Strandbeesten: Art Meets Darwin

Dutchman Theo Jansen (born 1948) grew up near the beach.  He studied physics at the University of Delft, but left the University in 1975 to become an artist. Fortunately,  he wasn’t quite able to leave physics behind. Jansen created several novel inventions in the 80s, including a flying saucer that emitted sound & light and a light sensitive mechanical spray-gun capable of painting photographic quality images on surfaces.

In 1990 he found his life’s work—creating kinetic sculptures that “walk” by harnessing windpower. Curiously, they resemble giant Jurassic skeletons come to life, which isn’t so strange, once you understand that biology has been Jansen’s inspiration. More specifically, the process of genetic selection suggested to Jansen that constantly-evolving forms could be created from man-made substances rather than proteins. The scientist in him knew a lot about biology; the artist in him tried to forget most of it. 

Jansen lets the computer play evolution by “selecting” the best designs according to algorithms that are genetic in origin and based on previous successes. Naturally, the computer works faster than nature. The past 18 years have witnessed multiple generations, as each gets better at finding more efficient ways to move. Early generations were built with wood; then Jansen lighted on PVC tubing. It’s a ubiquitous material in Holland, having been mandated for electrical work in buildings since 1947. It was a natural for Jansen; even as a kid, he used it effectively to blow paper darts. It’s strong, yet light, and flexible, the perfect skeletal material.

As you might expect, some generations died out like dodos. The more nimble and rapid animals got the chance to reproduce themselves. And they bred with other Beesten species to improve their chances.  The Strandbeesten must also survive the elements, and newer generations have developed special appendages to prevent them from blowing away. They haven’t yet learned to swim, so when they reach the surf, they stop and walk back in the opposite direction.  So as not to be blown over, one might throw down a long trunk and anchor a pin in the sand. Still others scoop up a bit of sand, aerating it in an act of beach maintenance.   

The Strandbeesten are testimony to the power of a great artist to transport us from our usual and unremarkable reality to that special realm of fantasy and imagination. Jansen dreams that one day his beasts will live in herds on the beaches. I too hope to live in a world, in which Strandbeesten roam free. 

More connections:

PopCast on Theo Jansen

Daily Muse—Kinetic Sculpture in Munich

Evolutionary Novelties

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