The unique creations of a Russian immigrant have enthralled Glasgow's children. Brian Hayward went to see them.
Some say it's Glasgow's best-kept secret; Glasgow City Council prefers to call it the "hidden treasure". Either way, Eona Craig, the city's arts development officer for education, still finds it uphill work telling schools about the unique creations of Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre. "My problem is how to describe it. When I offer a workshop to a school, and they ask me what sort of thing it is, all I say is, 'Just go'."
It's good advice. To see it is to be fascinated by an art form as distinctive as the man who created it. The idiosyncratic mix of metalwork, electricity and wood carving, spiked with wit and feeling, is the product of Eduard Bersudsky's extraordinary life.
Born in 1939 in St Petersburg, then Leningrad, he trained as an electrician, but started wood carving when he was 25. Making a living from a string of jobs, he taught himself about art in libraries and at the city's Hermitage. His exhibitions with dissident artists in the 1970s attracted the attention of the KGB and he went underground, working secretly at home while making a living carving wooden sculptures for the city's parks.
When perestroika came, he and his partner Tatiana Jakovskaia founded Sharmanka (Russian for organ-grinder), but rising poverty and anti-Semitism forced them to emigrate, and by indirect ways they came to set up their gallery in Glasgow's King Street in 1995.
The demise of Strathclyde Region made it harder for the city to honour Sharmanka in the way they wanted but the city is determined to hold on to its theatre.
"We don't want them to go anywhere else," says Eona Craig. "We're so lucky to have something so captivating and entertaining on our doorstep."
To prove her point, she has bought 100 workshops for Glasgow schools this year. "The kinetic sculptures cover so many areas of the curriculum - physics, geography, history. They work right across the age and ability range - primary, secondary and special needs. Because it is art, everybody makes their own meanings."
A case in point is "The Last Eagle in the Highlands". Above our heads, with an antlered skull at each end, it flaps its stumpy wings and, with flamingos' knees, pedals its monocycle to the strains of "Ye Banks and Braes". It was inspired by an American scientist investigating the decline of the Golden Eagle, who found that the conifer plantations were planted too close for its wingspan. So it shortened its wings, pretended to be a deer, and learned to ride a bicycle. "But," Tatiana adds sadly, "you can only make so many sacrifices to suit your country."
I joined a workshop for a class of children from a West End primary school, who were clearly engrossed by the wonder of it all. The performance begins in near darkness, and the eerie music and dramatic lighting give something of the "House of Horrors" sensation, so much so that one child asked Tatiana afterwards if she thought the sculptures came alive at night.
This first part of the performance is of a dozen sculptures made in Russia. Most are cheerful artefacts, but Tatiana almost apologised for "The Castle". This tower of death, filled with flailing knives and parading skulls, is a monument to Stalin's purge of 1937, when poets and artists were among the millions who met their deaths in the massacre. "When you start killing people for an ideology, it is difficult to stop," she sighs. Alas for human nature, the boys afterwards voted this one their favourite.
The second part of the performance is made up of 10 works created in Scotland. Bersudsky finds his output increased threefold by his improved facilities here. Adding to the gallery and making commissions for foreign museums, he works 12 hours a day and very little tempts him out of his workshop, certainly not the pleadings of the class. "Is he still alive?" "Can we see him?" "No, he doesn't speak English, only Russian. And that not very often," adds Tatiana, with the merest hint of rancour.
Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre,14 King Street, Glasgow G1 5HD,telfax: 0141