A Walk on the Mild Side

Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests are being featured in an exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, until January 3, 2016. To mark the occasion, this post has been re-written and re-posted under the title Theo Jansen: Walking on the Mild Side. Please click the title to be taken to the new page.

Published in: on February 25, 2011 at 9:43 pm  Comments (10)  

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  1. 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!


  2. 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!


  3. 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.


  4. 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 ;-)


  5. 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…. ;-)


  6. 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.”


  7. 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”?


  8. 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.


  9. 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?


  10. 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. ;-)

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