In a shed near the southern tip of Te Wai Pounamu, Blair Somerville turns a tiny handle at the base of a wooden frame. An array of pāua shells lights up, each one a shiny bowl flashing on and off to recreate a familiar sight: a digital display that counts up from “0” to “9”.
It’s one among dozens of little gadgets and gizmos that he’s created over the last two decades, says Te Manawa programme developer Gary Collins, who visited Somerville last summer.
“It’s this whole upcycling thing where he’ll walk along the beach and collect things,” Gary says, “so he’s always got stuff to make stuff from. He’ll put milk bottle tops into a sandwich press to make plastic sheets, which he can use as a colour filter for LEDs.”
All of Somerville’s pieces are grounded in this built-from-the-ground-up philosophy, Gary says.
“About the only step further you could take is if the battery packs were bits of zinc and copper stuck into potatoes or lemons!”
The name for all these little machines is “automata”. Gary was preparing an exhibition of such devices from the UK-based group Cabaret Mechanical Theatre when he heard of Somerville’s work. Now “Curious Contraptions” features objects from both.
The exhibition has a high level of interactivity, with almost all the automata on display capable of being activated by the turn of a handle or the push of a button. The Queen waves her famous wave, a maestro hammers out a piano concerto and a cheeky dog goes skiing, and it’s the visitor who makes it all happen.
“They have a character to them. It’s like comics that have come alive; they can tell a story,” explains Gary. “You get a sense of the personalities of the people who made them, too. They’re all interesting and a little off-beat. It’s fascinating they earn a living by making what some would think are toys.”
The modern history of automata goes back to the 18th century, when a French bloke called Jacques de Vaucanson was inspired by his medical studies to make machines that mimicked humans. He even briefly became a monk so he could work without people bothering him.
Vaucanson’s inventions included a fully automated loom and a lathe that could cut metal. These machines made so much possible: the Industrial Revolution and the early computing work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace among them. It could be argued that today’s world would be very different without this one Frenchman and his weird hobby!
More than fifty automata make up Curious Contraptions. Each occupies a strange space between toy and sculpture, and it’s this that lends the exhibition its broad appeal. It combines the fascination of mechanics and engineering with the joy of pushing buttons and making stuff go. Visitors of all ages will find something to love.
Curious Contraptions run until 27 October. Entry is by donation.