Magazine article Sculpture

Dream Machines: A Conversation with Theo Jansen

Magazine article Sculpture

Dream Machines: A Conversation with Theo Jansen

Article excerpt

In 1990, Dutch artist Theo Jansen began creating Strandbeests, or "beach animals," an interactive and dynamic, wind-driven life form that roams on the beach. Skeletal in structure and mechanical in nature, these large-scale kinetic sculptures bridge the realms of art and science. The Strandbeests, which are made of simple materials including PVC pipe, plastic water bottles, string, and canvas, have been evolving into various species, complete with Latin names and described by a vocabulary gleaned from the protocols of scientific terminology-tonguein- cheek but to the point when it comes to explaining what Jansen does and intends. His refreshingly simple explanations offer layers of complexity to everyone who experiences the work. Jansen, who has presented at several TED conferences, has been profiled by the New Yorker and the New York Times. He has shown extensively in Asia and Europe.

Several Strandbeests are currently traveling the United States, following their premiere at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014. Artist sketches, facilitated demonstrations of the creatures' complex ambulatory systems, a hall of "fossils," as well as photography by Lena Herzog accompany the works. After debuting at the Peabody Essex Museum, the show traveled to the Chicago Cultural Cen ter; it is now on view at the Explor - atorium in San Francisco through September 5, 2016.

Christina Lanzl: You are Dutch and therefore surrounded by coastal culture. Which part of the Netherlands did you grow up in? Where do you live now?

Theo Jansen: I grew up in Scheveningen, a beach village, where my mother owned a bed and breakfast. I am the youngest of 11 children. When I was 20, I moved to Delft, a city located about 15 kilometers inland, where I studied physics from 1968 to 1975 at Delft University. After seven years, I left the university without finishing my studies and became a painter. I lived in Delft for 45 years, and two years ago, I moved back to Scheveningen.

CL: The Strandbeests blur art and science, sculpture and performance. These kinetic works are based on a skeletal structure. Is that what inspired you to think of them as animals?

TJ: As an artist, I believe that the walls between art and engineering exist only in the mind. My work is informed by nature and not so much by art itself, unlike most art these days. I want to discover things, not make art for art's sake. I try to influence how people look at the world. The Strandbeest idea germinated slowly, rooted in my mechanical engineering background and popular computer programs with a surviving animal theme. You might consider my works materialized computer beasts. We humans are machines, very sophisticated machines.

I create new forms of life, not with pollen or seeds, but with yellow plastic tubes. I make skeletons that are able to walk on the wind, so they don't have to eat. Over time, these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements. Eventually, I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.

Thinking of the Strandbeests as animals allows me to bring viewers into contact with another world. My work can change how people look at the real world, and so I hope, they are encouraged to approach it with more imagination. For example, my Strandbeests have many legs, so they won't lose balance or blow away in a storm. I have calculated that a dozen legs would be the ideal number, but they may have more depending on size or mechanics. My aesthetic intent is not to make "nice" animals. Rather, the aesthetic is driven by the mechanical purpose of every tube.

CL: You organize beach sessions, which are essentially public demonstrations. Have you ever lost a work because of the wind?

TJ: Every summer, I schedule Strandbeest performances on the beach. Unexpected things can happen when you go outdoors, particularly near the ocean, where conditions can change quickly. Occasionally, I have to reschedule an event due to a lack of wind. …

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