The old fairytale of turning something hideous into something beautiful… does not apply here. Well, not at Laura Maxwell’s first glance, anyway. Walking through Glasgow’s Street Level Gallery, I have a childhood flashback. I’m suddenly seven again, tiptoeing through the oldest Toys ‘R’ Us in history. Dolls’ eyes staring, dinosaur heads snarling, skulls seeing with no eyes, my head telling me to run and find Daddy, quick. They at least weren’t aiming to scare. Eduard Bersudsky’s Sharmanka range seemed to have been attempting just that.
Everything has grotesque expressions or is scarily archaic. I’m given a shove in the back to move up and to my horror, the clockwork toy ahead of me starts to move. It gives jagged, rhythmic movements, knocking bells in time with the stereo speaker beside it. This is art? It may be the shadowy lighting and haunting music rather than the toys themselves that make me require a therapist, so I tell myself to look closer. Sure the doll in Toys ‘R’ Us freaked me out. But that didn’t stop me begging Santa for one. A startling entrance won’t stop me noseying at the toys.
But looking closer creates more questions than it answers. What looks like a ram’s head on an old fashioned iron machine, taps its boot rhythmically, a monkey on a ball swinging between its legs. The plaque beneath it reads “Self-Portrait with Monkey”. Did this artist see himself as a mechanical monster? And just what exactly was he trying to say with a monkey on a ball between his legs?
Working out of his Glasgow flat, Eduard Bersudsky was a Russian immigrant, collecting scraps from all over. He especially loved the legendary Barras. These scraps became statues and statues became performing machines.
“When I am asked where my ideas come from, I can only say ‘from heaven’. I have a feeling that it is not me who makes the machines, they make themselves, I just help them.” Eduard Bersudsky
Moving on to the next machine is a little clearer. A boat of rats flexes its paddles as a skeleton woman stands on the edge. “Aurora – The Battleship of the Revolution”. Dedicated to George Wyllie, whom Eduard was a fan of, the boat is based on the moored ship of St. Petersburg, famed for shooting a signal to herald the 1917 October Revolution. So now he shows a political aspect?
More machines are shown, some very morbid. My original reaction is more understandable as we come to “Forget me not”, which is a machine made to look like a funeral cart, soon followed by “Orient Express”, an image of Death.
My favourite statue is at the front of the exhibition but was near the end of the tour. “Nickodym” and “Shaman” are a man and woman set standing next to each other, their stereotypes flaring. The stereo plays a too deep voice for “Nickodym” and a too squeaky voice for “Shaman”.
Shaman’s skull of a head and a lampshade for hair is just the start. As you look down her vacuum tube body, her groin is a spinning top operated by two levers in her hands, opening and closing. Her “husband” moves on wheels, a symbol at his legs with a none-too-subtle erect lever operating it. I don’t need the pamphlet to explain that one.
As my class walks round, the tour guide’s – Tatyana Jakovskaya – voice stays in my mind. “Eduard didn’t like the pamphlet. I did that. He said he preferred people to look at his work and see what they took from it.”
Ordinarily, I would agree with Eduard. I like to say to my friends, “That’s not what I saw at all” but without the pamphlet or plaques, I would have just screamed and ran out the door.