When did you realise you would become an automaton maker?
I was five years old when I first saw Eureka, a sculpture by Jean Tinguely. I remember feeling that that poetry of gears and mechanics was talking right to me. Soon after I started to make my own toys, because I didn’t like the ones you could buy. Fifty years on, I am still creating my own toys.
How do you become an automaton maker?
There’s no school to teach you this craft, you have to learn from a master. I studied mechanics first and later sculpture at the Academy of Fine Art in Lausanne. Then I learned everything from Michel Bertrand, an automaton maker known throughout the world, who by a stroke of luck was my best friend’s father.
Tomas Bertelsen © Michelangelo Foundation
How do you start building an automaton?
You start from the story that you want to tell with it. In terms of mechanics there is little you can invent, because you have to assemble bolts, screws and gears. The point is how you put all these elements together, how you use them, and that’s where infinite possibilities open up.
What is the most exciting moment of your work?
Obviously it’s when the automaton makes its first movement: an inanimate object comes to life. And then it’s the contact with the purchasers; whether they come from Switzerland, the UAE or Singapore, the expression on the face of a person who sees a moving automaton is always the same. It’s a mixture of awe and wonder, which takes you back to when you were a child.