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.
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.”