On an empty stretch of beach outside the city of Delft, the Netherlands, small herds of an ostensibly unidentifiable species ramble slowly across the sand. They parade in a delicately rhythmic procession, bleached white by the sun. Brittle vertebrae form pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, and buttresses reminiscent of Gothic architecture. Poised against an endless expanse of blue sky, the creatures’ gossamer wings undulate in the breeze. As the tide rises, the animals recede toward the dunes where, with a strong gust of wind, they can be swept into the air and down the beach like tumbleweeds.
These are Strandbeests (“beach animals”), the invention of 67-year-old Dutch artist and engineer Theo Jansen. Eight of these specimens will be on display at “Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen,” which opens at the Chicago Cultural Center on Saturday, February 6. The exhibition features sketches, “fossils,” video, and photography, as well as daily demonstrations of Strandbeest movement.
Jansen tinkers with his Strandbeests on Scheveningen Beach near the Hague, his white hair in disarray and his small dog, Murphy, prancing around him. “A normal day for me starts at 6:30,” Jansen explains in Theo Jansen, a short documentary directed by Salazar, a collective in Vancouver. “I wake up with ideas somehow gathered in the night. In the morning I get up, have breakfast, then I go to the studio, usually with a plan to work on. During the day, my plan doesn’t succeed and I grow more and more disenchanted. At the end of the day I’m depressive. I go home, work into the night, and go to sleep. It is all hard work, in fact, just like evolution is hard work. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Somehow there is a new idea again. But I love it.”
The Strandbeests had idealistic origins. In 1990, troubled by rising sea levels that threaten to flood the Netherlands, Jansen proposed creating an “animal” to help fortify the dunes. His first creature was made out of yellow PVC tubing, Dacron sails, plastic bottles, and string. Powered only by the wind, the animal stored wind energy in plastic bottles for future use; equipped with a shovel, it tossed sand onto the dunes along the coast.
Jansen has spent the past 26 years immersed in creating new life-forms. With names such as Animaris Vulgaris, Animaris Speculator, and Animaris Gryllothalpa—a play on traditional scientific taxonomy—the Strandbeests have evolved over generations from rudimentary creatures that could stretch and bend their legs to increasingly complex animals able to survive the elements. Each spring Jansen introduces a new species of Strandbeest to Scheveningen Beach; in the autumn he declares the animal extinct. A flaw of early Strandbeests was their inability to distinguish between land and sea. To correct this, Jansen devised a series of suspended tubes that react when the animal is in shallow water to prevent it from drowning. He regards his process as akin to natural selection—his future designs only incorporate the most successful components of prior creations.
Jansen wanted to observe the phenomenon of evolution with his own eyes. He remembers how he fell under the spell of The Blind Watchmaker (1986), written by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins—specifically, the story of the stick insect. Millions of years ago, dim-sighted birds preyed on stick insects that lived in trees. There were fat ones and skinny ones, and the kind gobbled up first were the former, since they were the easiest to see. Over time stick insects grew more elongated and developed camouflage techniques, including changing color and swaying, that enabled them to blend seamlessly with the surrounding foliage.
Similarly, the Strandbeests have mutated across Jansen-devised “geological periods” such as the Pregluton (the period before the Strandbeests were created), the Gluton (the tape period), and the Chorda (the strap period). “I look back at Animaris Vulgaris with a twinge of sadness,” Jansen writes in his book The Great Pretender. “What a sorry sight it is too. Whatever made me think I could get it to walk? Some kind of irrational optimism, no doubt. Irrational optimism is something only we humans possess.” Walking along the beach deep in thought, he observed young boys struggling to bike, their wheels sinking into the soft sand. This inspired him to sketch a new design and develop a computer model to calculate an ideal walking curve. What he arrived at were 11 exactly proportioned rods that together create what looks like a crumpled-up piece of paper. This “wheel” permits the Strandbeests to scuttle nimbly across the sand with the aid of a triangle-shaped toe that can either dig into the earth or flatten itself, depending on the surface.
“I’m afraid my animals are still very primitive,” Jansen said. “You couldn’t even compare them to a worm. They’ve only been around for 25 years, and normally evolution takes millions of years.” In a race against the clock, he struggles to fine-tune his designs in the hopes that one day the beasts might roam the beach without human interference. If not for death, Jansen reckons he could make them perfect. v