The marvel that is Theo Jansen’s Strand­beests have ar­rived on South-East Asian shores, thanks to the watch com­pany that couldn’t be more aligned with the artist and his vi­sion.

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents - TEXT MINDY TEH

The marvel that is Theo Jansen’s Strand­beests have ar­rived on South-East Asian shores, thanks to the watch com­pany that couldn’t be more aligned with the artist and his vi­sion.

Theo Jansen is show­ing a group of eager jour­nal­ists two of his me­chan­i­cal Strand­beests at the Ma­rina Bay Sands ArtS­cience Mu­seum, ex­plain­ing how they se­duce each other and pro­cre­ate with the dead­pan earnest­ness of a BBC nat­u­ral­ist. “It seems like these two are se­duc­ing each other,” he says, re­fer­ring to a video where the two Beests are court­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing. “In re­al­ity, they can­not re­pro­duce phys­i­cally and, in fact, they are se­duc­ing us (hu­mans).”

He elab­o­rates: “These movies are on YouTube and, since then, many stu­dents are in­fected with Strand­beest ‘dis­ease’. They start build­ing their own Strand­beests and, with­out know­ing it, they are used for re­pro­duc­tion. In this way, you could say that the se­duc­tion (via video shar­ing and so­cial me­dia) is a sur­viv­ing tool.”

It would be easy to dis­miss what the Dutch artist is say­ing about his cre­ations as a bit of hu­mour, tongue firmly in cheek, were it not for the fact that these ki­netic sculp­tures seem to have taken lives of their own. So pow­er­ful and star­tlingly life­like are these mag­nif­i­cent crea­tures, walk­ing gracefully along Jansen’s favourite beach near Delft (short films on YouTube de­pict­ing this are con­stantly shared, and sur­face time and again on so­cial me­dia – the re­pro­duc­tion that Jansen speaks of) that one would be quite for­given for al­most imag­in­ing a beat­ing heart in each of them.

Re­ally, they are made from or­di­nary PVC pip­ing, wood and fabric air­foil, pow­ered by noth­ing more than wind, in­ge­nu­ity and the power of the imag­i­na­tion. Jansen has gone so far as to ac­cord his sculp­tures with com­plete bi­o­log­i­cal life cy­cles, claim­ing that they are

evolv­ing into in­tel­li­gent be­ings.

It is no co­in­ci­dence, too, that watch­maker Aude­mars Piguet has seen a kin­dred spirit in Theo Jansen, with a part­ner­ship start­ing from Art Basel Mi­ami back in 2014. This year, the mai­son has ex­tended its sup­port by bring­ing a ret­ro­spec­tive of Jansen’s most fa­mous cre­ations to South-East Asia for the first time.

The worlds of art and watch have cited the al­liance as an in­spired pair­ing, with the watch­maker’s own spirit of in­no­va­tion, crafts­man­ship and in­tel­li­gence mir­ror­ing that of Jansen’s. The Strand­beests are a bril­liant merg­ing of science, art, en­gi­neer­ing and per­for­mance, not un­like the mai­son’s time­pieces.

“Theo came to us be­fore the Aude­mars Piguet Art Com­mis­sion was even es­tab­lished. It was the work that just pre­ceded the es­tab­lish­ment of the com­mis­sion that helped us de­fine what type of cat­e­gories and ap­proach we wanted to take. When you look at Theo’s work, the con­nec­tions to what we do in watch­mak­ing aren’t even metaphor­i­cal. They are lit­eral and tan­gi­ble. They are im­me­di­ate,” says Michael Fried­man, His­to­rian at Aude­mars Piguet.

“He lim­its him­self to a very strict num­ber of re­sources and, just as a watch­maker does, uses very spe­cific tools. He also has a very spe­cific goal and func­tion in mind, and he is con­stantly im­prov­ing his work, want­ing to bet­ter his craft and util­is­ing his cre­ations of to­day to help ad­vance the cre­ations of to­mor­row. These are con­cepts that are very nat­u­ral to the field of watch­mak­ing.

“There’s an im­mense amount of care in ev­ery sin­gle process he makes. If one small as­pect goes

wrong, then the Strand­beest won’t func­tion. This, again, is very much akin to watch­mak­ing – the abil­ity for a watch to func­tion as it should means that ev­ery sin­gle com­po­nent, whether that’s 120 or 640 com­po­nents in a com­pli­cated watch, has to work as it should; oth­er­wise, the en­tire sys­tem breaks down.”

Fried­man also sees the con­nec­tion in char­ac­ter. “Be­ing a lit­tle bit of an out­lier, we con­sciously chose to keep do­ing things dif­fer­ently when oth­ers were adopt­ing a mass pro­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy at the time,” he says. “We adopted some of the tech­nol­ogy to get­ting the rudi­men­tary work done but, when it came to ac­tual watch­mak­ing and fin­ish­ing, we re­mained com­pletely pure in that re­spect. We are edgy in terms of cre­ativ­ity – by 1910, we were al­ready ex­per­i­ment­ing with form lan­guage, ma­te­ri­als and dial de­sign, to­tally dif­fer­ent from the rest of the Swiss watch in­dus­try. That’s the mis­sion of the com­pany. It’s not all CEOs and mar­ket­ing mak­ing crit­i­cal de­ci­sions; it’s the watch­mak­ers.

“So, on the me­chan­i­cal side, we, of course, find great con­nec­tions with Theo’s work in that re­gard, but then you also have the more artis­tic and philo­soph­i­cal side of the re­la­tion­ship.”

The out­lier in Theo Jansen has shot him to cer­tain fame with even a cameo ap­pear­ance in TheSimp­sons to­gether with his Strand­beests. But his bril­liance – and pen­chant for mis­chief – re­ally be­gan with the young artist (look­ing un­can­nily like Tom Ver­laine of proto-punk band Tele­vi­sion with his lanky frame and long hair) scar­ing his neigh­bour­hood into think­ing the hand­made fly­ing saucer that he launched into the air was real!

At his in­ter­view with a small group of jour­nal­ists, the now 70-year-old cuts an el­e­gant fig­ure, stand­ing ram­rod straight as he strikes some cool, rock-and-roll type poses against his cre­ations and gra­ciously an­swer­ing ques­tions. Cu­ri­ously, ev­ery­one at the table treats his Strand­beests as if they were liv­ing, breath­ing crea­tures.

“When I see that the an­i­mal has some po­ten­tial, then I make more of them,” says Jansen on the creation of a herd. “I have five cater­pil­lars on the beach right now – you can just see that they’re all slightly dif­fer­ent and, from run­ning matches, you can see which sys­tem works slightly bet­ter. If some­thing breaks, you can make it bet­ter in an­other an­i­mal.

“It’s a con­stant evo­lu­tion process. (They are) mu­tants, you can say. Some will sur­vive, some don’t. The win­ning mu­tant gives me a lot of hope to con­tinue. There’s usu­ally an ex­per­i­ment of a few hours. The whole sum­mer I’m on the beach but I an­chor them at night and, in the morn­ing, I can do ex­per­i­ments. It’s not (come to a point) yet where I can let them free be­cause they may run away and then I must get them back to where I work. It’s not very prac­ti­cal yet where they can sur­vive on their own,” he says with­out a hint of irony.

In de­scrib­ing the Beests’ in­cred­i­ble mo­bil­ity, he says: “For now, there are very few an­i­mals that can walk side­ways on the winds, so most of them walk with the wind. Once it’s gone, they wait till (the wind has) turned 180°, then they can come back. Lo­gis­ti­cally, it would be a bit hard to do be­cause then I’d have to go 50km fur­ther on the beach to go

every­where and wait, and it might take a few weeks be­cause the wind must turn 180°.

“They can wait there, of course, but they’re an­i­mals; they don’t care about time at all. But I care about time. I’m 70 now and might still work for 20 years at the most. I’m in a hurry to do all these ex­per­i­ments, and I can­not let my­self go with all these funny things and go all the way there – 50km fur­ther.”

Time is of the essence for Jansen and Fried­man notes this as well. “Theo is also con­sciously play­ing with time,” he says. “He is in the process of an ex­per­i­ment with evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy, work­ing un­der the guise of a cre­ator in a way and in­tro­duc­ing these species, see­ing what works best and those best at­tributes of each Strand­beest will then evolve into the next Strand­beest. This play­ful­ness and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion of time in a much broader sense is tan­gen­tial cat­e­gory that in­ter­ests us greatly.”

Jansen is also frank about his choice of ma­te­ri­als for the Strand­beests, dis­pelling any lofty mo­tives of el­e­vat­ing the plas­tic tubes and pip­ing. “I think it’s just lazi­ness,” he says mat­ter-of-factly. “The tubes were there, and they were

cheap. I’m not so much of a per­son to go and shop and buy ev­ery­thing I need to do some­thing. I’d rather work with some­thing within 10m,” he laughs. “And I’m not too much of a sci­en­tist ei­ther, so I don’t go to the li­brary to look up how things are solved. I’d rather work it out – I’m quite iso­lated, you could say.”

In as much as the artist talks as if the Beests were alive, he is very much a prag­ma­tist in the way he treats them. When asked if he gets at­tached to them, he is quick to re­ply: “Not as much as peo­ple.”

“Of course, there is emo­tion,” he elab­o­rates. “But I think the emo­tion could be com­pared to (how one feels about) a bike.” More laugh­ter. “It’s a dif­fer­ent emo­tion that I have com­pared with my dog or chil­dren. Its species is too far away from us. You can only feel some­thing that has a sim­i­lar brain. I can feel for a dog, for in­stance, but for some­thing that’s just (made of ) sticks – no.”

Jansen, how­ever, is quite pleased with how his crea­tures have evolved. “My an­i­mals are still far away from ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, be­cause the num­ber of bits is so small com­pared to real com­put­ers nowa­days. Of course, if you give me an­other few mil­lion years, then the an­i­mals would be very in­tel­li­gent.”

How so? “Well, the brain is a very good weapon in sur­vival. The brain is fed by our in­for­ma­tion and the sen­sors. Say, if the wind is too strong, the brain gets the in­for­ma­tion that it’s too strong, it de­cides to ham­mer them­selves in to pro­tect from blow­ing away. Those kinds of things are pos­si­ble. They are not op­er­a­tional yet, but it works. It’s not a daily prac­tice that they feel strong winds, or have a barom­e­ter where they can feel the drop in at­mo­spheric pres­sure and pre­dict a storm. It’s not there yet, but it could hap­pen.”

It’s not hard to imag­ine Jansen as the quin­tes­sen­tial Re­nais­sance man and Fried­man agrees. “What we are in­ter­ested in are the prin­ci­ples or con­cepts – com­plex­ity, pre­ci­sion, quest for ac­cu­racy, beauty, me­chan­i­cal in­ge­nu­ity, struc­ture, and then ob­jects with this type of tem­po­ral con­nec­tion to it that you can ex­pe­ri­ence time it­self through his process as well as through you own en­gage­ment. It was an ul­ti­mate way to be­gin our art com­mis­sion be­cause of who Theo is as a man, artist, sci­en­tist and thinker – it was very in­spir­ing for us as a com­pany. Olivier Aude­mars, our Chair­man, has gone on record to say, ‘ We’re not in the process of col­lect­ing art at Aude­mars Piguet, but we are in­ter­ested in learn­ing from and be­ing trans­formed by the art­work’.”

Jansen him­self is con­stantly trans­formed by his cre­ations and is not beyond be­ing awed by them him­self. “You could say my base is fairy tales,” he says. “But ev­ery­thing I talk about is real. They’re all based on re­al­ity. I like the bal­ance be­tween imag­i­na­tion and re­al­ity be­cause some­times you can’t see what’s real and that’s why I like to fool peo­ple – it’s some­thing that you re­ally be­lieve in for a mo­ment that is true.

“That a man can make a new spec­i­men? That’s a fairy tale. But the fairy tale can also be a bit true and I like that. It gets peo­ple a lit­tle bit con­fused.”

“Theo is also con­sciously play­ing with time. He is in the process of an ex­per­i­ment with evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy, work­ing un­der the guise of a cre­ator in a way and in­tro­duc­ing these species”

Theo Jansen in front of An­i­marisUmerus

01 An­i­maris Ordis at ArtS­cience Mu­seum 02Theo Jansen at press pre­view of Wind Walk­ers

04 An­i­marisSab­u­losa in the first gallery of Wind Walk­ers

Theo Jansen with Plau­den­sVela2

03 An­i­marisOrdis

Ate­lier at Wind Walk­ers

05 Umerus Me­dia Force 06 An­i­marisOrdis at Wind Walk­ers Ma­rina Bay Sands 07 An­i­maris Si­ame­sis Me­dia Force

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