Whimsical mechanical creatures spring to life, tell stories

These absurdist sculptures of people and animals explore the intersection of art and engineering -- and tell playful little tales while they're at it.

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In the right hands, bits of reclaimed wood, scrap metal and old tins, plus some cranks, gears, levers and cams, can turn into exotic birds, mystical dragons and whimsical old men.

For "Curious Contraptions," a new exhibit at San Francisco's Exploratorium, artists from around the world meld fairy tale-like storytelling and engineering to bring a range of objects to life in absurdist and sometimes amusing sculptures known as automata.

Automata "is really about exploring and inventing mechanisms to re-create some movement you might find in life," says Keith Newstead, one of the artists with work in the exhibit, which is part toys, part art and part science.

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Other featured artists include Paul Spooner, Fi Henshall, Hernán Lira, Noga Elhassid and Carlos Zapata, who defines automata as "creating life through movement" and contributed pieces with names like "Broken Hearts Repairman" and "Everlasting Love."

The surreal sculptures tell stories. Complex systems of low-tech gears and levers power anatomical movements of flopping fish, galloping mythical horses and handpainted wooden men in colorful and emotionally expressive miniature narratives.

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Hands-on experiences meant to inspire the engineering spirit will accompany the exhibit, which runs through Jan. 28. Explore the inner workings of these small, surreal worlds in our gallery below.