Sharmanka's sculpted theatre

From the outside, Sharmanka is unassuming, but once inside, the clamour of the Merchant City falls away and Bersudsky's creations reign supreme.

Feature by Alasdair Gillon | 15 Jun 2006
An eight-inch high Karl Marx leans jerkily forwards and back, his arms pushing and pulling at a small wheel-handle. Attached to the handle is a miniature motor, which starts buzzing with energy, and above the little wooden-carved man hover various larger parts – old bicycle and sewing machine wheels, typewriter keys, bells and a music stand base – all poised as though waiting to spring into action.

It's a mysterious machine. The bits of broken scrap seem out of place, snatched from their original purposes and thrown together in a new, unfamiliar situation. They interlock and stick out at wobbly angles. What is the little man doing at the bottom? What will this contraption produce? With whirring and clicks, motion spreads gradually from one part to the other. Belts flap round and cogs start to clunk. The music stand spins, a long pole rises and falls on its fulcrum.

Meanwhile, there has been music throughout. Whistling accompanies the opening efforts of the mannikin at the base. The tune, according to Tatyana Jakovskaya, who has introduced the performance to the spectators, is an old Communist Party ditty. But that is drowned out by a rising wail, as the performance apparently reaches a peak, with all the parts belting madly round at once.

This kinetic sculpture, entitled "The Great Idea", is the work of Jakovskaya's husband, Eduard Bersudsky. Alongside a host of similar creations, which he calls "kinemats", it stands in the Sharmanka Theatre, a single-room gallery situated one floor above Queen Street in Glasgow. From the outside, the place is unassuming – visitors need to check the names at the bottom of the stairwell and ring the buzzer to be let in for the show – but inside, the clamour of the Merchant City falls away and Bersudsky's creations reign supreme.

Bersudsky's most prominent piece of work is undoubtedly the Millenium Clock – made in collaboration with sculptor Tim Stead and others – which stands in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. But that counts as a latter development in the story of Sharmanka.

Sharmanka first opened its doors to the public in St Petersburg in 1989. Bersudsky had been carving with wood and building his kinetic sculptures for 20 years, but they were only ever shown to friends at home. He had never received formal training, was denied official status as an artist under the Soviet government and worked as a night watchman and electrician to support his art. But things changed when theatre director Jakovsky first saw the moving machines in 1987. "It became apparent," she says of the decisive event, "that I would have to leave everything I was doing and devote myself to this unique theatre."

Joining forces with Bersudsky, Jakovskaya devised light and musical accompaniment for the kinemats, to prepare them for public performance. Perestroika had begun to soften attitudes in Soviet Russia towards un-Soviet art, and Jakovskaya set about acquiring premises in order to accommodate their work more comfortably. The reputation of Sharmanka began to gain a hold. But as years of obscurity for Bersudsky promised to give way to recognition, the economic collapse surrounding the break-up of the Soviet Union posed another threat. Prices and rents shot up. Sharmanka would have floundered, had Bersudsky's work not had such an impact on others who saw it, leading to strong bonds of friendship. Julian Spalding, director of Glasgow City Museums, was one. Another was sculptor Tim Stead.

Bersudsky and Jakovskaya were encouraged to move to Scotland by Stead and his wife. They relocated to Blainslie, in the Borders, and lived there for two years. Meanwhile, the kinemats which Spalding commissioned for Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art became a star attraction. Bersudsky seemed to him "a medieval sculptor magically brought back to life", and it was the timelessness of Bersudsky's work which inspired Spalding also to voice his idea for a Millenium Clock. Craftsman, artist, mechanic or engineer – it is clear that Bersudsky resists these modern categories. He learned his craft himself and Jakovskaya pays little heed to pressures to conform: "A lot of people think that modern art is conceptual, intellectual. It speaks to the head, we speak to the heart. Is it art or not? I don't care! There is no definition, it's just Sharmanka."

As the great engine set in motion by Karl Marx begins to lose steam, its parts slowly winding down and switching off, Karl Marx cranks away as furiously as ever, in a vain attempt to resuscitate the beast. Other kinemats tell of the horrors of Stalinism, the instability of modern nation-states, the relationship between the sexes, the doomed but eternal yearning for human freedom and the equally timeless desire to respond to suffering with imagination and creativity. The performance blends Russian folk art with Celtic influences, reflecting Bersudsky's unique mix of experiences and inspiration. Along with his intensely individual creative approach, this is what keeps Sharmanka's art so personal. It is all the more powerful and captivating for it.
From mid July Sharmanka will be housed at 1st floor, 64 Osborn Street Glasgow . Check website for details.