It All Started With a Goal to Reinvent the Wheel
Theo Jansen's lifelong project is about designing new life forms. So far his massive prehistoric looking beasts survive, albeit for limited periods of time, in harsh seaside environments. Every day is spent perfecting the beast's design.
Ypenburg is a typical Dutch suburb - dreary and flat but for the windswept embankment that leads down from the highway where commuter cars zip back and forth from The Hague. It’s a lonely land. One can stand on that slope and do a 360 but see nothing except for the even, repetitive rooftops and a lone, tall pole with the town’s single neon for McDonalds.
That is until a form, which appears to be moving, comes into focus. Alone on the slope and flanked by the highway and residential homes is what appears to be a massive dinosaur skeleton. As I get closer, an old man with a shocking mane of white hair is with the beast, guiding it and even talking to it. The pile of bones responds, as if alive, stepping after its master and nodding it’s elongated beak. Limbs lead to joints that move in an intriguing dance of prehistoric obedience.
The man is the beast’s master and creator, Theo Jansen, a 60-year-old Dutchman who eighteen years ago hatched the idea to create a new form of life. “I wanted to make animals that could live in the wild,” he says. “But I didn’t want them to need food because they had to have an advantage over other life forms.”
The result he christened Strandbeesten or beach animals, a type of kinetic sculpture - an intriguing combination of design, art, engineering and science. “I usually just call what I’m doing art,” says Jansen, “because it means people are more willing to accept it rather than question it.”
Jansen began his career as a physicist and until last month wrote a philosophy column for 22 years for de Volkskrant, a national Dutch daily. He once painted figurative art and in the early 80s successfully made a UFO and launched it over the city of Delft. “The whole town went crazy,” he says. Success with his flying saucer convinced him to abandon painting and turn full-time to the pursuit of creating life forms that were both self-sustaining and mobile.
Today, and after much experimentation, the mechanical Strandbeesten are made from nylon string and cheese-coloured plastic tubing familiar to most Dutchmen as the piping that encases electricity wires. With their noses pointing into the wind, their back fins rise and fall in a wave movement that drives their feet.
“There is something mythical about it,” says Jansen. “When I work on the animals, I am working on function and the truth is, when I finish, it really doesn’t function that well, but it does look beautiful. And that’s the amazing side-effect – the beauty of it all.”
The earliest hurdle for Jansen to date has been mastering the beast’s feet. “It was like reinventing the wheel,” he says. “But they are even better than the wheel because wheels can’t drive on sand very well.” Rather, the Strandbeesten combine a consistent axis with knee and hip joints that enable the feet to step over the sand. The trick was minimizing the time each step took. The foot had to hit the ground at an angle to prevent jamming, it had to push back in a straight line and keep the huge beasts balanced. “Five thousand years after the invention of the wheel, we have a new one.”
As an artist Jansen struggles to explain what motivates him. “It’s just a feeling I had,” he says. “In the beginning I wanted to design herds of beasts that could build dunes to save humans from rising seas levels … my plan was to put them to work.”
And although Jansen’s project rings of a sacrilegious megalomania, alone in a tiny prefabricated studio five days a week, his modesty and commitment to making this idea work is more about humility. “Everyday I try to perfect one small aspect or idea,” he says. “Now I am working on a new muscle for the wing unit. It’s always like that, section by section and then it starts again.” He talks about questioning why and how we are here and says his work is really only about better understanding the raw mechanics of that reality. He even titled his recently published book, The Great Pretender. “It’s me,” he says with a grin.
“They are really just machines to me,” Jansen says. “Completely different from my dog, and it is nice that I will leave something behind … a big idea. Hopefully my youngest daughter will take over from where I leave off.”
So although he might talk to his creations, there is nothing strange about his attachment to them. “Except,” he adds cheekily, “I do dream about them and when things go wrong, I have nightmares filled with a mass of yellow.”
And many things have gone wrong. But like every designer, Jansen learns from his mistakes and each new beast is an improved or more evolved version of the last. He even employs the language of Darwin to explain the process. “A species has to find ways to survive,” he says, “especially storms and the tides so I had to trial everything to find the best endurance techniques and features.”
Strandbeesten evolution has generated 25 species, each with its own specific genetic code. There have been 7 principal epochs. The first and toughest stage was devising the algorithms that enabled the Strandbeesten to stand and walk. “Back then I was really discovering joints,” Jansen says. “I started using plastic tape to hold the limbs together and I used heat guns to make them more flexible.” After that, he put aside his plastic tubing and tried working with steel and wood. “But that didn't work,” he says. “I am almost married to my tubes. They are my proteins.”
By 2002 Jansen had experimented with a series of Animaris Geneticus Ondula to optimize performance. Each beast had replaceable tubing making it possible to experiment with different lengths and formations. He then set them head to head in a race on the beach and via the principals of natural selection decided which beast could evolve. “The winner won the opportunity to multiply,” he explains.
One of the most recent incarnations, the Vaporum, comprises pistons, nerve cells and muscles, and weighs in at 3.2 tones. “The basic principals have stayed the same,” Jansen says, “but the details and mathematics have improved.” For this generation, the wings feather out, then catch and store energy in empty lemonade bottles, which act like a stomach. “So when the wind dies down they won’t get trapped near the water, but can safely retreat to the dunes and live,” he says.
Perhaps most ingenious of all is the binary step counter, which acts like a brain and can interpret dangerous territory. “As soon as it steps into the sea,” Jansen says, “the pressure valves open changing the patterns of zeroes and ones so it knows where it is and can change directions.” There is also a water feeler, a tube that breathes in air and retracts it again if it detects water, and a time mechanism that allows the beasts to anticipate the tides. “Just like we can,” he says. “It’s almost like they understand in an abstract way how the moon and the sun work.”
So as long as the beast is facing into the wind it can survive, albeit briefly, on its own. Even when the wind gets strong and endangers the feet, a hammer on the beast’s nose bangs a releasable pin into the ground, forming a life-saving anchor.
Every morning Jansen’s neighbours stroll up the embankment to meet him for a coffee and a gossip. “We don’t even talk about the animals anymore,” he says. “They are an expected part of the community these days.”
Which is how it is going to stay. “I’ll still be doing this in five years time,” Jansen says. “About once a year I take a beast to the beach to see how it works, but I always come back with ideas. Right now they can survive for a few minutes, but eventually that will be a few hours and then maybe even a whole year.”
Public recognition comes through exhibitions and his book. In 2004 Jansen showed the Strandbeesten at the prestigious Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. In 2006 at the London Institute of Contemporary Art he had them walking around Trafalgar Square. “They were already storing wind then so they performed very well,” he says. “I was proud.” In 2007 the brain and central nervous system developments were on display at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.
Jansen’s project has been a humbling one. What started out as a grand idea to design a way to save humanity has evolved into something very much about self-survival. And after eighteen years on the job, he has come to understand that the real struggle is to simply survive. As ingenious, gigantic, and beautiful as they might be, in the end, Jansen’s Strandbeesten are really just about life.
Jansen 's next exhibition is in Hibya Park, Tokyo from January 17 to April 12.
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