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.”