We are born with the urge to build and make things. What does this creativity tell us about our origins?
Since 1990, Dutch artist Theo Jansen has been designing animals from PVC pipe and walking them up and down the beach. His search to create new forms of life has many sources of inspiration, from Biblical creation stories to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, but chiefly springs from his delight and surprise at his own existence. Nature calls him to imitate and be co-creative with the forces that shaped the world.
Jansen’s kinetic (moving) sculptures are called Strandbeesten, or beach beasts. They don’t require food or gasoline, but are propelled by the wind, harnessing impressive energy. The first Strandbeest had to be dragged into the wind by hand and would then shamble back up the beach in the opposite direction. Later versions had propellers, and then, finally, wings which are attached to a central segmented crankshaft that moves the feet. The beasts have no electronic parts and are remarkably ingenious and beautiful feats of engineering. Some, like Animaris Percipiere (Jansen has given them all Latin Scientific names) have “stomachs” made from bottles that store air pumped to high pressure by the wind and a system of bicycle pumps. Once the bottles are uncapped, motion is guided by “muscles”, lengths of pipe that extend. The Strandbeesten roam the beach like immense skeletons, responding to the air that fills their sails. Delightful!
Some find Jansen’s imitation of nature uncanny. The Strandbeesten blur the lines between art and engineering as well as those between artistic creation and offspring. The word animal comes from a Latin word that means “having breath”. The use of wind power recalls the breath of life God gave to Adam in the garden of Eden. Jansen has likened the measurements of the PVC segments to genetic code (DNA). Does Jansen have a god complex or is he simply responding to the creative impulse? This question is valid for artists of all disciplines. The answer has often led to the banning of creative pursuits that make traditionalists uncomfortable.
What I found about this experience of making new forms of life is that you discover all the problems which the real creator must have had creating this world.
Wouldn’t you like to know how the world was made? If you could participate in adding to that world, wouldn’t you do so, no matter how much you failed in the execution? Imitation can be a sincere form of homage. Jansen knows he will never be able to understand the source of life, but that doesn’t prevent him from exploring and celebrating it.
Perhaps the most exciting part of his process is that it inspires others to take care of the Strandbeesten. If we can learn to take care of these simple constructions who are incapable of thought, then that gives hope that we will may become more protective and aware of the natural creatures that are so much greater than anything we can make with our hands.