Theo Jansen: Walking on the Mild Side

Theo Janssen, walking his rhinoceros

Perhaps walk isn’t quite the right word. March, perhaps. Or trek. Perhaps even creep would do, despite the word’s slightly passive connotation.

Whichever word you choose, watching Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s kinetic sculptures trundle across a beach is akin to witnessing some strange, primordial creature emerge from the mire and muck of a forgotten world and make tracks for higher ground.

His creations, called Strandbeests, or beach animals, are constructed from 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 first encountered, they astonish, compel, and amuse: scuttling over the landscape like giant, improbable crabs.

Jansen has been creating Strandbeests, and allowing them to prowl Dutch beaches, since 1990. His first were small, and required human assistance to move. Later, the addition of lemonade bottles and other commonly found objects (discussed on Jansen’s site) allowed larger, more intricate, and completely entrancing creatures to move along by the power of the wind.

In time, Jansen found ways to incorporate an ability to detect and avoid obstacles into his creatures, making it possible for them to be left alone to wander for periods of five to ten minutes. Today, they’re capable of much longer strolls.

Animaris Percipiere

It’s an ingenious blend of art and engineering, these Strandbeests. Jansen originally took up science, studying physics at the University of Delft, Holland, but he drifted away after finding the discipline constricting. As he says, “It felt like working in an office.”

He began painting, but after seven years, his imagination took wing again. He constructed and flew a flying saucer over the city of Delft, much to the consternation of its citizens, but 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 fascinating:

It didn’t have very strong joints. 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. Still, he found a solution. This excerpt from his full description of the process tells the tale:

I had no idea beforehand which ratio between the lengths I needed for the ideal walking movement. Which is why I developed a computer model to find this out for me.
But even for the computer the number of possible ratios between 11 rods was immense. Suppose every rod can have 10 different lengths, then there are 10,000,000,000,000 possible curves.
If the computer were to go through all these possibilities systematically, it would be kept busy for 100,000 years. I didn’t have this much time, which is why I opted for the evolutionary method
Fifteen hundred legs with rods of random length were generated in the computer. It then assessed which of these approached the ideal walking curve. Out of the 1500, the computer selected the best 100. These were awarded the privilege of reproduction. Their rods were copied and combined into 1500 new legs. These 1500 new legs exhibited similarities with their parent legs and once again were assessed on their resemblance to the ideal curve.
This process went through many generations during which the computer was on for weeks, months even, day and night. It finally resulted in eleven numbers denoting the ideal lengths of the required rods. The ultimate outcome of all this was the leg of Animaris Currens Vulgaris. This was the first beach animal to walk. And yet now and then Vulgaris was dead set against the idea of walking. A new computer evolution produced the legs of the generations that followed.
These, then, are the holy numbers (diagrammed here): a = 38, b = 41.5, c = 39.3, d = 40.1, e = 55.8, f = 39.4, g = 36.7, h = 65.7, i = 49, j = 50, k = 61.9, l=7.8, m=15 .
It is thanks to these numbers that the animals walk the way they do.

At least as interesting as the science are 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.

What Brazilian educator Paolo Freire called praxis — the dynamic tension between action and reflection — is useful for writers and photographers, musicians and researchers, engineers, educators, business people, and scientists: in short, for anyone concerned with bringing a vision to life. Without reflection, action often devolves into busywork. Without concrete action, reflection becomes disconnected dreaming. Held in tension, they allow for a re-working of reality, and the emergence of creative vision.

I suspect all of us remember times when, as children, we were sent to our rooms, admonished 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. He understands them as children: bearers of his memory into the future.

The beach animals will be my brainchildren, 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, in early entries on his website, Jansen said there was no time for interviews, no opportunities for film. There were no interns, no workshops, no publicity tours, or book signings. There was only the effort of a single artist; the thinking of an individual man; and the next generation of Strandbeests, moving against the wind.

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


 Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen, will be on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, until January 3, 2016. After that, they will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center, and San Francisco’s Exploratorium.
For more information, photos, and some delectable videos of the Strandbeest family, please click here.
Comments always are welcome.

126 thoughts on “Theo Jansen: Walking on the Mild Side

  1. I understand that George Mallory, “Climbing Everest”, responded to the question, “Why climb the mountain?” by answering, “Because it’s there.” Theo Jansen must have the same motivation. Interesting to me, but way beyond my understanding! From such men come many dreams that others build on. About two or three generations down from them (in the thought realm) people develop things I use – but still don’t understand.

    1. I suspect your example of Mallory is on target. I’m sure Jansen didn’t wake up one morning, make coffee, and think, “I believe I’ll build me some PVC pipe and soda bottle creatures that walk,” but once the idea was in his head, it became his mountain. The idea was there, and he started climbing.

      I don’t understand all of the math and engineering, either, but I understood more than I would have a few years ago. The beauty is that total comprehension isn’t necessary for appreciation. Besides, as soon as I saw his work, I thought, “So that’s what happens when Tinker Toys grow up!”

  2. I know who this guy is! Somehow I found him as I was doing my Dutch ancestry research and I think, maybe, I came across him through the film Dutch Light- which is a wonderful and fascinating film. Add to your viewing list.

    The sculptures are interesting and surely excellent engineering, but the best part is the land, water and sky. The things our minds are capable of if we are fortunate to break loose of the chains.

    “No interns, no workshops, no interviews”- perfection.

    1. Of course, Jansen’s moved on from the intense isolation of the creative process: to TED talks, videos, books, and so on. When I saw the Peabody Essex had mounted an exhibit, I was so pleased. I love these strange, awkward creatures, and was happy to introduce a few more people to them.

      I’m not surprised you’ve come across him in your research. He’s well known in art circles, of course, and much better known in Europe than here. I suspect his stunt with the UFO didn’t hurt, as far as name recognition goes. There’s a wonderful piece on Vimeo that shows the launch, the flight, and some of the consequences. I laughed all the way through.

  3. Thank you for sharing this! There is no end to the creativity of the human brain. We have a large sculpture park here and Jansen’s work would fit right in.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jean. Of course, if you put one or two of Jansen’s Strandbeests in your park, they might get lonesome for their beach, and head off down the road.

      I rather like the thought of a sculpture that could uninstall itself at will. I suppose in the case of the Strandbeests, the catch phrase would have to be, “Where there’s a wind, there’s a way.”

    1. Isn’t the world filled with wonders, Kayti? It tickles me that I could introduce you to an artist you didn’t know. He’s such an interesting person, and his Strandbeests invariably make me smile. I’d love to see one in its native habitat.

      I especially like his dry humor. I laughed when I read, “If the computer were to go through all these possibilities systematically, it would be kept busy for 100,000 years. I didn’t have this much time, which is why I opted for the evolutionary method.”

    2. Just so you know, the exhibit is coming to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. They’re doing some walk-abouts in Boston. Can’t you imagine these things trekking across the Golden Gate bridge?

      Also, I read that Jansen’s moving back to Scheveningen. He wants to live out the rest of his life there. I need to read Gerard’s tuna blog, and see what he had to say about the place.

  4. It is amazing how our creative minds and souls find expression in such creations. Jansen’s work reminds me of the fantastic King and Queen costumes that are built each carnival season on the island of Trinidad. They often turn out to be huge constructions that have to be moved along the street parades for long distances, by only one person.

    1. Some cruising friends who were in Trinidad for Carnival a few years ago shared photos of those amazing costumes. You’re right that they partake of the spirit of Jansen’s work: at least in the sense of being compelling and improbable — and portable-in-a-way.

      I found his comment that he had a vision about the principle of the feet very interesting, too. I suspect he experienced the sort of sudden insight that comes with long-term immersion in a problem. The solution (or at least the key to it) may seem to come out of nowhere, but in fact it’s been forming beneath consciousness.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your comment. You’re always welcome to stop by.


  5. Wonderful crazy inventions. I first saw these a few years ago. They are so intriguing and make one smile.

    I wonder what becomes of them after demonstrating they are mobile.

    1. Personally, I hope there are a few that have escaped and are roaming the strand, however unlikely that might be. I did read that some are stashed in a large warehouse: perhaps for spare parts. And over the years, more and more have been disassembled and shipped off to museums around the world — even to Japan — for exhibits.

      I hope there’s a way for some of them to remain in the wild after Jansen’s death. It would be a shame for them all to be enclosed in rooms, with no possibility of movement.

        1. You could have the opportunity to see them. Once the exhibit closes in Massachusetts, it’s moving on to the Chicago Cultural Center. I suspect that might be worth a trip.

  6. But how will I sleep now that I have seen this? My mind is spinning at so many levels. The Beautiful coaxes me to create, create! The True is asking me to ponder: Where are other places where art and science kiss? And the Good is commanding me to demand an accounting of our miserly refusal to waste time. Perhaps this latter is where I best begin…

    1. When I read about people like Jansen, it occurs to me that our willingness to judge every obsession as unhealthy is misplaced. In some cases, what we call obsession is only focused attention. Because it’s more sharply focused and more enduring than we’re able or willing to achieve, we label it a disorder, and dismiss it.

      And did you notice Jansen’s tantalizing comment about the change in his methods? Having experienced the difficulties inherent in creation ex nihilo, he decided to try the evolutionary approach. How I laughed at that wonderful, elegant solution — one that could put an end to a whole clutch of heated arguments in a slightly different context.

      As for that business of wasting time: I stand convicted, myself. A customer and I were discussing the passage of time recently, and both of us are experiencing the pangs of realizing that, in another quarter-century, it’s likely neither of us will be here. We’d better carpe something, and quickly. As I used to be advised as a pokey child, “Time’s a-wastin’!”

  7. All those zeros in the linked article (which you accurately quoted) are perplexing me, so I just sent an e-mail about it to Theo Jansen. Let’s see if he replies.

    I saw these creatures on television, I think within the last year, and they’re wonderful.

    1. Somehow, I feel sure Mr. Jansen will respond. Although I didn’t expect you to email him, I did expect you to be interested.

      I read and re-read various sources about his methods with new interest, myself. His “holy numbers” reminded me of the Golden Ratio (metaphorically, if not mathematically), and his comment about not having 100,000 years at his disposal to reach a solution is a good reminder to use whatever technology’s at hand to help move things along.

      I just found out yesterday that BMW used the Strandbeest in one of their commercials. I found it, and certainly was moved by it. By its end, I was ready to make a purchase — though of a Strandbeest, rather than a car.

      1. This morning I received a reply from Theo Jansen. Here’s what I’d e-mailed to him:

        “[Y]ou’ve written: ‘But even for the computer the number of possible ratios between 11 rods was immense. Suppose every rod can have 10 different lengths, then there are 10,000,000,000,000 possible curves.’

        “Shouldn’t the number of possible curves be 10 to the 11th power? That would be 100,000,000,000, whereas the number you gave has 13 zeros and is therefore 10 to the 13th power.”

        And here was his answer:

        “You are right. I should renew the website leg system. In fact there are 13 numbers.”

        The fact that there are 13 rods explains why Jansen went on to claim 10,000,000,000,000 possible curves. The number 10,000,000,000,000, which is a 1 followed by 13 zeros, corresponds to the fact that there are in fact 13 rods, not the 11 he’d mistakenly said on his website.

        1. I’m delighted, but not surprised, that you received a reply. It’s great that your sharp eye caught the discrepancy, so it can be fixed. And how nice for Theo Jansen to get that kind of feedback. I’m sure he was appreciative.

          I knew I’d read about the 13 rods somewhere. It’s in this NY Times article from a year ago. If you scroll down to the photo of Mr. Jansen supervising the loading of the truck, the mathematical details begin in the fifth paragraph below that.

          1. Yes, I see the 13 there. How it got demoted to 11 on his own website, I don’t know.

            Sometimes I think I missed a calling as an editor, though in this instance the insight came from years of teaching the basics of permutations and combinations rather than English.

    2. As an aside, I was intrigued by the name of the early Strandbeest: “Animaris Currens Vulgaris.”

      I became friends with a couple named Currens in Liberia. The family name Currens seems to be of Scottish or Irish origin. If I have this right, Celtic languages are Indo-European, and, in Latin, “currens” is the present participle of currere “to run.”

      Taken together, these random bits of information made me wonder if “currens” might be one of those words that became a family name, like Medina. Whether or not that’s true, exploring the issue did give me a chance to begin figuring out how to use Robert Claiborne’s “The Roots of English.” At only two dollars on Amazon, it was quite a bargain.

      1. Yes, Celtic languages are a branch of Indo-European, and yes again, currens is the present participle of Latin currere, so it means ‘running’ (compare current). Whether a form of the word became a family name, I don’t know, but such things do happen, as you pointed out about Medina. Even unflattering words have become family names, like Slaughter in English and Verdugo (‘executioner’) in Spanish.

        As for Animaris, I keep wondering whether he meant Animalis, or whether he was being clever and combining that with the Latin word for ‘sea,’ mare (as in marine and maritime).

        1. One of Jansen’s hopes for the Beests was that they’d develop the capacity to replenish the Dutch dunes by continually adding sand through their movement down the beach. However improbable that might be, it does suggest that the reference to the sea was intentional.

    1. I thought about that, although the environment on the Strand probably wouldn’t suit the Beest: not enough room, and not enough wind. I wonder if even the Texas beaches would be suitable. They’re much more narrow than the tidal flats shown in the videos, and with the prevailing southerlies, they’d probably send the creatures into the marsh.

      Maybe farther down the coast would do. If someone decides to give it a try (the museum in Corpus Christi, perhaps) you can bet I’ll be there.

    1. It’s so nice to see somehow having fun with their projects, isn’t it? I read a funny story about some people in a Dutch café, where a Strandbeest had been “parked” outside. When the wind came up, it started to walk. They were just as surprised as you’d expect. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful experience?

      ~ Linda

      1. “In 1979 Jansen started using PVC pipes (which were very cheap) to build a 4 meter wide flying saucer that was filled with helium. It was launched over Delft in 1980 on a day when the sky was hazy. Light and sound came from the saucer. Because the saucer was black against a light sky, its size was hard to guess. The police even said it was 30 meters wide and some people swore they saw a halo around it. He said [1] that they never found it and that it had probably landed somewhere in Belgium. He later redid the project over Paris.”
        Dear Linda, after reading your post, I searched more, and he is amazing, have your heard his UFO project :) Thank you dear, love, nia

        1. Yes, there is a wonderful video that shows the launch of the UFO, and people’s reactions to it. You can see it here. It is in Dutch, but there are English subtitles. It’s very interesting, and also very funny! ~ Linda

  8. “Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.”

    In a few weeks, it will be Pumpk’n Chunk’n season. For those who have not heard about this utterly mad exercise in whimsy, the object is create a contraption that tosses a pumpkin as far as possible. There are categories for slingshots, catapults, centrifugals, trebuchets, and pneumatic cannons.

    It is art, it is science, it is wholly irrational – but beyond all of that it is an opportunity to take the human spirit out for a romp.

    Linda, I appreciated how you described Theo Jansen’s creative approach to problem solving. The best engineers and artists possess the wisdom and humility to allow the problem to define the solution without letting their egos get in the way.

    1. And just shortly after the Pumpk’n Chunk’n, it will be time for the Great Fruitcake Toss in Colorado. Though the object being tossed differs, the purpose and the propulsion methods are the same. The single advantage the fruitcake toss might have over the pumpkin chunk is that it finally gets rid of that fruitcake that keeps circulating through the family.

      I like that phrase — “take the human spirit out for a romp.” Every time I get a new bulletin from the front in the nanny wars (the latest being the banning of the game of tag, for presumed emotional damage to children) I hyperventilate first, and then grieve for the loss of freedom in our world. Romping isn’t much in favor these days, and every opportunity to engage in it has to be celebrated.

      What struck me about Theo Jansen’s long process of problem solving is the way the process itself was both artful and scientific. Intuition and analysis both played a role, and led to the quite wonderful results.

      1. the latest being the banning of the game of tag, for presumed emotional damage to children

        A vice is defined as a virtue taken too far. In that sense, good should be left at good enough.

  9. I tracked down the Unamuno quotation. I found that it’s from his book The Life of Don Quijote and Sancho, published in 1905 to coincide with the 300-year anniversary of the publication of Don Quijote, so the question of what is absurd comes in the context of that fictional character’s strange beliefs and actions.

    1. I found Jansen’s 2007 book, titled “The Great Pretender.” It provides a look into a mind as quixotic and quirky as they come.

      In the process, I happened across a paper that includes a clearer explanation of the beginnings of Jansen’s use of the computer:

      “Jansen set out in the spring of 1990 to witness evolution. He wrote a program to create Animaris Lineamentum… the starting point for Jansen’s explorations in genetic algorithms on the computer.

      “Though Lineamentum was only a digital program, Jansen was able to envision evolution in a tangible way. With each generation the computer created a set of black lines on a white background, each line with four segments. To begin, each segment had a random curve. Each line had a tail and head section and on each head a stinger. As the animals moved around the screen, they stung each other. Death occurred with just one sting, eliminating a certain
      population every round. At the end of each generation the most effective Lineamentum were able to reproduce, then the program was run all over again.”

      “Without this initial exploration in Lineamentum, Jansen would never have come up with the idea to create a program that would discover the Twelve Holy Numbers. And without the aid of the
      computer, the use of genetic algorithms, and the Twelve Holy Numbers, Jansen’s Strandbeest would not be the unique sculptures they are today.”

      As for Don Quijote, his influence endures.The European Space Agency named its asteroid deflection program Don Quijote. If it’s ever implemented, its two spacecraft will be named Hidalgo and Sancho.

        1. And as soon as you mentioned the song, the lyrics and melody were fresh in my mind. There wasn’t even a need to click the link, although I did. At such times, I always wonder what else is buried in memory, just waiting for a trigger to bring it to consciousness.

      1. We need to keep our fingers crossed. The exhibit’s going to Chicago and San Francisco after the Peabody. I’ve seen some reports that New York is trying to arrange for it to come there, too. Perhaps someone in Houston or Dallas/Ft.Worth will decide that Texas needs to see these beasties, too.

    1. The wonderful thing is that he’s still creating. I think it’s especially interesting that the Japanese have been so receptive to his work. I don’t know much about anime, or Japanese science fiction, but I have a vague sense that Theo Jansen’s creatures might fit right in.

  10. “What Brazilian educator Paolo Freire called praxis — the dynamic tension between action and reflection — is useful for writers and photographers, musicians and researchers, engineers, educators, business people, and scientists: in short, for anyone concerned with bringing a vision to life. Without reflection, action often devolves into busywork. Without concrete action, reflection becomes disconnected dreaming. Held in tension, they allow for a re-working of reality, and the emergence of creative vision.” Excellent observation!

    That’s why creative minds are never quite satisfied with their finished product. They ask so many questions of the end result, there’s always the need (or, at least, the temptation) to revisit it and tweak something here or there. Sometimes, wholesale changes are the order of the day.

    1. You’re right about the tweaking that goes on. Of course, the other side of that particular coin is that the search for perfection can lead to paralysis.

      The medium makes a difference, too. For Theo Jansen, success or failure could be measured concretely. At first, his animal wouldn’t walk, so he found a way to make that happen. Then, its gait was awkward and halting, He found a way to smooth it. Because the Beests could walk for only for a short time, he found a way to store wind. And so on.

      It’s fairly easy to know whether a Strandbeest is “working.” Whether a novel, a photograph, or a painting “works” is a more difficult question — which no doubt helps to explain why we tie ourselves in knots over what we’re doing from time to time.

  11. This guy was featured on a TV show fairly recently (PBS? Discovery channel…will have to search…CBS featured him in 2012. )
    Watching his creations march across the beach was totally mesmerizing. They are more fun than robots! Anyone in the Boston/Chicago/ SanFrancisco areas should make the exhibit a Must Attend.

    Leonardo da Vinci might have been of a similar creative mind with all his inventions? Before there were art supply stores, artists worked much like scientists do now to secure materials, analyze the properties of materials, mix/morph materials to useable form for their purpose, and to constantly tinker with those material components for different effects – with both painters and sculptors. Eventually coming up with a product – hopefully a sellable one.

    In many ways artists and scientists and engineers have much in common – not just the wild out of the lines ideas, but the tinkering impulse, the repurposing of things, the logic. The “just because.”

    Terrific post! (Could way out West TX high plains for one of his projects? Pretty flat around Victoria and south?)

    1. More than a few people have compared him to Leonardo, although references to Don Quijote and Sisyphus are around, too.

      I was interested in your comment about them being more fun than robots. Lawrence Wenschler wrote about Jansen for the NY Times a year ago, and made the point in a couple of interesting ways that the Strandbeests seems to be animated – even enspirited — in a way that robots are not.

      Jansen himself has said that there will be no use made of the computer chips and such that are used in robots. PVC, cable ties, soda bottles, whatever the wings are made of –those will be the basis for his animals. He also seems to believe quite firmly in their ability to reproduce by… some means. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but fascinated. If you read the whole of Wenschler’s article, you may find vertigo setting in, as I did.

      Personally, I think Strandbeests would do nicely at Palo Duro. Can’t you see them, trundling along the canyon rim? Balconesbeests! Just keep them away from the bison.

      1. Yes, there is a naturalness with these creations – and somehow they express community, trying to work in unison ( and there’s always a slow one, one out of step, one that’s tired and wants to go his own way…). Is it the materials, the builder, the purpose, or a gratefulness by tossed “useless” objects at being given a second chance to do something in this life that gives them a personality different from the robots? These do seem to have some life force that robots mimic but always seem cold and barren of it.
        I think Jansen said on one show he was surprised when a group “broke off” and went on their own way apart from the others. Is that like amoebic/cell reproduction?
        Strandbeests are waay too cool. How about them marching down some of the long flat HWYs in the desert? Maybe escorted by robots with blinking lights? HA HA (Sadly there are far too many mean /angry people in the world who can’t appreciate this and would run them over)
        Palo Duro would be glorious stage. (What would a buffy do? They are curious creatures, too.)

        1. I fear the Strandbeests wouldn’t stand up too well to the bison. Now, a wildebeest-strandbeest meeting might be interesting. I should have picked up on that Dutch-Afrikaans connection before now, but there it is.

          When I read ” there’s always a slow one, one out of step, one that’s tired and wants to go his own way,” I thought, “This woman’s been hanging around the ducks too long.” And lo: the ducks were right there, in your post.

          When it gets cold and dreary and not such good weather for being outside, I think you’d really enjoy reading Jansen’s “The Great Pretender.” I’ve never come across anything like it — it’s like a cross between Loren Eiseley and Edward Gorey.

  12. I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process, and, having just returned from Burning Man, even more so now. The mind is such wonderfully fascinating tool. Turn it loose to wander and add a dash of discipline, there seems to be few limits to what it can create. Your beach walking creatures are indeed charming. I suspect their engineering will eventually lead to commercial applications. Good post, Linda. Thanks. –Curt

    1. Now that you mention it, Curt, the association with Burning Man seems obvious. There’s no doubt in my mind that, when the exhibit gets to San Francisco, there will be more than a few Burners who show up to have a peek.

      A friend and I were talking just today about the apparent decline of imaginative thought in children. Natural curiosity and openness need to be nurtured, or imagination’s muscles can atrophy, too. Turning the mind loose to wander doesn’t work unless it’s been strengthened and nurtured — in just the way you so beautifully do with your grandkids.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I’m looking forward to more of your Burning Man posts.

  13. How interesting! It seems to me that this man is blending art, creativity, science, construction, technology, and a host of other disciplines into one when he makes these cool creatures. Yes, it’s very much like being a parent, sending them off into the world and letting them fend for themselves! Beautiful video — takes a special person to design something like this, huh, Linda?

    1. Despite what Mr. Jansen says, I can’t really conceive of his Strandbeests ever being independent, or fending for themselves. On the other hand, I never could have conceived of PVC animals making their way down the beach by wind power, so there you are.

      He is amazingly skilled. Envisioning the creatures is one thing. Having the skill to bring them into being is another. I do think some people are more naturally talented in areas like engineering and math — more able to “see” the realities that numbers represent — and he’s clearly one.

      He’s also firmly convinced that his creatures are alive, and that his bringing them into being is — well, not fully his choice. He said in one interview that the Strandbeests own him: that they’ve chosen him to bring them to life. As he put it in this exchange with an interviewer:

      “Plastic PVC tubes entered my life one fine September day in 1990, and since then, the strandbeests have ruled my life. They’ve become an addiction, a disease, a virus if you like. A virus that has commandeered and refuses to leave my body. I am their victim: The strandbeests are forcing me to make them.’’

      “But wait, I countered, wasn’t he, if anything, their god? ‘’It is true,’’ Jansen replied, ‘’that up till now they do require my ministrations to help them realize their destiny. But no, I am not their god. I am their slave.’’

      I confess I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes over the next years.

  14. A whimsical read about an artist heretofore unknown to me.

    I got a kick out of his calling his beasts “his children” who will soon be shown to the door. After sending two children to college, I might have preferred a beach beast from a financial point of view….although, the price of PVC isn’t that low.

    This post makes me wonder about people who do these types of eccentric things. Can we call these creations eccentric? Are they akin to the Kansas farmer creating a piece of artwork in his cornfield that can only be viewed from the air? Do they have value? If so, what type?

    Although those beach contraptions amuse, they also seem like moving litter when compared to the glide of the pelican, the poking of the shorebird, or the sidewards travel of the sand crab.

    1. I certainly take your point about the pelican, shorebird, and crab, but I’d not go so far as to call the Strandbeest moving litter. It’s true they’re homely and awkward, and if they ever began reproducing as Theo Jansen swears is possible, there could be a problem with PVC pipe piling up as aging Beests begin dropping off legs, but I still like them. They seem somehow magical, in a way that robots — or even erector set and Lego toys — don’t.

      Maybe it’s only that I’m of the Tinker Toy generation, and Jansen reminds me of a big boy with a really, really big box of Tinker Toys. The connection between my little Tinker Toy projects and Strandbeests is tenuous at best, but it’s there.

      I certainly would call the man eccentric, and his creations unique. I’d say his Beests have value, too. What type? Well, maybe of the sort Peter, Paul, and Mary sang about. When I see the Strandbeests trucking along, I feel just like I do when I hear this song.

  15. This is a remarkable story. How did you discover him? While I know there aren’t clear categories of creating here (and that’s part of your point, I think), I see him most as an inventor of a wonderfully fanciful sort. For example, I absolutely love that his first idea as he moved away from painting was to construct and fly a flying saucer over the city of Delft.

    1. Several years ago, artist and fellow blogger Gary Myers posted about him on his website. It was early enough in Jansen’s career that I don’t believe he’d had much publicity outside of art and engineering circles — at least in this country. I certainly hadn’t heard of him, but I was intrigued by his invention.

      Today, he’s had exhibits in European capitals and Japan. He made a pass through Miami, and was here for a TED talk. Now that he’s making his first swing through the U.S., he’s being written about extensively. When I saw the news about the current exhibit in the Boston area, I thought I would write about him myself. From Boston, the Beests will go on to Chicago and San Francisco, and I’ve read that some in NYC are trying to bring the exhibit there.

      The video of the UFO exploit is so funny. It was a War of the Worlds sort of experience in many ways, and the pleasure Jansen and his friends took in their little joke is marvelous. It’s fun to see the responses of the people who were sure they’d seen an extraterrestrial craft, too.

      As for my point? Only to point to this amazing tale and say, “Look at this. Hamlet was right — there are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of in our philosophies.”

  16. Bless you Linda – I’ve just spent the best time ever reading this and following some links and laughing in wonderment – especially over the UFO prank! But when I first saw the creature move along the beach, I wanted ballet music to be composed for them. Music was composed for Nora the cat, so why not for these delightful creatures?

    1. I watched that cat this morning before heading off to work. I suggested to Miss Dixie Rose that she might consider taking up one of the finer arts herself, but she just yawned.

      For all that I love the Strandbeests, I’m with you in completely enjoying the UFO prank — for that’s what it was. Every now and then, I listen to a bit of middle-of-the-night radio, when they’re talking UFOs. One of the things that always strikes me is how badly some of the people want it all to be true, and I think we see some of that in the interviews with the people who saw Theo Jansen’s flying saucer.

      I found you another video — with nice music — with Strandbeests on Miami Beach. If you watch closely, you’ll see a baby Beest or two. I’ll not even try to explain that!

  17. Odd but true and a unique creature in his own right. I have often wondered how in the world artists of his kind or maybe it’s stature make a living? But maybe he is more than what I see by the sea, strange as it seems to me. Very interesing post.

    1. I know that he was regularly employed before beginning these projects in 1990, Yvonne. He has a degree in physics, and I believe he was working for an engineering firm at one time. His book, called “The Pretender,” is available for reading online, and there are many personal details there.

      Of course, he’s also supporting his projects now with such things as commercials for BMW autos. I suppose he’s also making money from books, videos, and so on, and of course he’s receiving funding from the various museums for his shows.

      Not only that, you can purchase a kit and make your own baby Beest. Would I buy this and put it together? I just might.

  18. Oh my goodness, how fascinating! I simply love these marvelous beasts that roam the beaches. How I wish we had some here. He is utterly ingenious! I can’t get over the fact they move on their own….amazing! I did enjoy this!xxx

    1. I love them for their ingenuity, for the sheer fun of watching them, and for everything that Theo Jansen has to teach us about creation, persistence, and love. There were some in London in the the past. I hope they come back to visit. It would be wonderful to see them in real life, wouldn’t it?

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and the Beesties!

  19. This has been one of your most interesting posts, Linda. What a unique vision Janssen has created and then brought to life. I would love to observe one of these ‘beasts’ in action. Wouldn’t it be great if international beaches could adopt a moveable creature so they might be more widely enjoyed?

    1. Mary, you might get your chance. The Strandbeests apparently are returning to Australia in 2015-2016. (They’ve been there once.) There are more details here. if you have a curator in your circle of friends, encourage them to get busy and make some arrangements.

      I think your idea about adopting some for beaches around the world is terrific. Each beach probably would need two, though. We wouldn’t want a Strandbeest to be lonely.

    1. What especially tickles me is that there aren’t any batteries or computer chips. It might have been hard to find plastic bottles and PVC in 1900, but other than that, they’re perfect for playing with after you’ve had a coffee pudding!

  20. Arrggh….I wrote a long comment on this post the other day but obviously I didn’t actually post it! My main point was I liked the link between his name Theo and his playing God with his Beests.

    1. Don’t you hate when that happens? My trick is leaving open a post I want to re-read, and then accidentally covering it up with another page. Ah, well.

      One thing that interests me is that every time someone brings up his role as god to his creatures, Jansen demurs. He’ll speak of being their servant, their slave, or their parent, but not their god.

      It’s a fact that, when we speak of someone playing god, we’re generally talking about their impulse toward control over the world around them. Jansen doesn’t seem to have that desire to control his creatures. The very fact that he’s open-sourced the code for making them seems to support his self-understanding as being the one who’ll free them into the world.

      One of my favorite examples of someone who’s picked up the information and done something with it is this woodworker, who made the hippo from maple and walnut. It’s a six minute video, but it shows every step in timelapse, and it’s just fascinating. The music’s good, too.

      When he starts the sanding process, note the clock that he’s propped up on the workbench. That made me laugh.

      1. The woodworker video was marvelous. I did fear for his fingers at times! And ,yes, I could hear you laughing through the sanding sequence. I am wondering if my original comment went to your spam because it did have a link to an online shop…sometimes a comment with such a link is automatically sent to spam. Not important though.

        1. I know it didn’t land in the spam file, as I clean that out every day, and have my little system set up so that I’m alerted if new spam shows up. So, I fear its the gremlins who were busy again. They seem capable of so much.

        2. Look down the page at Steve Gingold’s comment. The first of the two videos is of sand artist Peter Donnelly. I didn’t realize until I went to YouTube to watch it there that he’s from Christchurch, and he’s working his magic on Brighton Beach. Small world!

  21. I don’t understand the science to it but this is incredibly fascinating. His “think outside the box” vision reminds me a bit of what Rick’s Greg might/could be someday (without the science!). The name sounds vaguely familiar but this is all new to me. Thanks for sharing it. What a wonderful and fascinating world to encounter!

    1. They are fascinating, aren’t they? They’re going to be in Chicago after the first of the year. You could go to see them, and take photos for me, Jeanie!

      I think what amazes me most is how smooth and graceful their movement is. Of course there was a lot of trial and error along the way, and a good number of creatures who just wouldn’t walk. But he didn’t give up. He just fired up his old Atari again, and computed his way to a solution.

      Even non-geeky me had to smile at the mention of the Atari. The last one was produced in 1993. By that time, Theo Jansen had his critters walking, and was on his way to being able to afford a computer upgrade — although he did pretty darned well with his old hardware!

  22. I’ve seen Mr. Jansen’s Strandbeests before, but I cannot remember where. They did make me smile. You have to admire him for the effort, time and creativity he brought to these whimsical creations. Sometimes the world needs a little whimsy.

    1. I suspect you’re in the mood for some whimsy this morning. The Strandbeests might not do so well in your windy and soggy conditions. On the other hand, they might set some records running down the beach.

      Clearly, they’ve been more well-known than I realized, but there still are a good number of people who haven’t seen them. They make me smile, too, and to be quite frank, anything that brings a smile these days is worth highlighting. What I like to imagine are the conversations he has with his animals. I know he has them — who among us hasn’t spoken to inanimate objects. (Of course, he’d argue that “inanimate” business…)

    1. Every now and then, a scan of the cultural horizon’s worthwhile, Emily. The answers to the question, “I wonder what’s out there?” can be many and various, and more than enough for a lifetime.

      Some of us celebrate physical places, and some live in places most of us barely can imagine. It is fun to visit them, though!

    1. Thanks, GP. It’s true — while he goes about improving and evolving his creatures, the rest of us get some good lessons in creativity and plain old perseverance. Those always are worthwhile.

  23. I have not seen these beests before and can only marvel at Jansen’s ingenuity and genius. He reminds me of the beach sand artists a bit for creating art /science for its own value.

    Of course there are many others such as Andy Goldsworthy

    1. Both of these are fabulous, Steve. I brought Peter Donnelly to the attention of Gallivanta, who comments here and lives in Christchurch. Perhaps she’s seen his work. As for Goldsworthy, I first learned about him from Rosemary Washington, who describes herself as a bit of a Goldsworthy groupie. You can see some of her search for his work here .

      Just to make this a triptych of sorts, have you come across Stan Herd? You can find his Van Gogh olive grove done in farmland here, along with other interesting details, and a link to his website.

      1. That was interesting to see his “permanent” works in the Presidio. When I first learned of him it was through a video showing him build more temporary pieces such as rock sculptures that would wash away in the tides which I cannot find now. Here is an early short about him.

  24. One could easily get depressed, knowing how much there is out there about which one has never heard!

    Yet again, Linda, you’ve shone a light into a very peculiar but fascinating little corner where the human imagination catches an obsession and runs with it. Wonderful…and the UFO joke, especially, shows how much we construct what’s actually in the world, inside our own heads. Do facts actually exist? Discuss…

    1. On the other hand, Anne, all of those unknowns can guarantee a lifetime of discovery. We’ve both known “know-it-alls” and we know how boring (and bored) they are. Know-it-alls come in a variety of forms, from priggish to petulant to professorial, and they’re not nearly as much fun as a first-grader.

      Your question about facts brings to mind Nietzsche’s line (“There are no facts, only interpretations”) and the whole stew of post-modernism. I’ve been pondering this article by Boris Schumatsky: not only for its relevance regarding Russia and Putin, but also for what it has to say about post-modernism. I think you’d find it worthy of a read. It certainly has helped me sort out some of my views about critics such as Roland Barthes (and other issues as well).

  25. Thanks for sharing this artist! I really like art that coexists with the environment, and this is certainly one of them. One doesn’t have to go to a museum; one can view it in a natural setting and appreciate how the design interacts with the surroundings.

    1. Exactly so. Do you know the work of Andy Goldsworthy? The videos just above are a pretty good introduction to his work. Another interesting place is James Turrell’s Skyspace at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. There are so, so many wonderful ways that art and the environment interact.

      1. I wish I could travel to the States more often to see these museums. I have a B.A. in art so I have a basic knowledge of art in general. I also took modern art theory which is fascinating, because it explains the reasoning behind all these environmental sculptors. Thanks for the links, I’ll have a look!

      2. I just watched Andy Goldsworthy’s work in the video and I really liked it. One of the ideas that struck me the most when I took the Modern Art course (many years ago) was that art needs to get out of galleries and be presented in natural, open spaces. Modern art (according to the class I took) then is aware of its “ephemeral” essence; it belongs to earth while it lasts; it is not permanent. It is not meant to be locked up in galleries nor museums, ir must interact with people and the environment. This is the main idea behind modern art: “impermanence”. When I took the course I finally understood the ideas behind many works of art that I didn’t understand before. “Skyspace” is new to me. I had to read about it and it’s so fascinating how Art is out there in Nature itself. Artists are just more sensitive to its language and perceive it quicker than people who are not that artistically developed. I believe everyone is an artist; they know this from childhood. Some, however, are able to flourish as full blown artists because they have a deeper sensibility and are more perceptive to nature surroundings.

        1. I think you’re right about the artists’ deeper sensibility and more acute perceptions. Of course, they also need the sort of commitment to their vision that Jansen perfectly exemplifies: a willingness to toil on (and find ways to support themselves in the process!) while they translate their vision into something the public can respond to. (Or not, in the case of much modern art. I count myself among those who still can’t deal with Jackson Pollock, but so it is.)

          Speaking of ephemeral, you might enjoy seeing the work of Wolfgang Laib, a German who works in pollen. I included him in a post a couple of years ago during — pollen season!

          1. Thanks for that also! I’ll take a look shortly. However, some artists never sold a painting or a work of art in their whole lives. I wonder if some are meant to sacrifice themselves for whichever reason they might have; mental illnesss, or something of the sort.

          2. Linda, thanks for sharing this other artist, Wolfgang Laib. This artistic genre is called “Installation art”, which is the exhibition of three-dimensional works that are often site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space. Installation art doesn’t have to be in a museum, it can be in other places too. Thanks for sharing the link. It seems these artists are trying to make a statement about many issues and they need a lot of space, usually, to display their materials, in this case, the pollen. Amazing! What I think is that they are usually very knowledgeable about what they are doing, as all of this begun I believe with Marcel Duchamp and his “Dadaism” group, which spread to the U.S. also. They critiqued the materialistic values of the “bourgeoisie” society and began using objects to make social statements and then these “installations” begun. To be honest, I’m not crazy about them. I like art to be aesthetic and visually pleasing. I’m very old fashioned in this way.

            1. One modern artist whose work I admire and very much like is Dale Chihuly. I suppose that would be installation art, too — though intensely beautiful and visually pleasing.

              It’s interesting that you mention Duchamp. I’ve mentioned a time or two my memory of opening the Time Magazine that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Armory Show, and seeing his “Nude Descending a Staircase.” I found it so compelling I clipped it out and put it on my bulletin board, along with our high school’s football schedule and other ephemera.

            2. Oh yes, I love his work! I think he’s not a conceptual artist at all, but an artisan sculptor. There is a great difference. These are my favourite artists! Thank you!

    1. They’re great, aren’t they? I especially like that they aren’t computerized. I have nothing against computer chips, but the thought of being able to make such creatures move solely by wind is truly amazing.

  26. Insanely genius! Absolutely genius, nothing short of. I’m just blown away, for lack of better descriptive. I could watch this beest walk for hours on the beach. The leg movement pattern reminds of a horse, but with many more legs! How you find these unique artists is beyond me, but I am certainly glad you do and then share them with us. If you don’t mind, I might post a link to this video and your blog post on my Facebook page. I have oodles of artistic friends who would drool over this!

    1. Absolutely, you can feel free to post it to FB. I wasn’t sure how many people knew about him, but it seems there are more who don’t than I’d realized. There’s something so charming — compelling, really — about his beests. I feel just like you do. I could watch them for hours.

      What’s especially interesting to me is that he didn’t model them after an animal, like a horse. It’s truly a computer-generated form. He engaged in a lot of trial and error, until he finally found the mathematical key to making them work.

      It was another artist, Gary Myers, who introduced me to Jansen by posting about the Beests on his blog. That’s been some time ago, but when I saw that they were going to be on exhibit in this country, I thought I’d better get busy and give them some publicity. Could a Strandbeest ever come to Galveston’s Strand? You never know….

    1. Howe’s pieces are mesmerizing. When I clicked on “My Father’s Influence,” I was especially interested in the fact that there are 256 mirrors. At first I thought it was a coincidence, and that it matched the number of counties in Texas. But no — we have 254 counties.

      So, I read a bit more, and learned a new word: Zenzizenzizenzic. That’s what 256 is, among other things: 2 to the 8th power. Here’s a tidbit from the Wiki that left me giggling by the time I’d slogged through it:

      “Zenzizenzizenzic is an obsolete form of mathematical notation representing the eighth power of a number (that is, the zenzizenzizenzic of a number x is the power x8), dating from a time when powers were written out in words rather than as superscript numbers. This term was suggested by Robert Recorde, a 16th-century Welsh writer of popular mathematics textbooks, in his 1557 work The Whetstone of Witte (although his spelling was zenzizenzizenzike); he wrote that it “doeth represent the square of squares squaredly.”

      “My Father’s Influence” is available, but I suspect it would break the rest of my lifetime’s budget.

  27. “Without reflection, action often devolves into busywork. Without concrete action, reflection becomes disconnected dreaming.” Wonderful summary, Linda. At my new company they have lots of meetings. I had 14 meetings my second week, which sounds absurdly excessive compared to the two or three in my previous job. But there’s intense effort to gather a diverse group to accomplish complex projects.

    Jansen’s work is delightful to see — I’m amazed at how human-like the gait is for these multi-legged PVC creatures. I’ll have to revisit this post and click on the wealth of links in the comments!

    1. I’m sure many people have made the same point about action and reflection, and what happens when you pull them apart, but I came up with my version all by myself: based in experience, I might add. If I ever make a list of Linda’s Life Lessons, that will be right up near the top.

      Fourteen meetings? In a week? That reminds me of some of the wonderful tales I’ve heard about Hollywood, where people always are “taking meetings.” I’ve come to think of two expressions — “taking meetings” and “going surface” — as quintessentially Californian. In an enjoyable little book titled “Roads,” Larry McMurtry writes about his times in LA, and it’s fascinating stuff.

      Another thing I’ve only heard from Californians, or people who live there, or people who used to live there, is the practice of attaching “the” to highways: as in, “It takes less than two hours to slide down the 35 from San Antonio to Laredo.” “The 520”, “the 5,” the 10″ — it just sounds funny to my ear.

      Just between you and me, I have my very own mini-Strandbeest sitting right here on the desk: Animaris Ordis Parvus. It’s still no more than a box of pieces, and an instruction sheet, but one of these days it will live! Then, there will be another post. I have plans for my Beest!

    1. If you go to Jansen’s website, you can find a link to kits that allow you to build your very own mini-model. I have one, but haven’t yet put it together. The working models are small enough that they’d fit perfectly well on a boat: a wind-driven toy for a wind-driven life!

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