Somewhere between art and engineering we find the fantastical creatures of Theo Jansen, giant structures resembling prehistoric skeletons walking along a Dutch beach.
Born in 1948 in Scheveningen, a small coastal town in the Netherlands, Jansen tried out several careers before finding his passion. Initially enrolled in a physics degree at the Delft University of Technology, the young student quit to become an artist while doing jobs like working in a medical laboratory and writing for a newspaper.
It was in his column in De Volkskrant, a national newspaper, where he first talked of building creatures that could combat the effects of global warming, “I wrote about a kind of skeletons on the beach that moved by the wind. They scooped up sand and my idea was that they would raise the dunes in that way and protect the Netherlands from rising sea level,” Jansen explains.
During the 80s, Jansen started delving into his first artistic projects. The earliest one concerned a black four-meters-wide structure made of tubes and lifted by helium, resembling a flying saucer, which caused an uproar when it was mistaken for an actual UFO, even appearing in the local papers.
Jansen’s next project was a painting machine that used a light-sensitive spray gun. When the machine detected a dark point it would spray paint, when it detected light it would stop. Moving along a wall, the painting machine created a photocopy of whatever object was placed in front of it.
In the 90s, after discussing it in his column, Jansen started to work on what has now become his lifelong project: his Strandbeesten, or beach animals. Interested in the idea of kinetic sculptures, Jansen embarked on a task that involved his knowledge in physics, his interest in evolution, and his passion for art.
These artificial creatures are mostly constructed out of PVC (Jansen tried to use a more environmentally friendly material, like bamboo, but it would rot away at the beach). In the Netherlands, PVC tubes are used to conduct electricity cables, making this material both accessible and inexpensive, as well as resistant to the weather. A single animal can use between two and three-thousand meters of PVC, weighing about 180 kg.
Initially designed on an Atari computer, where for a month Jansen calculated the lengths of the tubes (known as the 13 holy numbers) to achieve the right movement, the creatures have gone through several iterations. “Evolution is a miracle. It makes me so happy that I want to make a miracle myself as well,” he says. Each animal is created in the span of a year and is divided into periods, just like in evolution.
Nowadays, not only can the animals walk along the beach, but they’re able to detect water and move away from it, as well as store air in bottles to be used as propulsion when there’s no wind. As of recently, they can even fly. An abundant resource at any beach, wind is precisely what allows these creatures to move, and is what makes them a model for using Affordable and Clean Energy, one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The Strandbeesten have traveled all over the world, being exhibited in both art and science museums. Seeing these creatures in action is hard to forget, and Jansen, who has a straightforward sense of humour and a real love for his creatures, has certainly made an impression on popular culture, even appearing in a BMW commercial ad and an episode of The Simpsons.
“A part of me is an engineer who wants to map the progress of mobility. Another part is an artist who wants to sculpt the air that surrounds us and give it shape. And always I strive to push the boundaries of what we know and what seems possible to us at this moment in time,” Jansen says.
“The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds.”
A work of artistry, math and love, Jansen’s Strandbeesten elicit a sense of awe, while making us feel capable of building our own — inspiring us, like good art does, to create something out of nothing.
Find out more about Theo Jansen and his Strandbeesten on his website.