'Strandbeests' from yellow plastic tubing to amazing sculptures

Categories: Inspiration

Theo Jansen, a Dutch artist who makes kinetic sculptures that walk on the beach called Strandbeests. In this video, with footage by the filmmaker Alexander Schlichter, Frazier discusses these wind-powered sculptures and how they fit into the tradition of Dutch landscapes

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.

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