Artist Theo Jansen and his Strand­beests still draw crowds nearly 30 years on

VOGUE Living Australia - - CONTENTS - By Bon­nie Vaughan

Theo Jansen loves to fool peo­ple. Back in 1980, not long af­ter the Dutch artist quit his physics de­gree stud­ies in search of more creative pur­suits, he launched a four-me­tre-high, he­lium-pow­ered fly­ing saucer into the hazy skies over the Delft (near the North Sea, where he was born and lives to this day). Much like Or­son Welles’s War of the Worlds ra­dio broad­cast over 40 years be­fore, Jansen’s project caused a lo­cal sen­sa­tion: the pub­lic, the po­lice and the press all swal­lowed the bait; ‘UFO SPOT­TED OVER DELFT’, one news­pa­per head­line blared. “Peo­ple re­ally be­lieved there were aliens land­ing on the earth,” Jansen muses now, “which is of course wor­ry­ing, but at the same time it’s a relief to find out it’s not re­ally true. That’s the funny thing about jokes — we need them to see life in the right per­spec­tive. It’s the same with art — we need the bal­ance be­tween imag­i­na­tion and re­al­ity to make life bear­able.” Jansen ap­plied this san­guine phi­los­o­phy to his next big project, to which he has ded­i­cated the past 28 years of his life. In­spired to save the erod­ing sand dunes along the Nether­lands beaches from the threat of ris­ing sea lev­els, he be­gan build­ing Strand­beests (Dutch for ‘beach beasts’), colos­sal stick-fig­ure struc­tures made of cheap PVC plas­tic tubes and ny­lon zip ties. De­vis­ing com­puter al­go­rithms to fine-tune the beasts’ me­chan­ics, Jansen grew de­ter­mined to cre­ate a species that mim­icked the move­ments of real an­i­mals as they strut across the sand — kick­ing up dis­placed grains and push­ing them back to the dunes where they be­longed — pro­pelled by noth­ing but the wind. Over the years, Jansen has be­come world-fa­mous. Strand­beests have long been a vi­ral phe­nom­e­non on­line — usu­ally de­scribed as ki­netic, or mov­ing, sculp­tures — and the artist even got a cameo on The Simp­sons. (“Is this science,” pon­ders Homer, “or garbage?”) He also be­came less ob­sessed with sav­ing the planet and more fix­ated on the evo­lu­tion of his crea­tures. In­deed, the lan­guage Jansen uses when he talks about his beasts is de­lib­er­ately an­thro­po­mor­phic: the al­go­rithms that en­able them to walk are “DNA codes”; the beasts have “mus­cles”, “nerve cells”, “stom­achs” and “brains”; de­funct Strand­beests are re­ferred to as “fos­sils”. Work­ing from his head­quar­ters in Ypen­burg, near Delft, Jansen cre­ates a new species every two to three years. Ex­per­i­ments on the beach at Schevenin­gen each sum­mer teach him which it­er­a­tions will sur­vive and which need to ‘die’ and do­nate their DNA to the next, pre­sum­ably su­pe­rior, gen­er­a­tion. “It’s a con­stant evo­lu­tion process,” he says. “They are mu­tants, you could say, and the win­ning mu­tant gives me a lot of hope — and in­for­ma­tion — to con­tinue.” The artist in­vites the pub­lic to wit­ness his process dur­ing beach ses­sions at Schevenin­gen, with book­ings avail­able each Fe­bru­ary via his web­site. He prefers, how­ever, to ex­hibit his Strand­beests at mu­se­ums, where au­di­ences can ac­tu­ally en­gage with his work — and with him, as he shares his crea­tures’ back­sto­ries. Ear­lier this year, Jansen brought his beasts to the peo­ple at Wind Walk­ers: Theo Jansen’s Strand­beests, an ex­hi­bi­tion at Sin­ga­pore’s ArtS­cience Mu­seum in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Aude­mars Piguet. (It’s not hard to see the link be­tween the Strand­beests’ master­ful en­gi­neer­ing and the Swiss lux­ury watch­mak­ers, which be­gan spon­sor­ing Jansen in 2014 at Art Basel Mi­ami Beach.) Wind Walk­ers fea­tured 13 Strand­beests, rang­ing from the very first — the An­i­marus Vul­garis, now just a sad tan­gle of tubes and Sel­lotape — to the 13-me­tre-long An­i­maris Sus­pendisse — a multi-legged con­trap­tion pow­ered by pis­tons that squeeze air into plas­tic bot­tles, or ‘wind stom­achs’. The beasts make a whim­si­cal sound when they move, like rain splash­ing on a fi­bre­glass roof. Con­duct­ing a tour of his past and present cre­ations, Jansen is a pas­sion­ate, hands-on sto­ry­teller; he con­fesses, “I still get a kick out of demon­strat­ing my beasts.” A tall, softly spo­ken man, he speaks earnestly about cre­at­ing herds of Strand­beests that could sur­vive on the beaches, and per­haps even swim, with­out his help at all. He says things like: “The tubes ad­vise me all the time. Some­times I can’t be­lieve how beau­ti­ful they get”, or, “I have the feel­ing the Strand­beests al­ready ex­isted be­fore 1990. They were in the air look­ing for brains to land in. I was lucky they landed in mine; they used my brain to af­fect the rest of the world.”

When he speaks like this, it’s tempt­ing to won­der if Theo Jansen is more Dr Franken­stein than Dr Dolit­tle. But re­mem­ber, this is a man who loves to fool peo­ple. It’s no ac­ci­dent his Strand­beests pro­voke a spe­cific hu­man re­ac­tion. “Our eyes are sen­si­tive to an­i­mal move­ment, be­cause an an­i­mal could be some­thing to run away from or some­thing to eat,” he ex­plains. “But still you see just a bunch of tubes. That con­tra­dic­tion some­how throws off a switch in our brain and we are sur­prised at what we see. “You can see my beasts are fairy­tales,” Jansen con­tin­ues, smil­ing. “But ev­ery­thing I talk about is based on re­al­ity. I like to sketch a world that is not real, but that peo­ple be­lieve in.” VL

Theo Jansen. Amaz­ing Crea­tures runs through 24 Jan­uary, 2019, at the Es­pa­cio Fun­dación Tele­fónica in Quito, Ecuador. es­pa­cio. fun­da­ciontele­fon­ica.com.ec; strand­beest.com

“We need the bal­ance be­tween imag­i­na­tion and re­al­ity to make life bear­able”

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