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The inner workings of surreal mechanical sculptures

For a new exhibit, artists bring creatures to colorful life though objects that are part toys, part art and part science.

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James Martin

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For the "Curious Contraptions" exhibit at San Francisco's Exploratorium, artists bring mechanical art to life through engineering and fairy-tale-like storytelling.

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"Instrument Man," by Carlos Zapata. Eleven artists from around the world contributed to the Exploratorium exhibit, which opened Friday. 

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"Everlasting Love," by Colombian-born, United Kingdom–based Carlos Zapata. The artist uses materials that have already lived other lives-- like reclaimed wood and scrap metal -- to create colorful narratives.

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"Curious Contraptions" includes 30 absurdist sculptures known as automata. 

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"The Day of the Dead Band," by Wanda Sowry. Most of the artist's work is unpainted, emphasizing the natural colors in the different types of wood she selects.

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Complex systems of low-tech gears and levers power anatomical movements of the automata on display at the Exploratorium. 

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On the move, thanks to cranks and gears: the mythical "Dieselpunk Pegasus" by Keith Newstead. "Automata," the artist says, "is really about exploring and inventing mechanisms that re-create some movement you might find in life."

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"Boneshakers" by Matt Smith. The mechanical sculptures convey colorful and sometimes emotionally expressive miniature narratives.

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"An Allegory of Love" by Paul Spooner. 

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"The Banana Ripener" by Paul Spooner. Spooner built a wooden clock, a wooden steam engine, and weaving looms for his wife before taking up automata as an art form in 1981. 

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A closer look at the mechanics of "The Banana Ripener" sculpture.

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The "Curious Contraptions" exhibit runs through Jan. 28 at San Francisco's Exploratorium. 

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