He describes them as ‘skeletons that walk on the wind, so they don’t have to eat’. He compares their creation to an evolution of ‘new forms of life’, and plans to leave them to ‘live their own lives’ in herds on beaches. Theo Jansen is not just in the business of making sculptures.
The Dutch artist’s Strandbeests will be appearing on Miami Beach this week as part of Art Basel. Even that, though, will be more than an art event. “Miami is like a continuation of the experiments I did on the beach at home,” he tells BBC Culture. “The side effects could be that I learn something.”
When we imagine artificial intelligence – the technology warned about by experts like Elon Musk and, this week, Stephen Hawking – we might think of sleek robotics or HAL-like virtual entities. It’s unlikely that many would picture PVC tubes and polymer sails lumbering along a beach. At times marching in step like a troupe of can-can dancers, at other moments jerky and tentative, the beasts are surprisingly quick for their size. They are quiet, too: with no electric parts or motor, they can sneak up on the unwary onlooker.
Jansen, who is 66 years old, has big plans for his creatures. “Within the next 20 years I want the animals to be independent from me, so they take their own decisions – when to walk on the beach, what to anchor themselves against during storms or when to move away from the water.”
He acknowledges that he’s trying to accelerate the pace of evolution. “AI means that you teach a beast to learn, and I’m not that far yet. I’d love to go to that stage of evolution, but I’m afraid my animals are still very primitive and you couldn’t even compare them to a worm,” he says. “They’ve only been around for 24 years, and normally evolution takes millions of years. I’ve a very short time – maybe I’ve still got 20 years to live – and I’m in a hurry with the evolution of the beast.”
Jansen began building the Strandbeests in 1990. Mindful of rising sea levels and what that might mean for the Low Countries, he imagined a race of wind-powered beach creatures that could bring sand from the water’s edge inland to build a never-ending barrier. With his Sisyphean task of dune creation, the Strandbeest was born.
“The first animal in 1990 could only move its legs lying on its back. The leg system evolved in the first couple of years, and then I found better ways to connect the tubes – at first I just used Sellotape to make the connections, and later I found out that you could use heat.” Each October, Jansen starts work on a new beast; the following May, when it is half-finished, he takes it to the beach near where he lives in Scheveningen and sets it free to roam throughout the summer. “In the autumn I’m wiser, and I declare the animal extinct – it becomes a fossil. These fossils go out to the boneyard, which are the exhibitions.”
Although they are still basic, the Strandbeests are now more self-sufficient. “They’ve found better ways to protect themselves against storms, they have sensors that feel the water and feel the hardness of the sand. They’ve become better and better at surviving on the beaches.” One development means they can now walk on soft as well as hard sand. “It’s easy to walk on hard sand because they’re pushed by the wind, but on soft sand they need a special drive system which is driven by pressed air.
“Now the animals have a way of storing the wind,” says Jansen. “There are wings which go up and down in the wind, and there are pumps connected to those wings which pump air into bottles at high pressure. The pressed air can drive muscles – ski poles that lift the animal and help push it over the soft sand.”
Jansen often strays into the language of the engineer, and it’s easy to forget that his creatures are also beautiful. “I don’t want to make ‘nice’ animals, I just want to make surviving animals,” he says. “They can be very nasty; my relationship with the beasts is different from what it is with people or animals. They are so low in their evolutionary development I still see them as machines.”
They might be nasty, but the Strandbeests have struck a chord. Videos of their strolls along the beach have had millions of views, while 3D printed versions have proliferated. There are currently travelling exhibitions of Strandbeests in Nagasaki, Paris and Moscow; the six creatures in Miami will go on to tour the US, taking in Chicago, Massachusetts and San Francisco.
Most commentators marvel at how lifelike they are. Jansen, however, is not aiming to mimic the natural world. “I want to forget everything that I know about existing nature. I want to make new animals, and not imitate the old evolution. So any resemblance between a dinosaur and my work is purely coincidence.”
Despite his scientific approach, the artist does find himself becoming attached to his creations. In a film about his Strandbeest ‘fossils’, Jansen admits to feeling sad when he retires each creature: “They die, and I die a little as well, because I have to say goodbye to the animals.”
Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen is presented at Art Basel in Miami Beach by Audemars Piguet in partnership with the Peabody Essex Museum.
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