Conventional ways of thinking about art, science and engineering would typically lead us to conceive of them as separate, mutually exclusive realms. Dutch artist Theo Jansen, however, seamlessly straddles their boundaries with his world-famous sculptures and inorganic life – the Strandbeests.
Conceptualised initially as a solution to global warming, the Strandbeests are synonymous with the iconic PVC pipes that they’re made of. The unique form of artificial life is birthed from an artistic application of engineering principles.
The Strandbeests posses a looming grace especially when they’re seen in movement, walking in unique gaits reminiscent of real-life animal behaviour. Aided by computational techniques and driven by a desire to follow evolution theory, the Strandbeests have grown in the complexity of form and function as well.
Newer generations of Strandbeests are not just more intricate in design, but are also able to behave in more intelligent ways, such as actively detecting and avoiding water as they walk along the beaches of Holland.
The magnificent lifeforms make their first Southeast Asian debut with Wind Walkers: Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, the latest exhibition to take up residence at the ArtScience Museum. Featuring 13 of the Strandbeests, the exhibition spans the length of Theo’s career, giving a window into the origins of the Strandbeest and letting us see Theo’s creative processes for ourselves.
Originally a physicist by training, Jansen defied expectations as he became drawn to art, choosing to focus exclusively on what would become his lifelong passion and calling. Intrigued by Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, Theo became enamoured with the theory of evolution and designed programs on his Atari computer that simulated evolution. As excursions of the mind, these squiggly lines of code can be considered the first iterations of the Strandbeests – the first instance of the “Strandbeest infection” that he affectionately calls the “idea of the Strandbeest”.
The Strandbeests themselves have a “biology” that mirrors animal anatomy, with “muscle cells” that allow them to move and “neurons” that let them sense water and retreat from the tides on the beach. The Latin names of the creatures are rooted in taxonomy, reflecting traits unique to each individual Strandbeest.
They are further grouped by their shared traits, reminiscent of anthropological ages that reflect Theo’s own creative epochs. Powered by wind and designed to combat against rising sea levels in the Netherlands, the Strandbeests were intended to roam beaches and help accumulate sand into dunes to protect the coastline. Strandbeests that can no longer move – termed “fossils” – are retired from active duty.
Some of these fossils find life breathed into them once again on the floors of the ArtScience Museum, as towering forms of majestic elegance – not quite unlike that of seeing a dinosaur in real life.
Visitors are encouraged to interact with the Strandbeests, and are allowed to even pull and push some of them, like the Animaris Burchus Primus. Throughout the exhibition, there is a clear focus on ensuring a tactile experience – interaction with the pieces are highly encouraged as one learns about how the Strandbeests are made and of the ideas that go behind them.
The creative process behind the Strandbeests is quaint, much like the creatures themselves. Surprising, rather than seeing himself as the originator of some grand intelligent design or creator per se, Theo views himself as a humble vessel or conduit for the Strandbeest “infection”.
As an artist, Theo is constantly in dialogue with his material of choice; the iconic PVC tubes that his creatures are crafted, with the material speaking to and through him. Working closely with the material in his workshop, Theo experiments intensely with new iterations of Strandbeest before testing them out on the beach. Despite a few flirtations with other materials like wood and metal over the years, the PVC tubes have held his unreserved love and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Ask for his favourite Strandbeest however, and it is likely that you’ll hear him gush about the latest Strandbeest that he’s making or conceptualising. His desire to create takes foreground in his mind, striking as a person living through his passion.
Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests challenge us to rethink the narrow notions of life, to look past the arbitrary boundaries that we so often draw for ourselves between art and science.
The Strandbeests bring with them a playful and fresh way of looking at the process of creation. Embodying a childlike wonder in their quirky gaits, the Strandbeests are an invitation by Theo to appreciate life, and most importantly, to have fun while doing so.
Wind Walkers: Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests is on from 23 June till 30 September 2018, at the ArtScience Museum. Find out more information on how to get “infected” by the Strandbeests, here!
Photos by Nigel Noah Chan of the DANAMIC Team.