Strandbeests

Animaris Percipiere (2005). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis
Animaris Percipiere (2005). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

Reluctantly, I made my way to the press opening for Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum.

I had grown skeptical of the hype that brought an estimated 15,000 gawkers to a preview of Theo’s kinetic “dream machines” at Crane’s Beach and the shallow awe that so often accompanies adjacency to unexpected functionality (i.e. “It Moves!” a la Frankensein’s “It’s Alive!”).  

Assuming I was girding myself for the apotheosis of the equivalent of an engineering dissertation by a grand old institution desperate for adjacency to techie cool, I sated my intellectual curiosity in advance with the recently arrived fall issue of Cowley Magazine, dedicated to the theme of Creation.

Theo Jansen & Animaris Siamesis (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.
Theo Jansen & Animaris Siamesis (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.

And so it was, that as I took my first sips of press-sating wine in the Asian Garden I was thinking of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”), and pondering anew what it means to be created, to create, and for creation and creator to be in relationship with each other.

This would be the first time I’d hear the artist speak for himself. The first time I’d see the beests move. The first time to see the creator in relationship with his creation.

Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis
Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

And lo it came to be that it was good!

If Hopkins’ world is charged with the grandeur of God, Jansen’s is charged with compressed air held in “lungs” of Belgian sparkling “SPA” water bottles, also imagination, a lot of math, and unapologetic hubris.

Jansen’s goal is nothing short of creating an entirely new species, and the vocabulary he uses to describe his creations reinforces this premise. The beests on display at PEM are “fossils,” extinct specimens from the beest’s long evolution which is chronicled in a family tree occupying an entire wall of the gallery.

Photo by Federico Davoine. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by Federico Davoine. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Over time the beests have developed various kinds of feet, even “sweat glands” (a means of lubricating joints while in motion), but most striking of all, they’re now procreating! as Jansen has made available online their mathematical “DNA” and encouraged engineering students the world over to tinker, adapt, and 3-d print.

The natural world is more than the sum of its parts and so too the Strandbeests are more than PVC piping and zip ties. Though the beests move without will or even necessarily power of their own, they strut and swagger with such personality one can’t help but smile in that way a toddler learning to walk reminds us of the joy of discovering where our legs might take us.

Theo Jansen’s hands & plastic pipes (2010), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.
Theo Jansen’s hands & plastic pipes (2010), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.

The Franciscan monastic Richard Rohr has written regarding creative output: “We don’t need a reason for art. Beauty is for beauty’s sake. Art and music are not simply objects, but an experience of opening to mystical awareness. “

Indeed, Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests are more than simply beautiful objects. They remind us of the power of the creative impulse, the joy of creation, and the complexity of life.

But can their creator ever give them life?
Or is their power, like Frankenstein’s, to remind us of what it means to be created to create.

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Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen
On view at PEM through January 3, 2016
Exhibition travels to Chicago and San Francisco
pem.org/sites/strandbeest

Animaris Umerus (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands. Photo by Lena Herzog.
Animaris Umerus (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands. Photo by Lena Herzog.
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