Glasgow: Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Display containing the Bell Ringers, the Hunchback, the Tower of Medieval Science, the Tower of Babel, the Castle, and the Clock of Life. These are meant to tell the story of Stalin’s purges.

Now, this is an interesting one. Not that most of the places I visit don’t have something interesting about them, but this one is really a bit out there. Knowing what a fan I am of animatronics, and well, just weird shit, basically, Marcus booked us tickets to see the “adult” version of the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, which took place at 5pm on a Sunday (check their website for all available dates and times) and lasted for about an hour. It cost £10.

La Strada (On the Road) “Who pulls the strings? Who is being pulled?”

We arrived just in the nick of time (we got a bit lost on the way there, because Sharmanka doesn’t have its own dedicated building, but is housed inside an arts centre (Trongate 103), which took us much longer to figure out than it should have), and it was a good thing too, because the doors are locked for the duration of the show (I wish they would do this at the theatre too, because I hate jerks walking in halfway through the first act, which is what happened when I recently saw Hadestown at the National Theatre (which was otherwise great). They always are inevitably seated right in the middle of the row too – what’s up with that? Do only jerks pick those seats?). I should emphasise that you could get out, just that nobody could get in. It wasn’t a fire hazard or anything.

Detail from the Orient Express. “An image of Death riding a railcar over the vast Steppes of Russia.”

So, what the hell is Sharmanka(?), you may be asking yourself at this point, and rightly so. Well, to quote their information sheet, “Sharmanka is the Russian word for barrel organ.”…which really does not explain what the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre is. More to the point, it is a show wherein metal sculptures light up and move to music. “This set of Kinetic Sculptures was made by Eduard Bersudsky in his only living space, an 18-square-metre room in a communal flat in Leningrad in the 1970s and ’80s.” Bersudsky was not permitted to exhibit these sculptures under communism, so for a while it was just an eccentric hobby. However, he did start showing them from 1989 onwards, but due to a lack of money to support the arts in Russia (or at least his version of the arts), he decided to move his collection to Scotland in the mid 1990s. They have been on display in their current location since 2009.

Victoria. “The figure of a crucified man in a yarmulke comes to life in the centre of moving chains, swords, and saws.”

The show begins whilst you are seated on benches around a large display of these kinetic figures. They light up one by one, music comes on, and the action kicks in. These particular figures were probably the most family-friendly, simply being of towers and things with little men doing acrobatics and ringing bells. After about fifteen minutes of watching this, you are asked to move to the back of the theatre, and that’s where things get a bit lewd. Well, more than a bit.

NIckodym. “Co-operation of genders.”

I believe the family friendly show simply progresses to another large display of figures opposite the er, randy ones, since those never lit up whilst we were there, and they must use them for something. The adult show has you moving around the room to follow the figures lined up around the perimeter as they light up, and since they don’t go in order, it’s kind of fun trying to guess which one will light up next (I watched the room like a hawk, and was enormously pleased when I managed to detect movement before everyone else, ensuring myself a prime spot in front of the next figure). Like the main display of figures, these all move as well, though these had the added benefit of pretty much all having some sort of penis, one of which was almost poking me right in the eye during one of the displays (so actually, maybe don’t sit right in front of them!). One guy had a literal bell-end with a miniature bell dangling from his tip.

Willy-the-Belfry. “Willy was a Shetland pony who patiently watched Eduard work in the first few years of our time in Scotland.”

Well, I suppose it wasn’t all phallocentric, since some of the figures had breasts instead, like the figure of Death a few paragraphs up, since Death is viewed as female in Russian culture. But lest you worry, there was no actual robot sex happening in front of us, just a lot of awfully bouncy penises, one of which was even operating a treadle that clashed a cymbal. I think you can probably tell I’m fairly lost for words as to how best to describe this show (though I certainly snickered a lot as I was watching it) – I think it’s just one of those things you’d have to see for yourself.

This guy didn’t move, but I think he’s meant to be St. Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow.

The robots are mainly made from old junk, so they’re not the most attractive things, but they are quite creative, especially the troll with boogers bouncing up and down in his nose. The music is specifically chosen to match up with each robot and its action, but I didn’t always see an obvious connection between the music and the theme of each piece (most of the songs are just instrumentals, and I’m not familiar enough with classical music to have known what they were). I think the general message here is meant to be one about the dangers of communism, but if you hadn’t read the descriptions about each figure, I don’t know if you would have necessarily gotten that from just watching them (though I suppose the rats contained within the pieces to represent the worker cogs in the machine were a clue. They reminded me of that piss-take of a Soviet cartoon they show in Krusty Gets Cancelled, with Worker and Parasite).

Self Portrait with Monkey. This is the booger troll.

It was indeed a very unusual experience, and certainly at least in theory the sort of thing I enjoy, though not quite on the same level as animatronic presidents. I do think some of the pieces did their things for longer than they needed to, as there’s only so long you can watch a robot wiggle his willy (surprisingly, I know, as I would have thought I could watch that sort of thing for hours), but I think I would have regretted not seeing it once I’d heard about it, so I’m glad we went, even though I don’t think I really got the message it was trying to send. 3/5.

Selection of figures including Shaman (middle).

London: The Fashion and Textile Museum


A few Fridays ago, my boyfriend and I went to see the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory, near London Bridge (despite the name, and to my disappointment, it is no longer a working chocolate factory.  Good thing I swung by Konditor and Cook to stock up on brownies beforehand).  Because it has reached the point where I feel like a lousy blogger if I go into Central and don’t visit a museum, I decided I might as well head into town early and find somewhere new to check out, but that was easier said than done. Even though London has a crapload of museums, I’ve worked my way through most of them since starting Diverting Journeys.  However, thanks to Google maps, I was reminded that there is a Fashion and Textile Museum, also near London Bridge, that I had never been to, with exhibitions on knitwear and wallpaper, both of which were ending that weekend.  Being a fan of quirky jumpers and Victorian wallpaper, it seemed like the perfect time to check it out (though not really the perfect time to blog about it, since neither of these exhibits are there now.  Oh well, just think of this blog as a sort of time capsule).

I think the £8.80 admission fee had probably deterred me from visiting in the past, but sometimes these things are unavoidable, so I parted with the cash (I kind of hate myself for using the British pronunciation of adult when I buy tickets to things, but I do it anyway because I’m scared they’ll look at me funny otherwise.  I need to get over my social anxiety).  The museum was apparently started by Zandra Rhodes (who freaks me out a bit), and doesn’t have a permanent collection; rather, it is made up of ever-changing temporary exhibitions, in keeping with the transient nature of fashion (plus a shop and cafe).  “Visionary Knitwear” was the larger of the exhibits by far, filling almost all the gallery space, save one small room.  It contained items from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield (no idea who they are, the museum seemed to imply that I should already know), which covered the Edwardian era through the 1980s.

Weirdly, for something so artistically orientated, you weren’t allowed to take photographs (and they were really emphatic about it too, with slashed out camera signs hanging every few feet, just in case you forgot I guess), so I can’t actually show you any of these styles, but there were definitely some beautiful items of clothing there.  The Edwardian “golf sweaters” were gorgeous, and I really liked some of the folk and Fair Isle knits from the 1930s, plus the “novelty knits” from the ’60s and ’70s, especially the ice cream sundae and the eagle (I have a thing for stupid animal sweaters.  I only have an orangutan, fox, and puffin so far, but I’m always looking to add to the collection.  I’m not a hipster though, I swear!).  I was less happy with the signage, which seemed aimed at people familiar with the fashion industry and its terminology.  It was more about the construction of the garments than the history behind them (there was some history on the larger introductory signs, but not enough for my liking), and used a lot of terms I didn’t even really understand, not being a knitter or someone who works in fashion (I used to work in a department store, but Kohl’s is really not that fancy, and required no technical knowledge of the clothing industry).

The wallpaper exhibit, confined to the aforementioned back room, was possibly of more interest simply because they really did go into the history of the Watts firm and the many historic homes that contain their wallpapers.  The company was started by “Middle Scott” (son of George Gilbert Scott, who designed St. Pancras, and father of Giles Gilbert Scott, who was responsible for Battersea Power Station and the iconic red telephone booth) and several of his architect friends – because gentlemen weren’t supposed to sully their good names by being involved in trade in those times, they chose Watts as a sort of pun, as in, “What’s in a name?”  Because they were architects, rather than just designers, they took a different perspective on wallpaper design than their competitor William Morris, and thus made paper that took into consideration the exterior of the building as well as the interior (they also seemed to have a larger range of choices than William Morris, as you could have any of their designs made up in whatever colours you liked).

They certainly won me over with their papers, which tended to be two-tone, and were thus much less busy than William Morris’s papers (I think they might be my new choice for my hypothetical Victorian parlour, maybe the Sunflower or Pear Tree patterns, no offence to William Morris, but I get enough of him at the local history project I volunteer with).  Whilst the knitwear exhibit suffered from having too little text, I think the wallpaper one almost had too much, as I didn’t really need to hear what various posh people thought of their wallpapers, or a list of every stately home they appear in.  Still, too much is better than not enough, though in the words of Caroline Ingalls, “enough is as good as a feast.”

The shop sold some Zandra Rhodes designs, as well as a lot of random jewellery and other crap, but all I left with was a postcard of my favourite ice cream jumper.  I feel like admission was steep for what was actually there and how long it took me to see it (under an hour).  I’m glad I finally checked it out, but I don’t think I’m interested enough in 20th century fashion to go back, especially with the lack of historical detail for many of the pieces.  2.5/5.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about that play, it was very good (despite the predictable historical inaccuracies)!  I love presidential history, so I was really excited when I heard Assassins was coming back to London, and aside from the ever-annoying Catherine Tate, I thought the cast did a really nice job (highlights were Aaron Tveit as John Wilkes Booth and Andy Nyman as Charles Guiteau.  Also the guy who played Franklin Delano Romanowski in Seinfeld was playing Samuel Byck, which is exciting if you’ve watched Seinfeld as many times as I have).  Two caveats, if you decide to go see it yourself: Seats F7 and F8 have a restricted view, something we were not informed of when we bought the tickets, which were the same price as tickets with an unrestricted view.  Unless you enjoy not being able to see a third of the stage, avoid those.  Also, the play is set in a carnival, so there are a lot of giant creepy-ass clown heads in there; depending on your degree of coulrophobia, that may be something else to avoid.  Like all sensible people, I hate clowns, but I managed fine even with its horrible light-up eyes staring at me the whole time, so you might be ok too…just thought I’d throw the warning out there!