They glide over the smooth, damp sands at the tide line like endoskeletons of some Jurassic raptor. Their creator, an obsessive yet whimsical Dutchman named Theo Jansen hovers over them like a cautious parent at his child’s first bicycle ride. And dogging Jansen’s own heels is his omnipresent Coton de Tulear pooch, Murphy. If Murphy were a sheepdog, you can bet he’d be herding the fragile “sand beasts” between the breaking surf and the low dunes that lay a football field length up the slightly sloping strand. The beach here at Scheveningen, Holland, with its tight, fine texture is an ideal parade ground for the army of “kinetic sculptures” that have occupied Jansen’s mind for over two decades.
And for the past ten years German film documentarian Alexander Schlichter has been tracking the progress of Jansen’s beasts as they have evolved, generation to generation, like some Darwinian rare species. One of the most beautiful and complex of his kinetic sculptures is the “Animaris Umeris,” a delicate but imposing piece that moves like a cavalry troop in formation, its guidons waving in the onshore breezes.
The unwieldy Latin moniker Jansen has given many of his pieces is meant to evoke the taxonomic binomial nomenclature of 18th century scientist Carl Linnaeus. These labels are also fiendishly clever tongue-twisters suggesting that Jansen’s wandering racks of tubes are actually sentient, living creatures that one day will self-propagate and claim the tidal sands of Holland’s beaches as their own domain.
Several of Jansen’s videos have gone viral on YouTube, but the creatures’ creator and his omnipresent dog are often just out of frame, following the lumbering beasts, the entire retinue lending an aura to the scene that resembles invading aliens come to earth—straight out of a low budget 50s sci-fi movie. Many of the still photographs that best capture the creatures’ ominous presence are low angle shots that partly silhouette them against the dark Dutch skies, horizon line low in the frame, harkening back to the grand lowland landscape oils of the 17th century.
Jansen is quite aware of the power of the evocative frame that inserts these 21st century assemblages of crazy quilted PVC pipe and plastic wire-ties smack into a centuries-old visual tradition of grand master art. Fragile as these creatures are when you watch the videos, their multi-legged beach promenades are infused with a forward momentum that seems almost as threatening as it is whimsical.
The above video, from the still in progress Alexander Schlichter documentary, is more than a simple record of the sculptures’ stroll along the beach. The sweeping camera moves were executed with a steadicam mounted on a Segway personal transporter (The operator is Chris Fawcett who did many of the sweeping steadicam shots in the railroad station in Hugo). The wet, tightly packed sand at the tidal line of Scheveningen’s beaches offers solid ground for Fawcett’s moves. If you look closely, however, you will be able to discern the Segway’s tracks.
A video of a more rudimentary Strandbeest photographed in a simpler style records the movements of the 2007 sculpture “Ordis.”
Last August, the New Yorker published an article by Ian Frazier about Theo Jansen and his work. It is more a profile of the man and artist and of his place in the continuum of Dutch landscape artists than it is about any of the steampunk technology that undergirds the sculptures. Here is an abstract of the essay.
The photograph that introduces the New Yorker article is part of a black and white photo essay by Lena Herzog. The photographer’s “Lost Souls” images were the subject of a recent blog here:
Herzog not only has created her own poetic record of the skeletal beasts, but she has become fascinated with the man himself. She told me recently that she is actively involved in a plan to bring Jansen and his Strandbeests to the United States next year, probably opening in New York. One can imagine an Easter Parade of the redoubtable creatures slinking down Fifth Avenue. In a recent email Herzog told me:
There will be several locations for it and it will be [both an] inside and outside show: the live beasts will be paraded in public spaces like promenades, and Theo's sketches as well as my prints will make a show in museums and galleries. There are a lot of moving parts to the puzzle of the production, so I cannot tell you everything yet. One thing is certain, the show is happening next year.
Herzog and writer Frazier have a long-standing friendship. She was visiting Jansen in Scheveningen the same time as Frazier. The writer tells us about Herzog’s history with the Strandbeests.
“I dropped by Theo’s laboratory in Ypenberg in the off season,” Herzog told me of the first time she met Jansen, in 2005. “A new beast was still evolving, a few ‘fossils’ of the old dead ones were strewn around in the grass, and many beautiful ideas were laid out on the fence.” She returned to the North Sea coast of Holland to see the creatures walk, and in 2007, began photographing Jansen and the Strandbeests.
I asked Herzog what she found most unexpected while photographing this project. “That it could make an optimist out of a Russian,” she said. “They make you think and they make you dream. In this disenchanted world, they re-enchant you, not in a falsely sweet or obvious way but in a special form of enchantment. I have even seen dogs go wild and horses balk at the sight of the Strandbeests. What more could you possibly ask of a work of art?”
In 2006, Jansen made a television commercial for South African BMW, a “think piece,” that gave him a platform to record a sound bite on the idea of “innovation,” filmed against a rain-driven, moody beach.
The following year, Jansen was invited to California to present his ideas and work to TED. Five years later, last November, he spoke to another TED audience, this time in his native country and in the city of Delft, home of the legendary painter Johannes Vermeer, one of Jansen’s artistic touchstones. The video of this presentation is an eighteen-minute odyssey through the mind of a contemporary classical European humanist posing as a technologist. Jansen begins with a brief, eccentric explanation of the physics of creation. Just about when you are not quite certain where he is headed with this, he presents a video that illustrates the mechanics and the evolution of his work. After the first video, he waxes like a prophet articulating new life forms. Depending on your own point of view or how literally you accept his metaphysics, the Ted talk becomes more and more surreal, or charmingly whimsical—or maybe both. Either way, it’s a fascinating journey that he takes us on, as he gives his “life forms” their day in the sun.
Here is a one-minute video of the “animaris gubernare,” the hapless beast with rolling stomach bladders, the beast that collapsed in the Ted video. Here, it is more secure as it lumbers along, the brisk wind powering its wings.
An episode of the BBC’s Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention offers a charming and detailed look at the mechanics of the labyrinth of tubes and armatures that are the guts of the Strandbeests. Jansen concludes by affirming that the creatures will one day not only be self-sustaining but will propagate; he will at that point be able to die knowing they (his creations) live on.
It’s a sweet idea. Maybe such an assemblage of rickety plastics will find congenial society among their own. If they do, then they will prove themselves to be more clever than us, those beings once called the acme of God’s creation, but who now seem hell-bent to use our own technologies to develop ever better techniques to destroy ourselves.