A Walk on the Mild Side

Perhaps walk isn’t quite the right word. March, perhaps. Or trek. Creep would do, but it seems almost too passive, too unwilling to take pride in its progress.

Whatever word best describes their movements, the experience of watching Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s kinetic sculptures trundle across a beach is akin to watching some strange creature emerge from the primordial ooze and make tracks for higher ground. His creations, called Strandbeest (“Beach Animals”), are made from common PVC pipe. Through a progression of refinements, including the addition of lemonade bottles, he’s helped them evolve into mobile, wind-powered creatures that seem filled with life.  When encountered, they are astonishing, compelling and humorous all at once,  scuttling over the landscape like giant, improbable crabs.

Jansen has been creating these creatures and freeing them to prowl the Dutch beaches since 1990. His first, smaller ones required human assistance to move, but those lemonade bottles and other such additions (discussed on Jansen’s site) allowed larger, more intricate and completely entrancing creatures to move along by the power of the wind. At this point, some have the ability to detect and avoid obstacles, and they can be left alone to wander for periods of five to ten minutes.

It’s an ingenious blend of art and engineering, these Strandbeest. Jansen originally took up science, studying physics at the University of Delft, Holland, but he drifted away after finding the discipline constricting. (“It felt like working in an office,” he says.) He began painting, but after seven years constructed and flew a flying saucer over the city of Delft, much to the consternation of its citizens. In the process of moving from one artistic medium to another he rediscovered science and engineering. As he says, “I didn’t miss [science]. It just came back when I was making the UFO. It was fun to calculate the forces and think of the construction.”

Eventually, his unique blend of art and engineering gave birth to his first beach animal.  Listening to him describe the evolution of the creature is rather an amazing experience. “[It] didn’t have very strong joints,” he says. “It couldn’t even walk or stand, but one night I had a vision about the principle of its feet. So, based on the simple PCV tubes that I still use, I built a computer model and tried to calculate the best way to create a walking movement. This process went on for some months, day and night before I found the right proportion between the lengths of the tubes.”  It’s impossible not to laugh. Jansen sounds for all the world like the Creator of the Universe, kicking back after a tough day of working on Adam and reconsidering his options.

As interesting as the science of all this is, I was just as intrigued by Jansen’s remarks about the personal meaning of the project. As he says, “The philosophical ideas were not really there from the beginning, but they have grown more complete with the years. It’s not important just to make things, but also to reflect about them.”

GC Myers, the painter who introduced me to Jansen’s work, does a wonderful job of reflecting on his own artistic process in his blog, Redtree Times But not only painters and kinetic artists like Jansen find useful what Brazilian educator Paolo Freire called “praxis”. The dynamic tension between action and reflection is useful for writers and poets, musicians and researchers, engineers, educators, business people and scientists – in short, for anyone concerned with bringing a vision to life. Without reflection, action can devolve into simple busy-work. Without concrete action, reflection can dissolve into disconnected dreaming. When they are held in tension, Lawrence Durrell’s insistence that reality be “re-worked to show its significant side” becomes a possibility.

I suspect all of us remember times when, as children, we were sent to our rooms with the admonition to “think about what we had done”. In Jansen’s case, all of that doing and thinking, creating and re-creating has brought into being creatures capable of enticing us back into childhood, fantastical creatures patrolling the shoreline of our dreams.

But for Jansen, there is more. His creatures not only remind him of childhood. They function for him as children, bearers of his memories into the future.

“The beach animals will be my brainchildren,” he says, “my memories in reverse. Just like real children they will be patronized, mollycoddled, cared for and trained to withstand the perils of the beach. There comes a time when they get shown the door. Off to the beach with you! Then, they must fend for themselves. Once that happens, I can breathe my last with a light heart, knowing for certain they will get by.”

Being a parent is hard, which may help to explain why, on his website, Jansen says there is no time for interviews, there are no opportunities for film. There are no interns, no workshops, no publicity tours or book signings. There is only the working of a single artist, the thinking of a single man, and the next generation of Strandbeest, moving against the wind.

Watching these mild-mannered, nearly silent creatures make their way through the world, it’s impossible not to smile, perhaps even to think, “Why would someone devote his life to such gentle, but arguably absurd constructions?” Miguel de Unamuno, Spanish poet, author and marvelous explorer of the action/reflection dynamic, whispers a clue: “Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.”


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Published in: on February 25, 2011 at 9:43 pm  Comments (21)  

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  1. Wonderful post! You’ve captured the spirit of Jansen’s work beautifully, so much better than I even attempt.


    Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for introducing me to Jansen, and for your unfailing interesting and provacative posts! If you haven’t seen some of the take-offs, you might get a kick out of this.


  2. Oh, when he says that the beach animals are his brainchildren — it almost made me cry. Don’t we think that of our creative work? The bits that start one way and grow, spread out in ways we never imagined. They are our children, our brain children.

    There is a part of this post that touches me in sort of a deep and internal way. It resonates because of oldest art school grad child — he is gifted with such talent — the ideas that come out of his mind and his fingers; some of his ideas remind me of these sculptures, in a way, though that isn’t his medium. Yet he flails, his world all akimbo — slow to complete, unable to center. Challenged to complete. We worry about him — will he be able to fly? He thinks moving to LA or NY will allow him to create and succeed. But I’m not sure it’s where you live; it’s what you do WHEREVER you live that says “I can do this.” “I can build this sculpture on the beach.”

    I want Greg to build his sculpture on the beach (metaphorically) — I just don’t want him to starve while he’s doing it!

    Lovely and intriguing post, with much to think about. I will revisit it and check the links.


    It is perfect, isn’t it? “Brain children”, indeed. I have a photo taken by one of my parents on my first day of first-grade school. I’m headed down the sidewalk and into the big world, all by myself, ready to see what awaits. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to see my blog entries in the same way. Each time I hit “publish” I’m sending another kid out into the world. While hardly as significant as Jansen’s work, the experience gives me a way to understand what he’s talking about, and imagine the way he must feel about his wonderful creatures.

    Your comment about your son raises all kinds of questions. What do we need to “succeed” in our chosen medium? Of course, if you want to succeed in film, LA is better than Sheboygan or Bismark. An artist still needs galleries, it seems, and that presupposes access. But even when the logistics are easy – a blog friend in Panama just published a book electronically – the completion can be something else.

    I love your phrase – “challenged to complete”. I read it at first as “challenged to compete”, because that’s what we so often focus on. But the struggle toward completion can be extraordinarily difficult – so much so that some people, having had a taste of the struggle, find every excuse in the world not to begin again. Or to begin at all, for that matter.

    Now and then I think about Harper Lee, and the gift of financial support she was given so she could just write for a year. Sometimes I think the same thing so many others think: “If someone would just give me that same year, I could get that book that’s drifting around in my head well started, if not completed.” Is that true? Probably not. Time and money is one thing. I need to learn some discipline before I get the gift!


  3. Delft, the creative hotbed of Vermeer. Its natural light and sky must have inspired artists in tune with nature. The wind is a part of the beauty, so is the sky.

    And from Jansen‘s amazing wind-powered creations to Freire’s praxis, two seemingly distant conceptions appear on the same post. This is a highly interesting piece, Linda. There’s much to explore in this artist/creator, and thanks for introducing him to me. At the same time, there is much to mull on Freire’s praxis. But I’m just amazed at your power of association. Must be the wind of the Gulf Coast. ;)


    I realized when I bumped into Jansen and began exploring his work that I don’t think of beaches when I think of Holland. I think of dikes, and reclaimed land, not dunes and land melting into the sea. And when I think about Vermeer, I think of interiors – beautiful play of light and shadow, yes, but not seascapes. I need to explore a bit more, and I found something wonderful you may have missed: an interactive Vermeer site.

    It was impossible not to think of Freire when I found the phrase “action and reflection” in Jansen’s book. I’ve always found that model not only “true to life” but a good description of the way I do things. Not long after I began this blog, I wrote an entry suggesting a paradigm for blogging. It’s a bit rough and I certainly could do a better job with it now, but I still believe the formula’s a good one. Since I’d only been blogging for three months at the time, it’s less a description of a learned method than a hunch about what might work.

    I think I was right about the formula, anyway. Even here, the dynamic is visible. The action? Reading Redtree Times’ entry about Jansen. Then, reflection, following threads of thought. Another action: giving that reflection substance by writing this. Now, we’re reflecting again, together. And around and around we go!


  4. You’re right – I just laughed with delight when I saw the creatures moving. And that’s all I ask of people who appreciate anything I create – I hope it makes you laugh (or cry – sometimes it isn’t funny or whimsical).

    The Bug,

    It’s the response that counts, isn’t it? Being moved to tears, or being overtaken with the giggles, being made angry or thoughtful. I think that’s one reason I’m not so fond of the “like” button that WordPress installed. Seeing that someone “liked” my post tells me nothing about the real nature of their response. Were they entertained? Amused? Made curious? I’d far rather have comments even as simple as, “This reminds me of this or that”, or “I couldn’t stop smiling”. It helps me know my readers, and that’s as important as knowing about my subject matter.

    In any event, I’m delighted that you were delighted. I still laugh every time I see these things move.


  5. They almost remind me of something out of Star Wars. I love how the artist saw his dream come to fruition; what extraordinary creations!

    They remind me in a very small way of wooden bugs I saw at our local arboretum years ago. They were many tens of feet high (does that make sense? From this non-Math person?). Thanks for sharing the photographs.


    Your “many tens of feet high” makes perfect sense to me, but I’m another non-math person.

    When you said “wooden bugs”, I realized that’s the link between Jansen and my childhood: Cooties. It was one of my favorite games, and seeing those Cootie legs again in this new context made me laugh.

    And just for you – a video showing the meeting of Theo Jansen’s concept and origami ;-)


  6. This art, Jansen’s art, speaks to me, shouts and SO glad you found and shared it. What an idea. I am just as delighted that he dispatches the idea of interviews, workshops, etc., and caring for creating his creatures only.

    I don’t know what else to say. I have to look at these “films” again. I am amazed and delighted. Such creatures. Such focus. Such a way to move us all forward, to move us all!


    Aren’t they wonderful? I think the sheer unexpectedness of them is a good part of their charm. To just see one sitting at the water’s edge – well, strange public art pops up here and there. But then they begin to move, to take on life before our eyes and it’s almost impossible to look away. Add that they mimic the movements of creatures we know from nature – the crab, the walking stick, the sting ray in those “wings” – and it’s even more compelling.

    After reading and thinking about your overheard conversation in the coffee house, I have to say I’m almost certain Jansen wasn’t involved in grant writing for this. If he was, it probably wasn’t funded. Let’s see – art project. Check. Kinetic pieces. Check. Made of pvc and lemonade bottles, capable of storing wind and living self-sustaining lives within the sand dunes. Uh…. ;-)


  7. When I say “This is so Dutch!” I mean, of course, the wind and the Dutch ability to just put two and two together and make something fantastical out of it…like windmills. It really blows my mind. I can see why he must eat and sleep these creatures of the beach.

    No, I don’t think of the beach either when I think of the Netherlands but the Dutch do and will go whenever they can. Wouldn’t you love being his apprentice for a week or two!


    I really would like to find out more about the very beginnings of these projects – the reactions of those around him must have been something. Do you suppose he just stopped by the hardware to pick up some pvc? It wouldn’t take long for the clerk to say, “Uh, Mr. Jansen… Do you have a really big plumbing project, or what?” ;-)

    When I began looking around and discovered all the knockoffs, it made his work even more amazing. Obviously, the engineering, while complicated to my eyes, is understandable to people who do that sort of thing. But he was the one with the vision. Just amazing.

    Oh, never mind apprentice! I’d be happy to just be allowed to sit in a corner and watch, and then have a bit of time to chat every day. I don’t think I’d ever tire of watching!

    By the way – if you go here, on the Strandbeest website, there is information about his workshop and the introduction of this year’s new animal. It will take place on the beach in May, and details will be available on the website in April. Wouldn’t that make an interesting photographic jaunt?! Also, his workshop is open to the public. I love this:

    “His cabin doesn’t have an official address but you can find it on top of a hill on the corner of the Laan van Haamstede and de Singel in Den Haag Holland.”


  8. Linda,

    When I showed the video to my husband, he said, “Amazing.” I second that.

    It’s almost enough just to know that someone somewhere is thinking about such fanciful creations. Why does it seem hopeful? I don’t know.

    I had an acquaintance who lived in Turkey for a while. She gave my son this silly thing that could be held in the hands and manipulated into different shapes. She called it a “weird and wonderful.” This post reminded me of the “weird and wonderful.”



    Jansen’s work does seem hopeful. Absolutely. And I don’t have any idea why that should be so. Well, except that it stands as quite a reminder that not everything in the world has to be so danged-deadly-serious-useful-commonsensical-and-within-budget. ;-)

    And your son’s silly thing? If you hadn’t mentioned it, I probably wouldn’t have remembered the song that perfectly captures the spirit of the Strandbeest! Remember “The Marvelous Toy”?


  9. Linda – made me laugh, with imagining Jensen writing a grant for this, when it gets down to the plastic bottles (whereupon someone in charge shouted “too green!”) and passed on it completely.

    Yeah, the movement of his art. Just looked at it again. You know I work with engineers. But to see such engineering in art, without any “use” than to dazzle and capture and move, ah, now THAT is engineering.


    That’s it. Exactly what I said to Bella, above: “without any use other than to dazzle and capture and move”. Like poetry. Painting. Flower arrangement. Setting a beautiful table. Fireworks. The mockingbird leaping from its tree with a heartsong.

    Remember what Annie Dillard said. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” From the looks of Mr. Jansen’s efforts, I think we could add “whimsical” to the list of performances.


  10. Golly, Linda, this piece really made me smile. My friends and I are talking about booking another Dutch bike and barge tour; if we do, I’ll certainly want to include seeing one of his delightful beach creations. Thanks.


    Seeing you makes me smile. What fun a trip like that would be – I’ve always wanted to skate the canals, but a biking-and-barging trip certainly would be easier to plan. It’s hard to predict frozen canals from where we are!

    Since there’s not a chance I’m going to be getting over there to see them – at least not in the near future – my Plan B is to send the good photographers I know. Fun for you, and enjoyment for us. There’s a great resource for you here – Ginnie, who commented above, lives in Holland and has a beautiful photoblog here. Also, she posts her photos from around the country here.

    And isn’t it nice to find something worth smiling over?


  11. Linda,
    I’m so glad you came back to comment again on my blog so that I know how to get to you. Would you be good enough to leave that comment again on the latest post – it turned up on the one before last, which nobody is going to look at now. I’d like the others to know where to find you.

    I am trying to pull together dinner for 8 and haven’t time to read your blog just now, but I WILL be back.
    Best wishes,


    And so funny that your brief existence as jeanie2 brought it all about.
    I will stop by again with a current comment. I’m so glad I discovered that little glitch.

    And thank you for the visit. Enjoy your dinner, and enjoy being able to see your food!


    EDIT: Emailed you re: the confusion about jeanie. So many blogs, so few brain cells. ;-)

  12. Hi Linda! Susan from Bear Swamp Reflections here.

    How utterly fantastic this is! I was mesmerized by their movements. Now I want to go to Holland just to see them in person. Thank you so much for sharing this. If you don’t mind, I’m going to share it on my Facebook wall.


    I’m really pleased that I was able to introduce so many people to Jansen and his wonderful creations. I’m so often “late to the party” that I’m busy discovering what everyone else knows, but in this case, a guy sending pvc animals out to prowl the Dutch dunes doesn’t seem to have made the “A list”.

    I’m glad you enjoyed them – wouldn’t it be wonderful to experience them in person? As for being mesmerized – every time I come here to respond to a comment, I just have to watch again!

    And do feel free to share the post. I’ve waffled back and forth about adding links here to social media and I’m not on Facebook myself, but if someone wants to add a link to their wall, that’s fine.

    Thanks for stopping by. You’re always welcome.


  13. Without reflection, action can devolve into simple busy-work. Without concrete action, reflection can dissolve into disconnected dreaming. When they are held in tension, Lawrence Durrell’s insistence that reality be “re-worked to show its significant side” becomes a possibility.

    You have put into eloquent words what has been pacing back and forth in my head for some weeks now. Whether it will the effect of nudging me out of my dream state and into something more active is yet to be proven, but I have moved a little closer to that now. I think!

    Mr. Jansen’s lovely creatures have been winning many admirers of late, and he has won my heart for his whole-hearted committment to his vision. They are truly marvellous things.

    So glad you introduced yourself, Linda, and I have added you to the blogs I follow. I am an irregular commentor, but your voice speaks to me like no other of late.


    We’re always being nudged in one way or another, I think. Balance is hard to achieve in any realm of life, and the action/reflection dynamic is no different.

    One of the things I find refreshing about Jansen is the obvious affection he has for those creatures. He’s committed to a vision, yes – but it’s not a bloodless kind of commitment. It’s clear he really likes them. I suppose you could call it a bit strange, but to him they’re clearly alive. It makes me wonder. What if everyone involved in a process of creation felt such affection for their “product”? I don’t simply mean artists for their paintings or writers for their words. What if we could include teachers for their students, or homemakers for their environment? And so on. It’s worth thinking about, anyway.

    Glad you enjoyed the read, and thanks for the stimulating comment. You know you’re welcome any time.


  14. Actually, Linda, as I was reading this and watching the videos, I was comparing Jansen’s creations with your writing. Both are intricate forms, larger than life, that somehow move with intelligence and grace. At first glance, it may be easy to think, “No, it can’t work. There’s too much there.” But by the end, all of the parts are working smoothly together, and it’s off and running.

    Wonderful subject and wonderful treatment of it.


    Thank goodness the name “Rube Goldberg” didn’t pop up here! Sometimes I have to work pretty hard to get rid of all the unnecessary parts and pieces. As Elmore Leonard says, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip”.

    I think that was my first amazement when I saw Jansen’s creatures – the gracefulness of their movement. The structure is so angular, and yet they do move rather smoothly. I still can’t quite understand how he gets them to move away from an incoming tide or soft sand, but apparently he does.

    Isn’t it amazing how many hidden treasures there are in the world? I’m glad you enjoyed seeing this one.


  15. Jansen’s creativity and intensity make me proud to be Dutch!

    My brother is going to the Netherlands in June, so I’m fowarding this link to him.


    Since a couple of recent experiences have convinced me of the power of the internet and the reality of serendipity, here’s what I predict: your brother will go there, find one of these wonders, be chatting with a perfect stranger and discover they both arrived there because they (or someone they know) read this and passed on the info. Why not? ;-)

    I’ve always been rather fond of the Dutch, actually. I’ve never been to Holland, but I grew up very near a Dutch town called Pella, in Iowa. I don’t have my wooden shoes any longer, but every time I’m in the area, I make a beeline for their bakeries, and every spring I have to buy some tulips, to relive the festivals. Maybe one year I’ll make it to Holland, Michigan!


  16. My son is going to the Netherlands on Tuesday, so I, too, forwarded the link to him! His response: “Cool stuff!!”

    I’ve watched the videos over and over, for there is something compelling about these Strandbeests. Initially they seemed awkward, jerky, angular, and even silly, but I’ve found grace and beauty in these creations as I’ve thought about them during the week. That wasn’t what I was looking for, so it’s a pleasant surprise. Great post!


    So many people off to the Netherlands! I hope his journey’s a safe and pleasant one, and that he enjoys every minute.

    I’ve felt the same as you about these creatures. On the one hand, they are angular and awkward, but there’s a certain magic that takes over when they pick up the wind and start trundling down the beach. I’ve read a bit more of Jansen’s own writing, and I have to say there’s a certain streak of craziness impracticality in his conviction that these things will continue, take on life and reproduce after his death. ;-)

    On the other hand, who’s to say someone else won’t decide it’s their mission in life to figure out exactly how he’s done this and – reproduce them!?


  17. “Star Wars” yes–and Cooties, too. Ha, ha! But really, these Strandbeesten, and Mr. Jansen himself stand high above the rest. Such a feat of physics, of engineering, of playfulness. It is no surprise at all that the Dutch are in the vanguard of wind energy/technology.
    And “praxis.” Yes. A term I’d heard but never understood till now. Reflection and practice (and that wee bit of whimsy)–inspiration. And perspiration ;)

    Thank you for sharing these wonderful creatures and this inspiring man.


    I don’t know the answer, but I wonder if any of Jansen’s inspiration came directly from the windmills. They’re so integral to the life of Holland, I suppose anyone who grew up there couldn’t help but be influenced – although he certainly fine-tuned those influences in an unusual way.

    Once I started thinking about Jansen and windmills, I had a vision of windmills walking, much as his creatures do. It’s so detailed and vivid I have to think it’s from the movies – Disney, perhaps. “Fantasia”? or that 1937 short called “The Old Mill“? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen “The Old Mill”, but the stills look very much like what I remember. The windmills in the film are threatening, though. I’d much rather run into Strandbeesten! (And I wonder what they look like, prowling in the moonlight?!)


  18. They’re very clever, technically, but myself I’d rather concentrate on real life forms: people, animals, birds. And I worry that his creations that he is now or later setting ‘free’ to the elements will become part of the mass of PVC that is harming our planet.


    I think in the case of Mr. Jansen we have someone who’s mindful of the environment. After 20 years of such work and such publicity, I’m sure any problems in that realm would have been addressed. And actually, from the footage I’ve seen of his workshop and grounds, he’s rather more tidy than I am! (There’s even a webcam that lets the public watch the goings on when he is there.)

    What happens after his death is another issue, of course, but I suspect his care for his creatures somehow will be extended legally. Though he says he’s going to just “set them free”, it’s not exactly going to be a matter of opening the door and letting them fly like a caged bird.

    If there’s any danger I’d worry about, it would be scavengers taking a good look at those creatures and deciding to dismember them to fit out a garden irrigation system or some house plumbing! That’s a problem with art made from useful products – some people see “useful” rather than “artful” and act accordingly!


  19. This is fantastic. You’re an excellent writer and this is an excellent piece. Came across it just doodling on Blogsurfer, and it’s the theme that first stood out. I use Quentin too but for poetry, so it was very interesting to see it operate as essay. I like it even better now…it concentrates the mind and rewards the senses directly.

    Then the piece itself is incredible. I was astonished and beguiled.



    What fun, to have another Quentin user stop by! I do love the theme, and haven’t had even an impulse to change it in three years. I need to do some tidying up of links and there are a couple of changes I want to make to the sidebar, but they’re minimal changes. I’ve been very happy with it.

    Thanks so much for the kind words on the piece itself. It was terrific fun to research and write, and I’ve been thrilled to be able to introduce so many folks to Jansen’s work.

    I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment. You’re always welcome – and I look forward to seeing how a poet uses Quentin!


  20. How amazing to see them in motion! Thanks for the post, Linda.

    • Andrew,

      Aren’t they amazing? The inventiveness of the human mind is astonishing – I had fun watching them all over again!


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