The Sharmanka Travelling Circus is a performing mechanical theatre where haunting music and synchronised light combine with striking handmade sculptures. There is a darkness there, but the choreography is mesmerising as it tells its stories of the human spirit. See it for yourself at Victoria Art Gallery from 23 February to 7 May

Sharmanka Travelling Circus was created in Russia, perfected in Scotland and has developed an enthusiastic audience in China. Despite its international reach, the concept was born from one underground artist’s particular vision. Russian for ‘barrel organ’, Sharmanka creates art forms combining sculpture, movement, light and theatre. So you won’t find static artworks in this exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery – be prepared to be entertained.

The Boat featured in Sharmanka Travelling Circus

Eduard Bersudsky, whose vision has driven the company’s work, was an underground artist in the former Soviet Union. Artists wanting to exhibit in Russia at the time had to be part of the official arts union, but the content of their work was heavily controlled. Eduard wasn’t interested in this – he just wanted to make his own work, and so avoided the official arts scene, exhibiting instead in underground exhibitions. Theatre director Tatyana Jakovskaya met Eduard in 1987 just before the Soviet Union collapsed and said to him that his work needed to be seen. Sergey Jakovsky, Tatyana’s son, who has since become a central part of the Sharmanka team, explains that Eduard didn’t believe her at the time. “She persuaded him to show his work to the public and that was the start of the story.”

The artist’s vision behind the works is, quite literally, dreamlike. “It’s difficult to pin down Eduard’s inspiration,” says Sergey. “He doesn’t do self-assessment – his inspiration comes from his dreams, his nightmares and much depends on how well he sleeps. There are certain artists that haveinspired him, though – the work of Hieronymus Bosch has certainly had a strong influence.”

“There is Russian folklore there, too, and we have a collection of early machines, original pieces brought from Russia which are made from wood and include mechanical elements. Originally Eduard’s work embraced darker themes, and a little bit of politics. So when we left Russia and moved to Glasgow in 1993, the work changed, as it has continued to do over the decades. The more he lived in Scotland the kinder he got. Originally he thought he could only make art from dark stuff, but in the last decade or so there are more human figures, and more animals.”

Sharmanka Travelling Circus: Eternal Triangle of Love

The pieces are all made from found and collected junk. The Barras Weekend Market in Glasgow’s east end is a great source of material, and mechanical and metal pieces are found through antique fairs and old markets. Sharmanka are so well-known in the region that people bring objects and materials to them, and having developed good local relationships, they are able to source wood from Glasgow’s parks and gardens.

The technology behind Sharmanka is fairly complex – we are essentially running a small-scale theatre

The idea of adding light, sound and sequencing to Eduard’s artwork was Tatyana’s. “The technology behind Sharmanka is fairly complex – we are essentially running a small-scale theatre,” says Sergey. “In terms of quantity of equipment we have no less than any theatre around us, we are just on a smaller scale. The complexity of what we do is probably more than that of the average British theatre.”

The Victoria Art Gallery show will be hosting nine of Sharmanka’s smaller scale pieces and one larger piece, which will give a 20-minute performance every hour. The pieces will play alternately, so there will be constantly something happening in the gallery. So the audience will get a chance to see each of the machines doing their own thing in sequence, then there will be a finale where they interact with each other.

Sergey describes the larger piece: “We were commissioned by an arts centre on the Isle of Stornaway to do a piece called The Loom, which is made from the parts of the old looms that were originally used on the island to make Harris tweed. It’s a beautiful piece of machinery, with cast iron pieces. So we bought one from one of the original weavers on the island, reimagined it, gave it light and sound and Eduard created animals for the inside to give the impression that they were driving the machine.”

How does the process of designing the kinetic sculptures work? “Eduard creates the machine first,” says Sergey. “Once he is happy, we get his thoughts about the machine. Then we divide it into different sections so we can see the story rhythmically and then I go away and think about appropriate music. I come back with a set of buttons linked to different parts of the machine and I show them the sequence that I think works. The music needs to match the machine rhythmically, and it either works or it doesn’t. We’ve done enough now to know when it’s right. The last stage is the visual presentation in the gallery space, adding light, shadows and programming the whole thing to work as the mechanical puppet theatre for which we have become known.”

Sergey has developed technology that allows the whole show to happen at the press of a button – the computerised systems create a digital loop that drives music, lights sound and the machines. “Eduard is an artist but he’s not had the mechanical training, so he creates beautiful works but we have to reassemble them and maintain them in a way so they will last. These days they are much more reliable, and the museum will be able to manage them.”

Eduard, who has been carving wood and working with his hands since the mid-1970s, celebrates his 80th birthday next year. “He is a very strong person mentally and physically, but he is slowing down,” says Sergey. Fortunately Sergey, who studied music at the Royal Academy of Music in Glasgow in the early noughties, has seen the development of every stage of the business.

“I grew up backstage when my mum and my original dad had a small theatre back in St Petersberg before my mum met Eduard,
so that’s where I grew up. This is all I have ever known. As I got older I took on more tasks, starting from floor sweeping right through until I became technical director. And because of Eduard’s physical limits nowadays I have been working more and more closely with him on creating the machines.

So there is no danger of Sharmanka fading away: “I am the future of Sharmanka,” says Sergey. This is a very interesting point in the family’s history. We talk about it openly always.”

There is no pressure on me to continue, but I’m loving the idea of continuing because I see the effect it has on people

Sharmanka has worked on individual commissions from arts bodies, such as the Millennium Clock Tower in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh; Noah’s Ark in Parque de Las Ciencias, Granada, Spain; and Leonardo-2 at Kopernik in the Science Museum, Warsaw, Poland. Lately they have shown work in China: “Our latest experiment of touring and exhibiting extensively in China has been a great success. In all our time in Glasgow, we never had as many visitors as we had in six months in China. Everything is on a different scale there altogether. One of our most popular sculptures has recently been sold to Shanghai.”

“It’s very difficult to describe Sharmanka in words,” says Sergey. “I think it has to be seen. The great thing is that in our experience people of different generations and cultures and ages find something that appeals to them. The unique thing about it is that it’s moving art, it’s animated art, it’s three-dimensional, it’s not static.”

Looking ahead to the future Sergey says, “After 30 years of being with the Sharmanka family I am still not bored of it. There is no pressure for me to continue, but I’m loving the idea of continuing because I see the effect it has on people. If I’m ever a bit tired, all it takes is to remember the many positive audience comments we get. It appeals to all sorts of people of all ages and it’s such a multi-layered art. It is cross generational, cross cultural, art for all really.

Sharmanka Travelling Circus is at Victoria Art Gallery, Bath from 23 February to 7 May. For further information about Sharmanka, visit sharmanka.com

Photography by Robin Mitchell
Featured image: Sharmanka Travelling Circus: a combination of pieces including Mannheimer, The Leg and Push and Pull