Tiny Wonders on the Big Screen

Al Ridenour writes about cultural curiosities and is the author of "Offbeat Food."

A tiny clockwork flea, one that can dance? It sounds like one of the improbable miniature wonders exhibited at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. And soon, it will be--as part of the first film produced by the museum's media arm, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information.

The Culver City museum almost closed when the owners of the building that houses it put the place up for sale in the late '90s. Eventually, through white-knuckle fund-raising and with major contributions from the Lannan, Bohen, Ahmanson and Ralph M. Parsons foundations, the museum was able to purchase the structure in early 2000, allowing for growth beyond the limited space previously leased.

Now the museum--an amalgam of science, pseudoscience and art--is readying for a series of expansions that will include a 16-seat theater (where the new film will be shown), as well as several new galleries, and eventually a tearoom and garden.

Curator David Wilson says that the film will be completed before the theater is finished, although he hopes to have both up and running in a matter of months. His first step after the purchase has been cleanup, particularly important since the owners had previously operated a forensics lab next door.

"This area was full of jugs with body parts," says Wilson, pointing down a narrow hallway lined with shelves. "We call it Stinky Hollow," he says with a chuckle. There's a droll, elfin quality to the 55-year-old Wilson, evident as he describes the haz-mat team lumbering about in suits like colorful circus tents. The new, improved Stinky Hollow is now a staging area for projects such as next summer's exhibition of stereoscopic X-rays of flowers.

Another upcoming show crossing science with art is an exhibition of Dalton slides. "This was a 19th century English convention," Wilson explains. "They're tiny mosaics made out of scales from butterfly wings and diatoms, which are little single-celled animals. People would assemble these in floral arrangements, just crazy things you'd have to look at under a microscope."

One of the goals of the museum's charter, he points out, "is to bring to a larger audience evidence of human artistry and ingenuity on a microscopic scale."

Enter that dancing flea. It's a fictional example of the dying art of the microminiature. The flea features prominently in the popular Russian tale "Levsha," from which the museum's upcoming film borrows both its name and a loose narrative thread. Wilson has been tracking microminiaturists ever since 1990, when he stumbled upon the work of Armenian artist Hagop Sandaljian displayed in the parish hall of a Boyle Heights church. Sandaljian's imagery was the standard folk-art fare (Mickey Mouse, the Pope), but his technique certainly was not. Working under a microscope and only applying his tools while steadied by braces, and even then only between heartbeats, Sandaljian carved and painted subjects the girth of a single human hair.

Wilson lost no time in mounting a show of the virtuoso's work at the museum. Three weeks before the opening, he received news that the elderly man had died. That loss inspired the film. Last August, Wilson and a small crew set out for Kiev and Nikolai Syadristry, now in his early 70s and believed to be one of only two microminiaturists still living. Wilson's Stateside crew was assisted by Olesya Turkina, curator of contemporary art at the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg, and her husband, Victor Mazin, of the Freud Dream Museum.

It was through this couple that Wilson learned the details of the story of Levsha, a gunsmith called by the czar to demonstrate Russian superiority over the English by out-engineering a marvelous clockwork flea presented by English benefactors. The nearly finished film weaves together passages from "Levsha" with Syadristry and his work as well as imagery from the Russian space program (in which Russian engineers likewise sought to outstrip their Western competition).

Wilson emphasizes the identification of the Russian people with Levsha, but it's also easy to see a bit of Levsha in him and his predilection for work on a miniature scale. Wilson's previous career was as a director of motion-control photography of film miniatures. Before that, his focus was insects--bugs that live in urban areas.

While pursuing a degree in urban entomology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, however, he had a change of heart and decided to follow a more creative vocation, enrolling at CalArts, where he picked up the camera skills that ultimately financed a good part of the museum's early years.

Miniatures are a small--excuse the pun--part of the museum's collection. For instance, the most recent permanent exhibition to open, "The World Is Bound With Secret Knots," explores the world of Athanasius Kircher, a 17th century Jesuit scholar who established the Museum Kircherianum as a repository for his inventions and collected curiosities. Frontispieces from Kircher's books are re-created for this exhibit as three-dimensional dioramas.

Wilson points out one from an ethnography of China. On a sort of Alice in Wonderland flower sits a character resembling an ornate dumpling. "Kircher wasn't allowed to travel because he was too valuable to the Vatican," he explains, "so he would send missionaries to bring back information. All the translations would become quite confused." This "very strange and wonderful blob-like figure," he says, is probably a Buddha.

Wilson's delight in the subjective, the confused and confusing is evident throughout the museum--from an exhibit detailing Deprong mori (a tropical bat allegedly using sonar to pass through solid matter) to the listening station where visitors can hear a buzzing sound ostensibly emitted by a stone. Tolerance for ambiguity differs, and some visitors, Wilson says, can find the experience infuriating.

"We have guest books going back to the early days and in every one of those, we have three or four occasions in which someone would sign in, see the museum and on the way out, entirely obliterate their name. Not cross it out, not put a line through it, but obliterate their name so no one could ever see any trace that they'd been here."

Even the museum's name, an impossible juxtaposition of technology and a pre-human geological era, sows seeds of confusion. Visitors eager to take their kids to see dinosaurs, Wilson says, can sometimes get a bit cranky. "Jurassic Park," it's not. There's no blockbuster budget. For years the museum has struggled, surviving on what Wilson calls a "series of miracles." Construction on the theater still awaits a grant. In this context too, Levsha, described by Wilson as a "person with very limited tools and very limited wealth," seems to beg for comparison.

So how does the old gunsmith solve his problems? Well, he doesn't. At least, he doesn't succeed in creating a better flea--in fact, he must return it to the czar, broken by his attempt to disassemble it for study. He manages, however, to balance this failure with an extraordinary success. On the all-but-invisible feet of the barely visible flea, he has added an even tinier detail--dancing shoes. The story's comic reversal relies on the unexpected, and this, at least, is something the museum has always had in boundless supply.

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MUSEUM OF JURASSIC TECHNOLOGY, 9341 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Hours: Thursdays, 2-8 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m. Admission: Donations suggested, on a sliding scale to $4. Phone: (310) 836-6131.

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