Science, Tech & Environment

One man's junk is another man's robot


Credit: Daniel Estrin

Berlin artist Kolja Kugler and his well-traveled, animatronic puppet Sir Elton Junk.

This is Sir Elton Junk — an animatronic puppet made of scrap metal, machine parts, and an Elton John spirit.

Kolja Kugler, a Berlin artist, is the robo-puppeteer. He is fascinated with nature and can't help but notice that parts of machines resemble parts of the human body.

"I just get an urge to free them from their unnatural state and put them back in their proper place," Kugler said in a recent talk for TEDxBerlin.

That's how the lid of an electric motor became Sir Elton Junk's head, and how pliers became his face. Parts of heart and lung machines help keep him alive, and pneumatic pistons using compressed gas power his facial expressions. 

In one crowd-pleasing skit, Sir Elton Junk — who sits in a supermarket cart — drinks a cup of water, sprays it out, and covers his eyes with his arm in embarrassment. All the while, Kugler manipulates him with a simple machinery grid.

Kugler taught himself engineering and mechanics, with the help of some friends. He says it took him one year to build Sir Elton Junk, and twelve years to repair him. "He breaks all the time," he says.

The artist took Sir Elton Junk on the road for a five-and-a-half-year trip to Southeast Asia, Australia and the three Americas. These days, they perform together at the Mauerpark outdoor flea market in Berlin.

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    Credit: Daniel Estrin

    Sir Elton Junk seems to ponder the meaning of life.

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    Credit: Daniel Estrin

    Sir Elton Junk up close and personal.

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    Credit: Daniel Estrin

    The control box Kolja Kugler uses to animate Sir Elton Junk.