Everett, Anna, Prescott and I went to an exhibit at the ArtScience Museum called Wind Walkers: Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests. I’m not sure I can describe how strange and delightful this exhibition is. In a nutshell, the one-floor retrospective traces the work of Theo Jansen, who in 1990 decided that he would build free-roaming beach creatures out of PVC tubes and tape that would loosen and redistribute sand in order to counteract the effects of global warming. It’s part science, part engineering, part art, part hope, part crazy, and part joy, and the whole thing taken together makes for a remarkably entertaining hour or two.
Here’s where we start: in the Netherlands, where rising sea levels are a very real concern.
When our story begins, Theo Jansen has been a physics student in Delft for many years, but he has just dropped out of school to produce art. He starts building sculptures, including a “UFO” made of PVC pipes and black sheeting. He flies this thing over the city of Delft in 1980, freaks a number people out, and loses it somewhere in the clouds (he hypothesizes that it crashed somewhere in Belgium):
Then Jansen starts to build creatures — small ones, at first, and then they start to get larger. He sketches …
… he works out locomotion algorithms on an Atari computer (as a child of the ’80s, I loved that part) …
… he takes materials that look like they came from some sort of a strange industrial orchestra …
… and finally he creates strangely elegant beach sculptures which he calls “Strandbeests,” (literally, beach animals). They are designed so that they can be pulled along the sand …
… or so that the wind will blow them along. The idea, ostensibly, is that the creatures will move the sand around and form small dunes, which will in turn combat rising sea levels. I don’t know that they kick up enough sand to do anything of the kind, but they’re rally cool. Here is Jansen with one of his larger creations:
The ArtScience exhibit does not have any Strandbeests in the exhibit that are quite that impressive — I don’t imagine anything inside of a museum could possibly be better than actually seeing them on a large swath of Dutch sand — but the exhibit does give you do get a sense of Jansen’s many projects. This is animaris sabulosa, built in the early 1990s, “the first animal capable of walking sideways against the wind”:
The tape that you see all over the creature was designed to collect sand, so that the sculpture could be — according to the curatorial literature — “camouflaged.” And what you see here is a Strandbeest “fossil,” so named because it can no longer move. One of the first things that jumps out in this exhibit — aside from the Strandbeests themselves, which can’t help but draw your attention — is the language. Jansen imbues these creatures with life; he “trains” them, he hopes that they will “reproduce,” he evaluates whether they can “survive,” and he sees them “evolving into a new species of man-made animals.” He uses human anatomical terms to describe his materials, calling the PVC tubes “protein building blocks,” for example, and the zip ties “connective tissue”:
Jansen has also assigned his creations Linnaean-style family classifications and geologic-type time scales. Here’s Anna with animaris siamesis, trying to figure out what it means that this animal is from the “Suicideem,” or “period of self-destruction” …
… and here are Prescott and Everett, puzzling though the linguistics (and science) of “reproduction”:
A lot of math and science — again, with interesting language choices — go into the design of these things. The legs of the Strandbeests were Jansen’s greatest engineering hurdle, necessitating the discovery of “Holy Numbers.” I can’t say we really understood them (or what it means for “ratios to compete against one another”), but we spent quite a while going over this description:
We also spent a lot of time studying the construction of the various Strandbeests and trying to puzzle out how they worked (half of my photographs have one of us pointing at something).
Jansen uses recycled bottles to store pressurized air, which helps the Strandbeests “walk” when there’s not enough wind.
These structures really are ingenious. Some have anchors that they can sink into the sand when the wind gets to strong; the one above has a water sensor that lets it know to change direction and seek higher ground.
At the end of the day, though, it’s also fun just to look at these as works of art. They have a certain odd beauty. This is animaris proboscis, or “animal made for seduction.”
Its nose moves in order to “seduce,” humans — who are, in turn, supposed to be inspired to make more of these things (this is all part of Jansen’s theory of “reproduction”).
The museum has the beasts hooked up to air compressors so that you can see how they might wave in the wind …
… or walk:
But if you really want to get a sense of how the legs work, it’s most instructive — and fun — to move one of the Strandbeests yourself:
While Jansen’s oeuvre inspired a great deal of puzzlement, it kept a smile on our faces. I recommend it just for this sense of wacky delight.
The final room — called Backyard Lab, by Singapore-based artist Isabelle Desjeux — is a strange addition to the Wind Walkers exhibit. It feels oddly tacked on. According to the exhibition pamphlet, this commissioned work “further exemplifies the spirit of creation … to illustrate the process of making, from sketches to prototypes to the finished products.” That all sounds fine, but the pieces she works on are truly wacky. The guy standing next to us said “What the F*&@!” really loudly — too loudly for Singapore — and burst into laughter when he read the explanation of this piece:
That’s called “The Machine That Never Fails,” and its museum label reads: “by reducing the level of our expectations to nothing, we can now design all sorts of machines to achieve nothing, thereby reducing the possibility of failure to zero.” I can’t decide whether that is profound or ridiculous. It certainly helps me understand people who question contemporary art.
Desjeux also appears designs (and sometimes builds) self-tickling machines. These made me laugh out loud.
If you have a couple of spare hours and can afford the rather steep prices of the ArtScience Museum, go see this! It’s bizarre and and affirming and wonderful.