For the past 25 years, Dutch artist Theo Jansen has dedicated his life's work to building an entirely new species. Specimens can often be seen on the beaches near Delft in the Netherlands where, animated by the wind, they scurry along the sand with all of the multi-legged agility of a sand crab.
These surprisingly fleet-footed creatures are called Strandbeests, or "beach animals" in Dutch, and Jansen makes them out of PVC pipe, zip ties, water bottles, and wing-like sails. Resembling the skeletal remains of some unidentifiable creature, Jansen's animals actually walk on their own, propelled by nothing other than the force of the wind.
They are remarkable marvels of engineering, and now they're getting their first major American exhibit and tour exploring the evolution of their design over the past two decades through sketches, videos, photography—and several of the kinetic sculptures themselves, which could be seen skittering along the shores of Lake Michigan with their creator when the show opened in Chicago last winter.
Jansen has continuously developed and redesigned his Strandbeests since 1990, when he had the idea to build animals that could displace sand on the beaches of Holland to prevent flooding. Since then, the beasts have gone through several major iterations, which Jansen divides into his own geologic eras.
In the beginning, in 1990-1991, there was the Gluton Period: when Jansen joined the Strandbeests' tubes together using nothing except tape. This period established the basic design that Jansen would go on to use for all future creatures, but the tape made the prototypes too delicate to actually function—his first creation, which he named Animaris Vulgaris, wasn't strong enough to stand (it could only lie on its back and move its legs). So next, in the Chorda Epoch around 1991-93, he ditched the tape for nylon zip strips, which allowed his next generation, the Animaris Currens Vulgaris, to stand and walk.
Today, a typical Strandbeest has multiple pairs of tubular legs set on a central crankshaft. His latest creation, the Animaris Suspendisse, is the largest one yet, and is equipped with giant wing-like sails and fans that pump air into plastic bottles, where it's stored for later during times when wind is scarce. Through an elaborate system of counterpoised pistons, the Animaris Suspendisse can even sense water and reverse its coarse.
Though the Strandbeests have gotten more complex over the years, they're still made out of the most low-tech materials you can imagine. In one room of the exhibition, old Strandbeest parts are laid out in systematic rows on tables, like the spoils of an archeological dig: PVC pipe—used in Holland as conduit tubes for electrical wiring—zip ties, plastic water bottles, and, of course, cloth for the sails.
The remarkable—and slightly unsettling—thing about the Strandbeests is how effortlessly this morass of inanimate objects come to life under Jansen's direction. Inside the windless Cultural Center in Chicago, visitors stand in line so they can push the spider-like beasts into motion. With their double jointed legs, they amble along the roped-off corridor like an extremely patient zoo animal; their feet, made from pipes curved into a semi-circle, pivot at the ankle to move up and down like hooves.
Just like living creatures, the Strandbeests' survival hinges on their ability to "reproduce," which Jansen has covered too. By pushing the animals' evolution forward, and teaching others to design them, he's hoping that the Strandbeests will continue to evolve—even after he's no longer here to build them.
All Photos: courtesy Theo Jansen