Theo Jansen

THEO JANSEN tells SO­NIA KOLESNIKOV-JESSOP about the sci­ence be­hind his wind-pow­ered Strand­beests

Prestige (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

EV­ERY SPRING A new Strand­beest (“beach an­i­mal” in Dutch) is “born” on the shores of north­ern Hol­land. The strange-look­ing crea­ture with spindly legs and wings on its back then takes its first steps, gen­tly coaxed by its “fa­ther”, Theo Jansen, slowly adapt­ing to its sea­side en­vi­ron­ment.

The Strand­beest is ac­tu­ally a wind-pow­ered ki­netic sculp­ture that blurs the lines be­tween art, engi­neer­ing, and sci­ence. In the hi-tech age of com­put­erised ar­ti­fi­cial intelligence, they are sur­pris­ingly built out of rather mun­dane ma­te­ri­als such as PVC tubes, zip ties and re­cy­cled plas­tic bot­tles. Th­ese beach an­i­mals not only walk on their own but, hav­ing de­vel­oped over time a sense of self-preser­va­tion, also re­act to their en­vi­ron­ment.

Jansen re­fuses to la­bel his so­phis­ti­cated ki­netic sculp­tures as art­works and in­stead refers to them as a fast-evolv­ing new species on earth, di­vid­ing each gen­er­a­tion into time pe­ri­ods and giv­ing them sci­en­tific­sound­ing Latin names.

Wind Walk­ers: Theo Jansen’s Strand­beests, on dis­play at Sin­ga­pore’s Artscience Museum un­til Septem­ber 30, is a ma­jor retrospective of the artist’s work and show­cases how the man-made mar­vels have dra­mat­i­cally evolved, in form as well as func­tion, to adapt to the chal­lenges of their na­tive en­vi­ron­ment.

“There are few peo­ple in any field to­day who em­body the in­ter­sec­tion of art and sci­ence as beau­ti­fully as Jansen. For nearly 30 years, he has com­bined his un­der­stand­ing of sci­ence with his artis­tic skill to en­gi­neer me­chan­i­cal an­i­mals that ap­pear star­tlingly alive,” says Honor Harger, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, Artscience Museum.

Hav­ing stud­ied ap­plied sciences at the Delft Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Jansen did the “hippy thing” and dropped out of school to become an artist in the mid-1970s, fi rst as a land­scape painter be­fore mov­ing on full-time to his ki­netic sculp­tures in the 1990s. While he had en­vis­aged his fi rst Strand­beests as self-pro­pelled ex­per­i­ments that roamed the beach and built sand dunes to serve as nat­u­ral bar­ri­ers against ris­ing sea lev­els, the artist ad­mits he got side­tracked as he be­came more fas­ci­nated with “the prin­ci­ple of evo­lu­tion”.

Each year, he ex­per­i­ments on his new cre­ations to help them adapt to their sea­side en­vi­ron­ment. His fi rst, An­i­maris Vul­garis, which sported 28 legs, was not re­ally a suc­cess: “It was about 2-m-long with a very com­pli­cated axis, but I was us­ing Sel­lotape (to hold it to­gether). As a re­sult, it couldn’t even stand on its feet and just lay on its back. When you see that fi rst an­i­mal, it looks quite pa­thetic,” the artist re­calls.

But Jansen per­se­vered. In 1991, a year after, he un­veiled An­i­maris Cur­rens Vul­garis, his fi rst roam­ing crea­ture. It was stronger thanks to the use of ny­lon zip ties.

While the Strand­beests have evolved as a species over the years and become more so­phis­ti­cated each time, their “bone struc­ture” re­mains rel­a­tively un­changed. The cen­tral spine is a wind-pow­ered crank­shaft that moves the many legs, each com­pris­ing 12 small rods that mimic eerily life-like walk­ing mo­tions. Jansen says he got the idea for the move­ment one night while un­able to sleep, but it took him sev­eral months to de­sign a com­puter pro­gramme to help de­ter­mine the op­ti­mal length of each tube in or­der to cre­ate move­ments that looked nat­u­ral and could cope with the sand.

As the artist points out, at fi rst glance his an­i­mals’ walk­ing style seem very fa­mil­iar but they ac­tu­ally don’t move like other an­i­mals: “They don’t walk up and down, all the legs ac­tu­ally stay on the same lev­els while walk­ing.”

“Some (an­i­mals’) walk­ing prin­ci­ples still ap­ply, how­ever. One key cri­te­ria is that a leg should not be in the air for too long — not for beauty but for me­chan­i­cal rea­sons,” he ex­plains, be­fore let­ting on that the Strand­beest’s legs are de­signed to keep the “feet” on the ground for as long as pos­si­ble to max­imise for­ward propul­sion.

Over the years, Jansen has tried to tackle dif­fer­ent

“I hope to in­cor­po­rate all my dis­cov­er­ies for their sur­vival in one beast” — Theo Jansen

prob­lems. For ex­am­ple, to al­low his beasts to re­main mo­bile when there is no wind, he’s in­cluded re­cy­cled plas­tic bot­tles, which store air from bi­cy­cle pumps that are ac­ti­vated by small wings up at the front of the an­i­mal. The stored com­pressed air pro­vides po­ten­tial en­ergy to be used by the crea­ture in the ab­sence of wind.

An­i­maris Rec­tus (2006-2008) could sense strong winds and had a mech­a­nism to ham­mer a stake into the sand to keep it­self from get­ting blown away. An­i­maris Adu­lari ( 2012) could de­tect wa­ter via a nose — an in­te­grated hose that re­acted to get­ting blocked by wa­ter — and re­verse di­rec­tion to make for safer grounds. It also had “sweat glands”, or rather a wa­ter sys­tem to flush out grains of sand that could jam its joints.

It’s not just the de­sign that changed but also the ma­te­ri­als. For ex­am­ple, Jansen did not al­ways use yel­low PVC tubes and for a while re­lied on steel or wood from dis­carded pal­lets to make the an­i­mal heav­ier and bigger.

Ev­ery Strand­beest re­tains the suc­cess­ful anatom­i­cal fea­tures of its pre­de­ces­sors. Hence the lat­est An­i­maris Om­nia sports sails on its back to help it tack side­ways ( like a sail­boat) in­stead of par­al­lel to the wind. Jansen be­lieves this could be the an­swer to his ini­tial idea of hav­ing the beast build sand dunes.

For now the Strand­beests re­main frag­ile tem­per­a­men­tal crea­tures that re­quire con­stant nur­tur­ing and care, but Jansen dreams of the day they roam the beach freely and are able to sur­vive on their own. “I hope to in­cor­po­rate all my dis­cov­er­ies for their sur­vival in one beast,” he shares.



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