Tall Stories

The original interactive gaming consoles: Heather Smith on the Tall Stories automata, at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen

Tall Stories

Look and definitely touch is the theme of the exhibition Tall Stories, currently running at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, Bovey Tracey. Based in a bright, whitewashed room within the old mill building, visitors are encouraged to play (carefully!) with the collection of automata and kinetic sculptures and discover the stories they have to tell.

‘Other worlds’ feature large in the exhibition. Artist Tony Mann introduces us to the Folke, simple wooden shapes fashioned using a bandsaw who have evolved, via the application of typeface and graphics, into distinct identities and communities. Mann’s work describes the Folke culture and their attempts to understand the outside world.  In the interactive piece Computorium, the Folke research human number theory and usage.

The artist’s accompanying words show his unease as, like the stereotypical mad scientist, he starts to appreciate the power and potential of his creations: ‘And the Folke are getting very clever, very fast… maybe I should stop making them before it is too late.’  His sinister words leave the viewer wondering whether they should also play a part in halting their progress by refusing to turn the handle on the exhibit

It does seem incredible that, in these times of eye-popping 3D film and television, the action of a simple wooden pendulum making the eyes move in Robert Race’s work Watching the Girls Go By, and the grating of wood imitating the sound of sails caught in the breeze in Susan Evans’s Three Boats still have the power to captivate audiences. These are the original interactive gaming consoles – surely we have grown out of them by now? From the number of people getting hands-on, it seems not.

Fairytale and myth have also provoked responses from artists including Laurence and Angela St Leger with their awe-inspiring dolls-house sized automata including a tiny cow jumping over an even tinier moon.

More than mere toys, the fascinating automata on display are also wonderful works of art. The mechanical parts of Wanda Sowry’s pieces are plainly on show, the cams and pinions as beautifully crafted as the Mexican skeleton orchestra and the fearsome Kraken that magically come to life as a handle is turned.

Non-moving pieces including mosaics and ceramics are also featured in the exhibition. Particularly striking are Melanie Tomlinson’s tableaus, which are created from hand-painted and printed metal. Shining and brilliant with colour and imagery, Autumn Forest draws the viewer into a highly detailed 3D scene complete with canopies of russet leaves, roosting birds and scurrying foxes.

Drawing inspiration from his grandmother, who carefully placed the plugs back into sockets at night in order to stop the electricity dribbling onto the carpet, Andy Hazell imagines the world from the viewpoint of voles. In the humorous, but oddly touching piece, Voles Think God is Dead, the finely crafted tin animals surround a light bulb, the despair of one easily recognizable.

The artistic use of found objects is never more appropriate than in this exhibition, the items tapping directly into childhood memories of the ‘scraps box’, jammed full with oddments perfect for re-combining and re-imagining. Cathy Miles’s cheerful wire framed budgies, parakeets and cockatiels are stuffed with a variety of items including pieces of plastic and toy fir trees.

Tall Stories is full of fun and imagination. The quote in the visitors book sums it up nicely: ‘I haven’t smiled and laughed in an exhibition as much as this.’ Quite.

Toy Stories is at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and runs until Sunday, April 25.

Heather Smith

After years in denial, Heather Smith has finally conceded that she is a writer, willing to exchange the products of many hours of blood, sweat and crossing-out for the chance of being published.In addition to PRSD and Art+Culture she has written for Art Cornwall, iwalkdevon and Behind the Spin. She also blogged about her life as a mature student on Later Study. In her spare time she enjoys watching her bantams think up new ways of destroying her veg patch, camera-less photography and making jewellery with found objects. Her ambition is to become a mad old woman and own an alpaca called Gerald.