Thomas Kuntz was born in Arizona in 1965, the youngest of four. His father was a surgeon, his mother a doll-maker, and as a child he pored over anatomy books, building scale models by age six.
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After a spell as a professional footballer – he was offered an apprenticeship with Austrian club Admira Wacker – he stumbled into a career making commercial toys, then model kits based on characters from silent movies. He now works full-time as an automaton artist, making creepy moving sculptures and machines.
Thomas’ works are dark, satirical and not like anything else on the planet. He’s sold pieces to Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro; Richard J Landon, mechanical designer on films including Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns; and Michael Jackson. He’s also created moving pieces for industrial band Skinny Puppy’s live show and videos.
I’m unsure whether to visit Los Angeles on this tour, and decide it all hinges on whether I can gain access to an incredible artist called Thomas Kuntz. I manage to find his email address, and ask if it’d be possible to photograph his work.
I don’t expect a yes – I’ve been told that he’s a nocturnal recluse, and from other whispers I’ve heard about him I’ve created an image of Buffalo Bill from Silence Of The Lambs in my head.
The message I get back, however, says, “If you’re the Simon Drake, the magician who created The Secret Cabaret, I’d be honoured by your visit. I’m a huge fan.” My past comes to the rescue once again!
On the plane to LA I find myself sitting next to a chatty American woman, an English teacher, who asks me about my trip.
When I tell her about Thomas Kuntz, pronouncing his name ‘Kuuntz’, she asks how it’s spelt and then corrects me, in a crystal-clear, slightly patronising voice: “No, actually I think you will find that the name is pronounced ‘Cunts’.”
Then, ashen-faced, she looks around at the other passengers who have heard her gaffe. She turns white, coughs and doesn’t say another word.
I arrive in Canoga Park, a suburb of LA, in my rental car. The woman on my sat nav makes the same mistake, announcing, “You have arrived at Thomas Cunts’”.
I pull into the parking bay of a series of warehouses on a typical industrial estate. I press the buzzer on an ominous and unfriendly-looking door festooned with ‘Keep Away’ signs, CCTV and huge locks.
A tall, smiling man greets me. I instantly know we’ll get on well, and ask if everyone makes the faux pas with his surname. He says they do, and we laugh. But as I’m soon to discover, Thomas is anything but a cunt. He and his partner Blake are now good friends of mine, and among the kindest and most talented people I have ever met.
Thomas Kuntz is a contemporary artist who’s “fighting to bring ancient arcana and modern technologies together as weapons for aesthetic enlightenment”.
As far as I’m concerned, he’s the finest automaton builder alive. Few automaton builders, if any (there aren’t many left) actually mill the cogs, levers and cams, as well as sculpting all the parts. Thomas has been working as a professional artist since 1986, but his private projects tend to feature the mysterious, horrific and bittersweet aspects of human nature.
He’s devoted a lifetime to acquiring the skills of a designer, sculptor, mechanic, automatist, animator, model-maker, painter and conceptualist.
His influences include surrealism, engineering, atom-age kitsch, erotica, exotica, the Renaissance, horology (the art of measuring time), anthropology (the study of humans), artificial life/androids and anatomy. He mixes dark humour with theatrics and the occult.
Thomas’ early inspiration came from expressionist films of the 1910s and 20s. He particularly identifies with Cesare the sleepwalker in The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920), played by Conrad Veidt, who says, “In a way we’re all sleepwalkers in a controlled world.”
Subsequent inspiration came from the legendary Vampira (Maila Nurmi, 1922-2008). They met when Thomas wanted permission to model a Vampira figure, and remained confidants until the day when Thomas was a pallbearer at her funeral.
Thomas coined the term ‘haxanthrobotic’ for use in performance art, by which he means a performing figure that seems to be moving by supernatural means.
He explains, “I hesitate to use the word ‘robotics’ to describe what I do, because nowadays it conjures images of institutional science, sci-fi, films like Star Wars or military and industrial machinery. All of which is related to, but totally different from what I do. So I figured I’d label myself before others had a chance to!”
Researchers currently trying to bring robotic designs into homes for practical purposes – especially Japanese engineers – have used the term ‘uncanny valley’ to describe the point where the robot or human facsimile is too real to look fake, but too fake to be real. This leaves the human subject’s mind in an uncomfortable ‘threshold’ provoking fear and anxiety, which is not a desirable thing if you’re making robots to take care of grannies.
Thomas, however, uses ‘uncanny valley’ as a destination point: “Victorian automata are spooky because they fall into this valley by accident, with the added allure of a time passed by,” he says. “Most people are creeped out, but don’t realise why.”
“The word ‘haxanthrobotic’ comes from a combination of three things,” he continues. “‘Haxan’, meaning witch; anthropology; and ‘robot’, from the Czech word for ‘worker’ – because science always dismisses magic, yet all science started as magic.
This is my dig at techno-arrogance and politically correct yet dehumanising robotic applications. My goal with these figures is art not industry – it’s more Dada than Disney. Technology has a dark side that has been sold to us through pleasing devices.”
As I enter Thomas’ house I’m plunged back in time, to a Victorian room with dusty display cases, crumbling velvet, ornate columns, horn gramophones and an antique dentist’s chair.
Every inch of space holds intriguing items. It’s demonic-Disney, infused with German director FW Murnau (Nosferatu, 1922) and tinted with the essence of legendary film model-maker Ray Harryhausen.
I proceed through an archway to The Spirit Room. To say it’s atmospheric would be an understatement, and I spot a few of Thomas’ automata.
As a woman looks away to sip her cocktail in ‘The Berlin Couple’, the man’s head transforms into the devil; a Magus gestures with his wand in the alchemical pentagram in ‘The Magus’; and ‘Rafaj, The Hookah Smoker’ sits in the corner staring at me.
Thomas’s sculpting is sublime. I ask about the hookah smoker and a figure of a laughing man, and I’m told they’re modelled on Conrad Veidt. German actor Veidt fled the Nazis, only to be typecast as one in Hollywood. Hookah-puffing Rafaj is based on Veidt in The Thief Of Bagdad (1940), while the laughing man (see p99) is inspired by the actor’s 1928 movie The Man Who Laughs – which was the inspiration for the Joker in the Batman comics.
Demons and gargoyles glare down as Thomas leads me to a bookcase, which opens up and suddenly I’m in a fluorescent-strip lit warehouse with massive lathes and machines of all kinds.
Some of the tools are antiques – all in immaculate condition – and I think it’s telling that a good deal of Thomas’ work is done on machines that are nearly as rare as the work they help produce.
He must have about half a dozen automata ‘on the go’ at once, and each occupies their own bench. ‘Sculpt corner’ is a breathtaking display of over 300 heads and figures, with a few works in progress perched on vertical stands.
Thomas is putting the finishing touches to the incredible ‘L’Oracle du Mort’, a fortune-telling magician. You insert your questions on a tablet and it predicts your future with uncannily natural articulation.
Towards the end of the machine’s cycle, he whispers to me, “Stand back a bit” – and a two-foot gas flame shoots from a small demonic oil lamp. “Sorry about that, it’s still at the testing stage, I really must turn it down a bit,” he says, as I laugh – and check if I need a change of pants.
Next up is the ‘Alchemist’s Clock Tower’, a 9ft automaton theatre. The alchemist, made up of hundreds of tiny hand-machined brass components, is 12in tall. He can appear on the upper floor or peer out the side windows, and is sometimes awakened by guests and opens the doors to scold the visitors. At times he reads from Goethe and conjures up spirits with fire and water effects.
The idea was to have a theatre performer automaton that can constantly change; something that traditional automata cannot do. It took four years to make and he sold the first one to Mark Parker, head honcho at Nike, for an undisclosed sum.
Each automaton is initially conceptualised and sketched on paper, to show the overall look and some sequence details. Another set of drawings then deals with the mechanical requirements for the sculpture’s desired movements.
From here the alchemical process begins, with an exquisite clay sculpture that’s transformed into a shell. This body houses gears, chains, shafts, cams, levers, cylinders and valves. Many materials are used, including brass, steel, wood and composites – all treated as they would’ve been in centuries past by the classic clockwork makers.
Thomas lives nocturnally, defying convention alongside his delightful girlfriend Blake Bolger. Her acting debut came when she was one year old, as the baby Dar in Beastmaster, and she’s has been doing special effects make-up and puppeteering for the last seven years. She’s worked on the movies Team America, Alien vs Predator and Feast to name a few, along with short films and live performance art. She also produced and did some effects for a Mindless Self Indulgence music video.
For the past few years, she’s been helping Thomas with costumes, animation and ordering pizzas. They have big plans together and I, for one, want to be there to see them when they come to life.
Find out more at Artomic.com, where you can also watch videos of some of Thomas’ automata. Search on YouTube for ‘haxanthrobo’ for lots more, and search for ‘Ohgr’ and ‘majik’ to see the work Thomas did with Skinny Puppy