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Simon Tait’s Mews – No.12

As an aficionado of this column you could be excused for thinking that automaton model-makers are a pretty exclusive coterie of ancient boffins shut away in workshops with their tools, bits of wire and perspex and their over active imaginations. Well, I’m sorry if I’ve encouraged that perception because it’s quite wrong.

For instance, there’s Pascale Michalski known as Zuzi, and you’ll have to wait until we meet to hear about why she’s called Zuzi, much too funny a story for this serious stick. Zuzi was born in Luxembourg 26 years ago, studied fine art and went into film production.

She’d been told that she could do art or science, not both, but she was never told why not and secretly she was making models, and she was still making them when the film jobs brought her to London, well, Dartford. The first one I saw was that amazing Gothick house, ‘Fort Libellula’ (or Castle Dragonfly) which she turned into a music box by getting a composer friend to come up with some music which she then pricked onto a pianola disc. Ingenuity, see? Then there were Spook Monkeys, smaller pieces, and the latest is Piano with a pianist whose arms are horns and who plays the keyboard with his feet, which are horses hooves. Surreal, geddit? “I like ugly things” she explains. “I think there’s something really beautiful about ugly”.

And then there’s Fi Henshall, another free spirit in the realm of mechanical sculpture. Brought up in Pembrokeshire and three years older than Zuzi, Fi went to Falmouth School of Art to study fine art, but it didn’t offer what she wanted. “I didn’t much like it. I was hoping to learn about carving in wood, but they were teaching ‘concepts’. I’m not a concept person” she explains.

After college she left concepts behind and went to work on an organic farm in Cornwall, but didn’t much like being an employee either. “I just wanted to find a way to make stuff, like wood-carving”, and she began making puppets with a measure of success. She was working for theatre companies and was in some demand, “but it’s difficult working for theatre people, fitting in with their visions rather than my own to deadlines.”

As a child her mother had taken her to, you guessed it, the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden. “I thought it was wonderful, but some kind of magic – completely impossible to make. So there was no sense of ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up’. It never occurred to me that it was possible”. Through an old family friend, Kate Brakspeare, who tinkered with automata, she discovered that it was and found that the mechanics could be quite simple, and what’s more within her capabilities.

But by now married to a sound artist, Dominic, she found herself not without a studio but without a home, but using her share of small inheritance they joined the boat people of Penryn, living on the waterside and each morning walking a few yards to a former grist mill – where brewing malt was crushed – which they share with a painter and a someone who does industrial sewing (‘industrial sewer’ could be misleading). And within a year of embarking on the 30-foot East Wind as their home along came Ella, now three, a constant inspiration.

Another inspiration has been the next boat neighbour, Rob Higgs, creator of large contraptions who, as I may have remarked before, makes the kind of machines Heath Robison could only draw. “Rob is much more of an engineer, but he’s been enormously helpful in showing me what is possible, and that’s half the trick” says Fi.

And so she continues to make her exquisitely carved and contrived small jokes, getting bigger with each new idea. The newest is called No 12 West Street, Fi’s childhood address in Fishguard though the piece, she says firmly, bears no resemblance to that happy family home. This long tin dwelling one has a range of harpies – something of a Henshall emblem – along its roof, sex going on inside and a beery old gentleman reading a book. It may have a sound input from Dominic, too. “I make what seems interesting at the time, and I’m never sure quite how a piece will turnout. This one’s nearly finished. I think.”

Mewsette 1
Dumfries and Galloway Festival goes robot, well, more gigantic puppet, really, driven by 12 puppeteers rather than machinery – this weekend (May 29) with Big Man. This is an eight metre high blue fellow, created by the Puppet Lab and Puppet Animation Scotland created a giant 8 metre. He will walk through the centre of Dumfries, filming its adoring fans, shaking their hands, wave, and then, walking back again.

Mewsette 2
Here’s something you ought to know about that I might have to follow up for a future Mews. Martin ‘Taxi Driver’ Scorsese is directing a film about an automaton. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is about a homeless orphan boy who creates a clockwork pal. It stars Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Kingsley and is due to be released in December 2011.

Mewsette 3
And finally, a glimpse into the home life of our own dear Paul Spooner. “Made this for Sue’s (Mrs Spooner’s) birthday. It’s a bit elaborate (the swanee whistle mechanism is a sound effect representing the girl’s screams. My dad thought we’d got a puppy when I played it over to him over the phone) but I mean to continue the robots being horrible to innocent humans theme. Culminating in the Reformed Robot with dough hook accessory…”

Simon Tait

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