The March of the Strandbeests :
Theo Jansen’s wind-powered sculpture.
Theo Jansen’s wind-powered sculpture.
From NewYorker by Ian Frazier
If you’re like many people, you know about Theo Jansen already.
You may not know you know, but on reflection perhaps you realize you do.
You’ve come across his kinetic sculptures in videos online, or a kid has shown the videos to you, or you’ve been with friends who were watching them.
Once seen, they are remembered.
Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist who lives in Delft, near the North Sea.
He could almost be a single-name artist, because everybody calls him Theo, pronounced “Tayo.”
For the past twenty-one years, Theo has devoted himself to constructing animals that can walk on the beach powered only by the wind.
His name for his animals is Strandbeests, which means “beach animals” in Dutch.
The first time I saw them, I was in a restaurant in Manhattan having lunch with friends and somebody brought out a laptop and we watched and re-watched them.
The creatures were many-legged, they seemed as at home on a beach as sandpipers or crabs, they high-stepped with the vivacity of colts, they fit perfectly next to the waves and sky.
Some had batwing-like sails, one was made of plywood, but basically they were accumulations of stiff plastic tubes.
To see inanimate stuff come to life that way was wild, shiver-inducing—like seeing a haystack do the Macarena.
At this lunch, people said how great it would be if the Strandbeests came to New York.
And they might, because Robert Kloos, the director for Visual Arts, Architecture, and Design at the Consulate General of the Netherlands, has been working with other fans of Theo’s to find a venue and funding for a show in the city in 2013, and has described such a show as “a dream come true.”
The photographer Lena Herzog, one of Theo’s fans, who was at the lunch, said the show would draw a big audience, because a commercial for BMW cars featuring Theo and his Strandbeests had already received more than four million hits on YouTube.
Then she told me that Theo would be bringing out some new Strandbeests for a trial run, or walk, on a beach near Delft very soon, that she would be going over to photograph them, and that I should come along.
I thought this was a good idea.
Before the Strandbeests appeared here, I would see them in their native environment.
So in mid-May I went, and Theo himself met me at the airport in Amsterdam, holding a hand-lettered sign with my name on it at the customs exit.
(Lena would be joining us in a day or two.)
He greeted me warmly and we wandered off.
At first, he couldn’t find his white Volvo in the airport parking garage, and I set down my suitcase while he listened for his dog.
Theo has a small, wool-colored dog of a French Madagascar breed who goes almost everywhere with him and is named Murphy.
In a minute, he picked up Murphy’s bark and we homed in on it.
The dog barked more encouragingly the closer we got to the car.
A drive of about forty minutes brought us to Theo’s outdoor workshop, on a man-made hill in the suburb of Ypenburg, near Delft.
The hill is on land that used to be a military airport, and serves as a sound barrier between a highway on one side and apartment houses on the other.
A sort of no man’s zone, it remains mostly unoccupied, so local officials let Theo use it to assemble and store his Strandbeests.
The yellow PVC tubing the animals are made of bleaches to bone white in the sun; wrecks of defunct Strandbeests lay in the hilltop grass like heaps of old bones.
A few newer, ready-to-travel models stood in a line next to the storage container where Theo keeps thirty miles of plastic tubes for future use.
Others of his more recent animals were absent, returning from an exhibition in Japan.
Theo is sixty-three.
His collar-length white hair frames his head like two S shapes facing each other, his eyes are china blue, and he has a wide, guileless smile.
That he is handsome contributes to the success of his videos.
When he is working, and at other times, he wears a well-tailored purple corduroy jacket narrow at the waist and flared below.
His jacket, unrestrained hair, long legs, and antic energy often give him the look of a storybook sorcerer.
He is somewhat deaf—the result, he says, of spending so much of his forties hanging next to the loud engines of the para-planes he loved to fly in many places, but mainly over the North Sea coastline. His country’s famous landscape, intensely cultivated and flat as water, floors a vast column of cloud-filled sky, and the image of a younger Theo careening around up there in his sketchy flying machines somehow still is part of him.
Numerous specimen of the Strandbeest evolution on music of Khachaturian's Spartacus.
It open the archives of fossils.
Theo Jansen's work since 1990.
He tries to make new forms of live on beaches.
His animals get their energy from the wind so they don't have to eat.
In the future he wants to put out in herds.
It open the archives of fossils.
Theo Jansen's work since 1990.
He tries to make new forms of live on beaches.
His animals get their energy from the wind so they don't have to eat.
In the future he wants to put out in herds.
In fact, Theo’s first important work was a sky piece.
In 1980, he made a flying saucer from plastic sheeting on a light frame.
The saucer was lens-shaped, about fifteen feet across, and carried beneath it a plastic paint bucket that emitted outer-space-like beeps.
One afternoon, he and some friends filled the flying saucer with helium and launched it over Delft.
Immediately, a local sensation resembling the “War of the Worlds” episode (if less frantic and more civilized) ensued.
The object he had made looked and behaved as a flying saucer is expected to.
It hovered, rose, darted (with the wind), went in and out of clouds.
The police gave chase, people ran from their houses to look up, authorities reported that the object was moving at great speeds, it was said to be as big as a nuclear reactor, etc.—all satisfying developments, from Theo’s point of view.
After exciting the population and inscribing in thousands of memories its flight through the spacious skies of Delft, the saucer vanished in the direction of Belgium.
When the author of the event was revealed, he got a lot of press.
The experience ruined him, he says, for the landscape paintings he had been doing before.
I was thinking it must be strange for a landscape painter to live in a landscape that was fixed in oil and ratified permanently by the great Dutch painters of the seventeenth century.
From Theo’s man-made hilltop, for example, I could see several familiar-looking towers, including the fifteenth-century church steeple that appears in Vermeer’s “View of Delft” (1660).
I could also see a small flock of storks flapping to the horizon, and a canal lined with possibly invasive reeds, and blunt-faced trucks on the highway, and red rooftops, and rows of thin, dark trees like sawteeth.
The only other structure as tall as the old steeple or the towers was the two poles holding up the golden arches of a McDonald’s restaurant.
With binoculars, I might have picked out the crows and ravens that throng around the sign and descend on the garbage cans in the McDonald’s parking lot.
My hotel was near the McDonald’s, it turned out, and I observed the birds close up later.
Theo showed me around his small on-site workshop.
It was filled with tools like vises, saws, clamps, and heat guns for softening the plastic tubes.
On perforated wallboards, tools hung neatly inside their black magic-marker outlines.
From a workbench Theo picked up a piece of three-quarter-inch PVC tube about two feet long.
He said this was the basic element in the Strandbeests’ construction, like protein in living things.
“I have known about these tubes all my life,” he told me.
(He speaks good English.)
“Building codes in Holland require that electrical wiring in buildings go through conduit tubes like these.
There are millions of miles of these tubes in Holland.
You see they are a cheese yellow when they are new—a good color for Holland.
The tubes’ brand name used to be Polyvolt, now it is Pipelife.
When we were little, we used to do this with them.”
He took a student notebook, tore out a sheet of graph paper, rolled it into a tight cone, wet the point of the cone with his tongue, tore off the base of the cone so it fit snugly into the tube, raised the tube to his lips, blew, and sent the paper dart smack into the wall, fifteen feet away.
He is the unusual kind of adult who can do something he used to do when he was nine and not have it seem at all out of place.
“I believe it is now illegal for children in Dutch schools to have these tubes,” he said.
Theo grew up in Scheveningen, a small port city just north of Delft.
His father, a farmer, moved the family there after losing his farm during the Second World War.
In Scheveningen, the family supported itself mainly by taking in German tourists who wanted to vacation at the beach, just across the street from the Jansens’ apartment.
Theo remembers his mother waking him and his six brothers and four sisters early in the morning during the summers so they could deflate the air mattresses they had slept on and get them out of the living room before the guests occupying the family’s beds woke up.
He went to primary and secondary schools in Scheveningen, studied physics at the Delft University of Technology, and left in 1974 without a degree.
After university, he became an artist and did other things, like work in a medical laboratory.
His landscape paintings, which he spiced up by putting in women wearing only underwear, had some success—“They were vulgar paintings, but they sold”—and after the flying-saucer episode ended them he invented a light-sensitive automatic painting gun that he demonstrated at local fairs.
The Delft city government gave him a subsidized studio in a downtown building converted for artists, which he still uses.
In it he built a large pair of feathered wings and propelled himself through the air by means of them while suspended on cables.
He had several shows of his work in Dutch museums and galleries, marking one opening with the launch of a twenty-foot-long rocket he’d made.
In 1990, in a column he was then writing for De Volkskrant, a national newspaper, he warned that rising sea levels might re-flood Holland and reduce its size to what it had been in medieval times.
As a solution, he proposed to build animals that would toss sand in the air so that it would land on and augment the seaside dunes.
What he envisioned were self-propelled creatures that would restore the balance between water and land, the way beavers do in Dutch marshes.
He promised to devote a year to the project, and it has occupied him exclusively ever since.
While fooling around with plastic conduit tubes at a building-supply store, he realized that they were the perfect raw material.
More even than the Strandbeests, the possibilities he saw for the tubes changed his life, he says.
He divides his different generations of Strandbeests into time periods like geologic eras.
In the earliest period, he was taping the tubes together. He calls this the Gluton Period (1990-91).
The first tube-and-tape creation, Animaris Vulgaris, could not stand up, only lie on its back and move its legs.
In the next period, the Chorda Epoch (1991-93), he began to connect the tubes with nylon zip strips, a great improvement on tape, and he built Animaris Currens Vulgaris, the first animal that could stand and walk.
To figure out the best way to make the legs, he ran a genetic algorithm for leg design on his computer, and it suggested a foot that pivoted at the ankle and a double-jointed leg that allowed the foot to stay on the ground as long as possible before lifting for the next step.
Basic Strandbeest design now uses multiple pairs of these legs set on a central crankshaft, which produces a galloping-herd effect.
Later refinements added sails, a shovel arm for tossing up sand, pneumatic power with fanlike blades pumping air into plastic bottles for pressurized storage, “nerve cells,” which can detect when the animal is in shallow water, and directional cells, which count steps and cause the animal to back up when it is about to go into the sea.
As of now, none of these technologies work very reliably.
Theo says he envies the original Creator’s supply of countless millions of years for animal evolution, and is sure he could make perfect beach animals, given that much time.
“The walking Strandbeest is a body snatcher,” he told me, while disassembling one for transport.
“It charms people and then uses them so they can’t do anything else but follow, and I am the worst victim, you could say.
All the time I think about them.
Always I have a new plan, but then it is corrected by the requirements of the tubes.
They dictate to me what to do.
At the end of my working day, I am almost always depressed.
Mine is not a straight path like an engineer’s, it’s not A to B. I make a very curly road just by the restrictions of goals and materials.
A real engineer would probably solve the problem differently, maybe make an aluminum robot with motor and electric sensors and all that.
But the solutions of engineers are often much alike, because human brains are much alike.
Everything we think can in principle be thought by someone else.
The real ideas, as evolution shows, come about by chance.
Reality is very creative.
Maybe that is why the Strandbeests appear to be alive, and charm us.
The Strandbeests themselves have let me make them.”
Theo’s beach headquarters is a thatch-roofed cabaret-restaurant called De Fuut (the Grebe).
ts owner, Leo Van Der Vegt, likes to have him and his Strandbeests on the sand beside his restaurant’s outdoor dining area, and sometimes he picks up the tab for Theo and his entourage.
The Scheveningen beach is huge.
From the dunes to the water it’s at least a football field, and maybe half again as far at low tide.
In one direction, the beach stretches more than a mile to the piers of Scheveningen harbor, where a monumental wind turbine rotates counterclockwise against the sky.
In the other direction, the beach dwindles out of sight to the faint silhouetted cargo cranes of Rotterdam.
Along the middle of the sand, parallel to the shore, runs a row of metal-and-plastic trash barrels set in concrete foundations.
Toward Rotterdam, these barrels extend onward until the row becomes a dotted line.
As a visual reference, they are modernist and daunting, and I’ve noticed that photographers and filmmakers who record the Strandbeests’ ramblings try to keep them out of the frame.
On a Saturday morning, Theo loaded several Strandbeests on a rented flatbed trailer and the roof of his Volvo and drove to beach ramp No. 10 with the wind whistling in the tubes.
His friends Hans and Loek came along to help.
Hans teaches language skills to vocational students and Loek takes photographs, teaches high-school and university students about the Strandbeests, and sometimes works as Theo’s assistant (paid).
At the beach, four admirers of Theo’s who are in the master’s program at the Delft University of Technology were waiting for him: Esra, a young woman from Istanbul; Baver, a young man from Ankara; Marta, from Portugal; and Miguel, from Monterrey, Mexico. All spoke English, the language in which classes in the D.U.T. master’s program are taught.
With Theo and his friends, they unloaded the Strandbeests and carried or frog-marched them half a mile from the ramp to the restaurant.
A strong onshore breeze was blowing, causing flags to point inland.
Waves broke and foamed.
Dark shadows of incoming clouds sped over the white sand and carried the dunes in a blink, like the waves’ secret intentions.
Windblown sand was whipping along at ankle level and leaving little drifts behind pebbles.
The few other people on the beach appeared tiny in the immensity, except for the para-surfers, whose scoop-shaped chutes bucked and pirouetted and lifted the riders sometimes twenty feet above the waves.
Theo was toting a long-handled wooden mallet of the sort usually associated with circus tents. Employing roundhouse overhead blows, he pounded metal stakes into the sand and tethered Strandbeests to them.
One of the animals was a worm that isn’t wind-powered but writhes violently when infused with compressed air; he left it unstaked.
A large Strandbeest seemed about to blow over rather than walk away, and he adjusted its tether to hold it up.
Another, Animaris Longus, was light and limber enough so that it appeared on the verge of trotting off at any moment on the breeze.
Theo laid this one on its side and staked it down.
He then went among the Strandbeests, tinkering while the blown sand hissed against them and the wind made them creak and strain.
Murphy, his dog, followed him and watched everything he did.
Beach trials the next morning were called off owing to rain, so I took a train to Amsterdam and visited the Rijksmuseum.
Most of the museum is closed for renovations, and its most in-demand paintings have been concentrated in just thirteen rooms—sort of a Rijksmuseum’s Greatest Hits.
I got there at opening time and for twenty minutes or so it wasn’t crowded.
Such a mass of visual sublimity all in one place tramples the viewer like the legs of a thousand Strandbeests, but I did have one thought, despite my dizziness, as I paused in a nook of seventeenth-century landscapes.
I had never been to Holland before, but the minute I arrived I felt as if I had been.
I was comfortable in it.
The reason, I now saw, was that I had previously habituated myself to the place during long contemplations of Dutch landscapes in American museums.
I was like those first-time visitors to New York or Los Angeles who immediately know their way around from having seen the cities so much in movies and on TV.
Soon, the visual trampling administered by the Rijksmuseum’s greatest art was matched by a literal trampling from fierce tour groups speaking every language, and I caromed into Gallery No. 12, a dark room featuring the Rembrandt masterpiece “The Night Watch.”
Packed multitudes stood there in the dark letting the gigantic and glorious and well-lit painting blast them.
Just off that room was a smaller one, not part of the Greatest Hits, with an unassuming show of landscape sketches on paper.
People were passing through it without stopping. I ducked in and took a breath.
The show, “Dunes: Holland’s Wilderness,” was about the shore where I’d just been.
The introductory label said, “Holland’s landscape is man-made.
Only the sands and the dunes along the coast are more or less nature’s creation.
They are our natural defense against the sea. . . .
The earliest known drawings of Holland’s landscape are views of the dunes near Haarlem recorded by Hendrick Goltzius around 1600.
Many landscape specialists followed in his footsteps. . . .
All the drawings were sketchbook size, done in pencil, ink, or black chalk.
If the giant Rembrandt in the adjoining room was jet-engine powerful, his little horizontal sketch here, of a shore landscape, was moving for its simplicity and self-effacement.
Some of the dune sketches showed the blades of windmills against the sky; the main purpose of Dutch windmills wasn’t so much to mill anything as to pump the incoming sea back out.
A Jacob van Ruisdael sketch with a heavy shading of cloud in one corner showed more clearly the same quality of torque that his paintings often have.
In a vitrine, a leather-bound sketchbook of Gerard ter Borch the younger lay open to a black-chalk drawing of a tangled patch of brush on a hillside.
Such a no-count, lovely piece of ground!
The drawing dated from 1634, though it could have been done in the Scheveningen dunes, or maybe West Texas, just last week.
The weather did not let up, but Theo went ahead with beach trials the following afternoon anyway. Lena Herzog had arrived from New York, and Alexander Schlichter, a German documentary filmmaker who has been making a film about Theo for ten years, had driven up from Hannover.
The four D.U.T. students were there, and Theo’s twenty-year-old son, Zach, and his seventeen-year-old daughter, Divera, and Loek, Theo’s sometime assistant.
Beach passersby and restaurant patrons and their dogs came to watch and stood around and moved on.
Almost everybody took photographs.
Lena Herzog stood on a stepladder, and crawled under the Strandbeests, and lay on her back on the wet sand for her shots.
Alexander Schlichter erected a tripod for his camera, and then, since I was doing apparently nothing, asked if I would be his soundman.
Taken by surprise, I gave a polite and complicated answer that was not “Yes.”
Theo was devoting all his energy to getting a Strandbeest he called Animaris Gubernare up and moving.
This colossus had fan-blade-driven air pumps, ninety-six plastic 1.5-litre bottles to store the compressed air, and a stegosaurus-like nose.
Sand had drifted over its many feet and become soggy with the rain.
Blown sand had got into its joints.
Theo prodded it, repaired some broken tubes, fooled with the blades, sprayed the joints with lubricant, coaxed.
His hair was flying.
His fingernails had become chipped and there was a scrape on his forehead.
Really, all that gets the Strandbeests moving is the enthusiasm of this one guy, and he was in the middle of an agon.
He said to Alexander Schlichter, “If we can get even eleven seconds of videotape today we’ll be doing great.”
But that was not happening.
Theo had us all assemble on the sides of the monster Strandbeest to lift it out of the soft, soggy sand and take it farther down the beach to where the sand was smooth and hard.
When we lifted it, it felt inert, like a heap of wet sand itself.
We carried it, its legs walked stumblingly and unwillingly, we set it down, we carried it again.
Two feet burrowed toe first into the sand and stuck, causing shafts on the corresponding legs to break.
Theo told us to carry it back to where we had begun and the disabled legs trailed brokenly.
Theo often says that he does not know if he is a sculptor or an engineer or what.
His Strandbeests have been in exhibitions all over the world—Munich, London, Taipei, Madrid, Tokyo, Seoul—and he does not care whether they are in art museums or science centers; they have appeared in both.
My theory about Theo is that he is secretly a landscape artist.
His flying saucer was a landscape piece that for a few minutes brought the classical Delft sky up to date.
His Strandbeests, magnets for filming and photography, are really decoys to get us to notice the dunes, sea, and sky.
The endless painful artifice involved in the Strandbeests’ construction is his version of the great painters’ technical skill.
They painted windmills, he builds wild new kinds of windmills for the most acute observers to photograph.
Artists produced more landscape paintings in the northern Netherlands in the seventeenth century than in any other time or place in the world, probably.
I think the reason goes back to Holland’s landscape being man-made.
The Dutch made it and they liked to look at it.
They had a good workman’s justifiable pride; the landscape paintings were like the “after” pictures of a successful home-improvement project.
Anyone who has stood back and admired a lawn he has just raked knows the feeling.
Theo’s Strandbeests, whose long-range purpose is to restore Holland’s dunes, attempt to compress centuries of Dutch experience; ideally, he would remake the landscape and record it all in one career.
And since the Dutch think constantly about their always challenged lowland, he falls in line with some deep historic impulses.
Chances are, after all, that soon the seas really will rise.
Theo’s ambition is civic-minded and admirably high—to create something beautiful and save his country.
Beyond that, he gets the rest of us thinking about the actual world, and what it’s going to be like, and how humans will actually live in it.
Torque: the beach at Scheveningen seemed to be ruled by it.
Everything was turning, inward-spiralling.
The northeast wind skimmed the waves along the beach like pinwheel blades, the giant wind turbine above the harbor rotated, the para-surfers’ chutes twisted this way and that, the ropes on the masts of the catamarans in drydock beside the dunes snaked back and forth and banged their metal parts on the hollow aluminum with a racket that could frighten off wicked spirits.
In shoreline indentations, heaps of sea foam accumulated and shivered, and clumps of foam kept blowing free and spinning across the sand, assuming corkscrew shapes and in the next instant abrading themselves away.
The speed of their transition from material object to nothing happened so fast it made me queasy.
Theo worked on, fixing, altering, ducking in and out of the huge Strandbeest, searching for replacement parts in plastic storage crates he had brought.
On an outdoor table, the owner of the restaurant set out glass mugs of tea with fresh mint leaves.
In between taking photos and standing around and occasionally pitching in to help, all of us supernumeraries had plenty of chance for conversation.
Lena told me again how much she admires Theo, and how he reminds her of her father, a Russian geophysicist who lives in Yekaterinburg and who has invented a revolutionary new method of petroleum exploration, which, she says, the international oil companies have resisted.
Miguel, the D.U.T. student from Mexico, said he loved living in Holland but worried a lot about the violence in Monterrey, where many of his friends and relatives are.
Baver, the young man from Ankara, said that Holland’s public transportation was vastly better than Turkey’s.
Alexander, the filmmaker, described a documentary he was working on that concerned the creation of artificial life-forms, such as a fish that contains plant DNA and can feed itself by floating in the sun and photosynthesizing.
Esra and Marta, the students from Istanbul and Portugal (respectively), said they were working together on a research project about Theo and the importance of the suspension of disbelief to the creative process.
Like most other kids who know about Theo, they had first encountered him in videos (many of them made by Alexander) on the Internet.
In their rapt regard for him, there appeared no disbelief, suspended or otherwise.
For a moment, Theo took a break and joined the onlookers.
He was frustrated, vexed, abstracted with technical snafus, and unhappy that some of us had to leave soon and would not get to see Animaris Gubernare lumber off into the sunset (as it did successfully the following day).
Then he smiled his sparkling, camera-ready smile.
He was having a wonderful time.
Theo went back to work, and the rest of us continued standing around.
Earlier in the day, he had taken the smaller Strandbeest, Animaris Longus, and moved it onto the smooth sand, maybe just to get it out of the way.
It was a simple, elegant construction of triangular elements in a pyramidal shape supported by two groups of six legs on a central crankshaft.
Animaris Longus had no sails, but was light enough so that a wind could move it without them.
From a distance, it looked like one of those folding pole-and-clothesline contraptions you hang laundry on.
This Strandbeest stood there for a while, unnoticed.
The shiny, wet sand held its reflection.
Some new customers arrived and sat at one of the restaurant’s outdoor tables.
A minute later, a stronger gust came up, and the apparent clothes-drying rack suddenly went tiptoeing across the sand.
The people at the table did a triple take and began pointing and laughing, and talking in Dutch.
“Dat ding is aan het lopen! ”
(“That thing is walking!”) they cried.