergey, who does all the
technical work and is a lighting and sound designer.
“And then there are
people like me, who come along and work with them on a casual basis.” The
technical work, lighting and sound, is perhaps as interesting as the performing
All behind the scenes and out of the audience’s
awareness is a computer program that ultimately operates everything we see and
hear. The machines themselves are internally motor-driven, but the motors are
switched on and off in sequence by computer. This intricate piece of magic is
the creation of Sergey Jakovsky, 30, son of Bersudsky’s wife and collaborator
“Originally when we started Sharmanka, over 20 years
ago, everything was manual,” Jakovsky explains. “There were millions of switches
– for sounds, lights, the machines, everything.
“There were three operators for the show. Over the years we installed mechanical
and electrical programs for the machines to actually do their own sequence. And
then, with time, as I learned more and more about technology, I’ve introduced
some computers – not necessarily to help us run it, but for the exhibitions to
be less dependent on us. So we can leave them with people to run it without
having to teach them the whole show.
“That’s the reason for computers in
The principle of Sharmanka is to have as little as
possible use of electronics. It’s all mechanical, electrical programs, puppets
and so on.”
The machines themselves are sometimes funny, often
disturbing, and frequently a combination of both. One, called “Choir,” features
an elephant and a crow, along with a half animal-half human creature riding on
the back of a huge rat. All are ringing bells, including the rat.
spreads its wings – perhaps menacingly – as a hurdy-gurdy man looks on,
Scowling, angry-looking little hurdy-gurdy men are, in fact,
recurring figures throughout the exhibit. Another machine, entitled “Singer
Circus,” shows a reclining bear ringing a bell as a human, a monkey and a
bird-like creature turn the crank and pull the gear strings of an antique sewing
What are Bersudsky’s creations trying to tell us? Says Jakovsky,
“There are certain commentaries that we come up with for all of the machines.
Outside in the entrance to the theater, we have the official comments that we
made up for each machine. But I can tell you one thing, and my mom will tell you
“Eduard doesn’t even talk about it. He says you make up your own
story. We try to comment, he sort of nods his head and says, ‘It could be.’ But
he never says, ‘Yeah, that’s the one, that’s exactly what I was thinking.’
“Whatever is happening in his head, he keeps private.
It’s his way to
communicate, and he’s quite happy for people to make up their own
The dream-like, sometimes nightmarish quality of many of the
creations can probably be explained by the way Bersudky comes up with his
“There is no plan, no drawings, no nothing. It all depends on how
well he dreams when he sleeps. One day he wakes up, and if he has an idea he
starts working, experimenting. Sometimes he wakes up with nothing, for days on
end. He says it comes from above – it’s not him making it. He’s just a tool, an
The emotional atmosphere changes somewhat as one turns from
Sharmanka to visit the Cabaret Mechanical Theater, a few steps away. Darkness
gives way to whimsy as we are greeted by a gallery full of what appear to be
And while Sharmanka’s audiences sit and watch the show
from a slight distance, Cabaret invites us to become part of each miniature
performance by pressing a button to bring each of the automatons into
Each creation is actually a small hand-cranked piece, encased and
motorized so it can be operated by push-button.
Even a child – perhaps
especially a child – can make the pieces work.
Unlike Sharmanka, where
every fascinating piece is the creation of one man, the London-based Cabaret
Mechanical Theater presents the works of several artists.
exhibition features works by Paul Spooner, Ron Fuller, Peter Markey, Matt Smith,
Lucy Casson, Keith Newstead, Michael Howard, John Lumbus, Patrick Bond, Pierre
Mayer and Kazu Harada.
Be prepared to smile. “How to Live, No. 17:
Spaghetti” depicts a man sitting in a bathtub full of pasta, practicing the art
of eating spaghetti. He coils the never-ending supply of noodles around his
fork, leans forward, takes a bite and chews, and then starts all over again. One
of the bathtub faucets spews an eternal stream of tomato sauce, the other
produces an endless swirl of Parmesan cheese.
“The Miser’s Deathbed”
shows an old man about to die, but unable to stop sitting up in bed to check on
his butler, who insists on looking into the miser’s secret box at the foot of
“Royal Wave” features Queen Elizabeth II doing her famous little
hand wave as her head moves regally back and forth; and “How Much?!” depicts an
accountant, or someone of that ilk, examining an invoice as his eyes bulge out
A particularly clever piece is “Being Followed,” which shows
two hiking foxes – complete with backpacks and hiking boots – walking in single
file. Push a button and the one in front turns to see who is following him, his
eyes landing on the one behind. Five seconds later, the one behind turns around
Strange but hilarious is “Grooving at the Upholsterer’s,” in which
a group of birdlike creatures dance in an impromptu chorus line on what appears
to be, well, upholstery.
In addition, rowers row on the Dead Sea, a
chimpanzee rows in a kayak, a Geisha gently fans herself, and two old ladies
haggle over a chicken that one raises in the air – all at the push of a
AND ALL of these pieces are ultimately mechanical: Cranks turn
gears, and gears turn wheels – making arms, hands, legs, feet, fingers, toes,
mouths and eyes move, causing chimpanzees to row boats and queens to
The creations seem to delight both the adults and children who
noisily tour the exhibition. Says Cabaret Mechanical Theater project manager
Stephen Guy, 53, “I think that everyone like this kind of stuff. And it actually
does appeal to all ages, however clichéd that may sound. Different ages get
different things out of it.
“So for very small children, with limited
attention spans, they just press the buttons, something happens, and they then
move on to the next one. For slightly older kids, they can begin to enjoy the
mechanism, and there’s a whole educational angle for them.
“A lot of
adults will enjoy some of the quite clever jokes, especially by Paul Spooner. We
also get a lot of engineering types who look very closely at the mechanism and
try to figure out how it works.
“Also there is the quality of the
craftsmanship. The pieces by Matt Smith and Paul Spooner show their
specialization in craft carpentry.”
What kind of person creates things
like this? Is there any sort of “profile personality” that might describe the
people who make these objects? Guy ponders the question for a moment and
replies, “I would say that the profile is people who like garden sheds
[Americans, read “garage or basement workrooms”].
“It’s mostly a male
thing, and aside from Lucy Casson, all of the artists in this exhibition are
men. They leave the house, go to the garden shed, and make things. I think that
is the common denominator for these people.
A big shed to go to, to get
away from everything else, and make things.
“These people like to work on
their own. They’re also people who have an engineering skill together with an
art skill, and that’s relatively uncommon. A lot of engineers are not that good
at being creative, and a lot of artists don’t have the hard skills of
engineering and carpentry. To get the two together is
Both Sharmanka and the Cabaret tour extensively around the
world, in addition to delighting audiences at their home theaters. Cabaret has
some especially ambitious plans for the near future.
Guy says, “We’re
trying to get together a huge show for the Olympics in London in 2012. Something
with an exhibition, but with a big emphasis on making, so visitors will be able
to come in, sit down and actually start making things. That is, if we can get
And, finally, as different as the two traveling mechanical
circuses are from each other in terms of mood and style, it is interesting to
note that they both have something to say about the always fascinating subject
One show’s statement is characteristically whimsical, the other
not surprisingly dark. Cabaret presents us with Paul Spooner’s “Allegory of
Love,” in which a handsome, well-dressed man is trying to hammer a nail, which
skillfully moves out of the way every time he drops his hammer.
offers “The Eternal Triangle of Love,” in which two men are harnessed to a
carriage at either end, both trying to pull the carriage in opposite directions
while a female driver holds their reins – one set of reins with her hands, the
other with her hair. The accompanying explanation speaks for itself: “A
sculpture based on characters from the Italian Commedia dell’arte
Harlequin and sad Pierrot. They were competing for the love of Colombine for so
long that they did not notice that their beloved one had turned into
Sharmanka Kinetic Theater and Cabaret Mechanical Theater are
showing together until October 10 at the Eretz Israel Museum, 2 Rehov Haim
Levanon, Ramat Aviv. Call (03) 641-5244 for opening hours and other details.