For over two decades, Dutch artist Theo Jansen has been designing kinetic sculptures of large, skeletal creatures that shuffle across beaches, powered solely by the wind. Known as Strandbeests, the entirely self-sufficient works seem alive as a result of the years Jansen spent fine-tuning a number of calculations, but they are mostly made of PVC tubes, string, and plastic water bottles. His ultimate goal is to build a herd that will not only survive on its own but also reproduce, with the works solely dependent on the wind. This month, two of these manufactured life-forms will land on the beaches of Massachusetts to demonstrate their walks, ahead of the first major tour of Jansen’s vast body of Strandbeest-related work, which commences next month at the Peabody Essex Museum before traveling to Chicago and San Francisco.
As Jansen has fostered a lifelong fascination with wind power and self-propelled machines, it’s not surprising that many refer to him as a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci. A concern for rising sea levels and a desire for a permanent solution first inspired him to begin work on these sculptures, with the goal of having them shift piles of sand to create artificial, protective dunes. As he told Lawrence Weschler in Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen, his vision is to invent “a race of wind-powered beach creatures … veritable herds of them, that could merrily perform such an ongoing task in perpetuity.”
Similar to an actual species, the Strandbeests evolved overtime, with Jansen constructing various iterations in isolation on a beach in The Hague. Each new beast receives a specific binomen, such as Animaris Adulari or Animaris Ordis; those that fail to move without collapsing are considered fossils. Animaris Suspendisse, built in 2014, is able to sense loose sand or water so the beasts reconfigure their parts and reorient themselves to remain on dry land.
When the first Strandbeests were born, Jansen had used simple tools such as tape and tie-cords to hold moving parts together. As he told Weschler, he then moved to fashioning the creatures’ legs solely out of PVC rods that pivot on each other, with connections calculated to produce long and slow strides. Although they recall giant and more complex stick insects, the Strandbeests’ walk is not modeled on that of any naturally occurring creature. Instead, the resulting leg-placing and pulling that resembles the marching of soldiers when seen together in a line are dependent on a set of “holy numbers” generated systematically by a computer.
Complex engineering and mathematics serve as the basis for his sculptures, but Jansen adamantly avoids technology to craft the Strandbeests and emphasizes their status as a lifelike species created to survive.
“People talk about how beautiful my Strandbeests are as they parade down the beach, but you have to understand that I was never interested in beauty as such,” he said. “I was interested in survival, so everything was based on a consideration of function, on how to make the things function better.”
In describing the engineering that sets his sculptures in motion, he also employs language that elevates them to fully living creatures, likening their mechanisms to organs: recycled plastic bottles, set in rows along the Strandbeests’ flanks, are, for example, their “stomachs.” These plastic guts collect and compress air that is pumped through tubing, guided by cantilevered sails. When released, this air escapes at a high speed and controlling it requires “muscles and nerves” — tubes within tubes that can lengthen depending on a Strandbeest’s stride. The tubes draw in and blow out the air, guiding it to power the crankshaft of PVC tubes — extending the length of the beast like a spinal cord — as well as the Strandbeests’ spindly legs.
Jansen is far from finished with his tinkering, so the Strandbeests will continue to evolve and improve their unique type of locomotion. Over the last 20 years they have already evolved to withstand extreme conditions like storms, and the artist’s next goal is to have them evolve on their own and outlive him. While they may not prevent changes in sea level as he originally intended, they test the boundaries of handworked sculpture, elevating art pieces into their own scientific life-form.