by Meghna MehtaJul 15, 2020
A sculpture. One that looks like a mutated massive animal, but not quite. It has volume of a body, multiple legs, sometimes a tail end...but above all, it walks! There is no electric power, stored or direct, that makes kinetic avatar of the form come alive. Strandbeests (Dutch term that translates to ‘beach beasts’) are creations of Theo Jansen. He first began working on the mechanics of this almost six decades back. The kinetic structures are propelled with wind and Jansen calls them ‘artificial life’. The complex design is intricately assembled. For the physicist-turned-artist, it is not the creation of an ultimate dream machine, but rather has been an evolution, just like any living form on earth. Furthermore, the recent ‘editions of the species’ are enabled with intelligence and storage of energy – they can respond to the environment and alter their course when they touch water, and store wind to move when there is no natural breeze...almost like any living being, across flora and fauna, that can survive without consuming food through stored energy. Components of the beats are displayed as Fossilium (Latin for fossils) at his exhibitions. Jansen references scientific principles to build these, but the sculptures sit at the overlap of visual and performing arts. “The beach animals have been exhibited in both scientific and art museums. My impression is that people in art museums approach the work with more imagination, the work more claims to an understated dream world,” he explains.
Here is an excerpt of a fascinating conversation with the septuagenarian about the birth, evolution and future of strandbeests.
Rahul Kumar (RK): You were studying science, which you discontinued before getting the degree and instead moved on to being a painter. What triggered the interest in creating ‘new forms of life’, as you like to call your beach animal sculptures?Theo Jansen (TJ): After finishing my studies, I started painting. However, after a while my ‘physics’ background started to chase me and I changed course. I started to develop and build installations of which a UFO and the painting machine were the most talked about and remarkable. At that time, I also became a columnist for the science section of the Volkskrant (Dutch national newspaper) and wrote a column every fortnight. These were a kind of fantasies about all kinds of phenomena, especially about evolution and physical issues. One of those pieces was about skeletons on the beach that would catch wind and collect sand to raise the dunes as a measure against the rising sea levels. This was the origin of the creation of the beach animals. Six months later I started playing with an electrical tube (PVC tube). Dutch PVC is distinguished by the yellowish colour, in other countries it is often grey.
After an afternoon of research I saw the many possibilities of the tube and decided to spend a year of my life on this. The research has gotten really out of hand because after 30 years I am still not tired of the material and the development of the beach animals.
My interest in developing new life forms was particularly encouraged after I read the book of Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. I had an idea for myself how evolution worked, but reading this book made it much clearer to me and I became fascinated by this process. Dawkins used a computer programme to simulate selection in evolution. I myself designed a similar programme in which a kind of worm bugs lived in the computer and reproduced themselves and evolved as in real evolution.
RK: How have these creatures evolved over the past two decades? In terms of form and features, like giving these creatures ‘brain’ to enable judgement and respond to environment/alter behaviour, and material and process like the use of 3D printers?
TJ: There are a number of problems for the survival and evolution of the beasts. The sand and the wind are the biggest problem. The sand settles in joints and if you do not take measures in strong winds, the animals would disappear into the sand. The water is an obstacle, if they are in the surf for more than a minute, the legs will be sucked and they will not come out. The orientation at the beach is also a challenge; they can feel a bit of where they are and whether they are safe from the hardness of the sand. After all, the conditions for survival on the Dutch coast are often not optimal. That's why I made up all kinds of strategies, to prevent the beast from blowing under the sand, they raise a leg every hour so that the sand falls off, then they stand on the beach again, so after a while they will stand on a hill. Furthermore, they are equipped with water sensors that warn them when they are in the water. Air (= energy) is stored in so-called ‘wind-stomachs’, which they can use when there is no wind.
I do not use 3D printers for the animals on the beach. Two students (Bo Jansen and Nomen Nescio) did build small beach animals with a 3D printer. Later that idea was adopted by others. You can also view 3D printing as a form of reproduction. You can see a 3D printer as a pregnant woman giving birth to new life; no code in the form of genetic material is put in, but a code with zeros and ones. That code is materialised in a tangible animal.
RK: Your work sits at the cross-section of visual arts and performance. Are there conceptual references for your viewers, beyond the wonderment of lifelike kinetic animals? Also, given the deep foundation of science, why do you prefer calling them works of art?
TJ: Especially the extinct beach animals are an overview of the history of the evolution of the beach animals. You can see this as an imaginary evolution, but it has indeed taken place but cannot be compared with the real evolution. What now takes place in the evolution of the beach animals in 30 years, takes a few million years in the real evolution. You can see it as a shadow evolution, my ideas are a kind of mutations. And as is known, most mutations do not give a good result, but you can view it as hopeful.
It is not an intelligent design in which I am the creator, rather it is the other way around, I am a slave to the tubes and have to focus on their directions. During my struggle with the animals on the beach I get an answer to my questions and problems that I encounter. I get a response from reality that allows me to make adjustments. This results in a tortuous, unpredictable path that you can really compare with an evolutionary process. The extinct beasts can be seen as artifacts or representatives of the period from the evolution of the beach animals.
The beach animals have been exhibited in both scientific and art museums. My impression is that people in art museums approach the work with more imagination, the work more claims to an understated dream world. In science museums it is often a kind of representation with laser and loud music, the work is missing than the stillness of an art museum.
RK: Given the fragility of the ‘strandbeests’ and the harsh environment of where they perform, the sea beaches, what are your views on longevity of your creations? Fine artists and collectors are often concerned with ‘archival’ quality of the works.
TJ: The vulnerability of the beach animals played a role especially in the beginning. However, they have become a lot more resilient in the course of their development (evolution). Although, I still have to help them on the beach, there are signs that give hope that by the end of my life they will be able to live independently on the beach.
They can sometimes resist the harsh conditions in which they live. The ‘extinct’ beasts function within exhibitions and represent the species. Some beasts can be resuscitated. As an object, it retains its value. The works can last a few centuries. The tube may fade, but that only makes them more beautiful and more lived-in.
RK: Please share with us your ongoing explorations and upcoming projects.
TJ: At the moment I am working on three animals. I am making ‘caterpillars’ more resistant to crosswind so that they do not blow over easily. Then, I am working on the Animaris Turgentia, which will be kept on track by a small caterpillar de Chalips; a combination of two types. Finally, I am working on a wing on top of an animal that pumps air into the bottles (pumping station) and I also hope that this animal is able to lift itself every hour so that it shells the sand off its legs, back on the beach stands up and continues to focus in the wind. At the end of the summer I want to realise the above projects.