Theo Jansen's Whimsical Strandbeests Come To America


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Photo Credit: Strandbeest cc via Flickr

Some sculptors like to create clay masterpieces; others prefer metal. Then there is Theo Jansen. This Dutch artist uses PVC tubes to build giant Strandbeests (beach animals in Dutch). Part work of art, part fantastical creature, the multi-legged insect-like creations are both awe-inspiring and terrifying!

Jansen has been working on perfecting what he describes as ‘skeletons that walk on the wind, so they don’t have to eat,' since 1990. His original goal was to create a family of 'living' sculptures to build sand mounds to protect the Dutch coastlands from rising sea levels. But like the Strandbeests, Jansen's idea kept evolving. Now his vision is to create a new 'life' form that can roam the beach in herds without any human intervention.

Photo Credit: Strandbeest cc via Flickr

Built using PVC plastic tubes, drinking containers, and recycled materials, the sculptures are fitted with a crank-based leg system that move in sync thanks to a proprietary 'genetic algorithm' created by the artist. To ensure the beach animals don't get stuck in the sand, that artist added 'sweat glands,' that help distribute water by applying pressure through its feet and legs. The sails help capture the wind that powers the Strandbeest's motion. Recycled plastic bottles serve as 'batteries' that store energy reserves (air).

The always evolving creatures even 'reproduce' thanks to the millions of fans that create their own versions using kits or the specifications published by Jansen on his website. In addition to increasing their numbers, this also results in innovating new designs.

Photo Credit: Strandbeest cc via Flickr

Jansen hopes that with these joint efforts, the beests will evolve to the point that they don't need any human to survive. "My hope is that before I leave the planet, I leave a new specimen to the world," he says. While this attitude towards an inanimate object might seem a bit sentimental, those that have interacted with the Strandbeests agree that there is something magical about this strange PVC-based life form.

Whether the artist ever fulfills his dream remains to be seen. Meanwhile, his unusual art has garnered enough fans to spur him to take his Strandbeests around the world. Their first major U.S. tour began in late August at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

Photo Credit: Strandbeest cc via Flickr

The special exhibition that is open until January 3, 2016, features seven of Jansen's giant beests along with photos, sketches, and videos, that document the progression of their designs. It also showcases their evolution, from Animaris Vulgaris (the first independently mobile beest, which Jansen called "pathetic" and "primitive") to the most recent Animaris Suspendisse that is 'smart' enough to retreat to drier grounds when it senses water.

While the closed venue makes it impossible for visitors to witness the wind-powered beests walking through sand, they are able to see it in motion by pumping their plastic-bottle 'stomachs' with air.

Photo Credit: Strandbeest cc via Flickr

Once the Strandbeests are done impressing the residents of Massachusetts, they will lumber on to Chicago, San Francisco, and perhaps even New York City!


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