Every spring a new Strandbeest (“beach animal” in Dutch) is “born” on the shores of northern Holland. The strange-looking creature with spindly legs and wings on its back then takes its first steps, gently coaxed by its “father”, Theo Jansen, slowly adapting to its seaside environment.
The Strandbeest is actually a wind-powered kinetic sculpture that blurs the lines between art, engineering, and science. In the hi-tech age of computerised artificial intelligence, they are surprisingly built out of rather mundane materials such as PVC tubes, zip ties and recycled plastic bottles. These beach animals not only walk on their own but, having developed over time a sense of self-preservation, also react to their environment.
Jansen refuses to label his sophisticated kinetic sculptures as artworks and instead refers to them as a fast-evolving new species on earth, dividing each generation into time periods and giving them scientific-sounding Latin names.
Wind Walkers: Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, on display at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum until September 30, is a major retrospective of the artist’s work and showcases how the man-made marvels have dramatically evolved, in form as well as function, to adapt to the challenges of their native environment.
“There are few people in any field today who embody the intersection of art and science as beautifully as Jansen. For nearly 30 years, he has combined his understanding of science with his artistic skill to engineer mechanical animals that appear startlingly alive,” says Honor Harger, executive director, ArtScience Museum.
Having studied applied sciences at the Delft University of Technology, Jansen did the “hippy thing” and dropped out of school to become an artist in the mid-1970s, first as a landscape painter before moving on full-time to his kinetic sculptures in the 1990s. While he had envisaged his first Strandbeests as self-propelled experiments that roamed the beach and built sand dunes to serve as natural barriers against rising sea levels, the artist admits he got sidetracked as he became more fascinated with “the principle of evolution”.
Each year, he experiments on his new creations to help them adapt to their seaside environment. His first, Animaris Vulgaris, which sported 28 legs, was not really a success: “It was about 2m-long with a very complicated axis, but I was using Sellotape (to hold it together). As a result, it couldn’t even stand on its feet and just lay on its back. When you see that first animal, it looks quite pathetic,” the artist recalls.
But Jansen persevered. In 1991, a year after, he unveiled Animaris Currens Vulgaris, his first roaming creature. It was stronger thanks to the use of nylon zip ties.
While the Strandbeests have evolved as a species over the years and become more sophisticated each time, their “bone structure” remains relatively unchanged. The central spine is a wind-powered crankshaft that moves the many legs, each comprising 12 small rods that mimic eerily life-like walking motions. Jansen says he got the idea for the movement one night while unable to sleep, but it took him several months to design a computer programme to help determine the optimal length of each tube in order to create movements that looked natural and could cope with the sand.
As the artist points out, at first glance his animals’ walking style seem very familiar but they actually don’t move like other animals: “They don’t walk up and down, all the legs actually stay on the same levels while walking.”
“Some (animals’) walking principles still apply, however. One key criteria is that a leg should not be in the air for too long — not for beauty but for mechanical reasons,” he explains, before letting on that the Strandbeest’s legs are designed to keep the “feet” on the ground for as long as possible to maximise forward propulsion.
Over the years, Jansen has tried to tackle different problems. For example, to allow his beasts to remain mobile when there is no wind, he’s included recycled plastic bottles, which store air from bicycle pumps that are activated by small wings up at the front of the animal. The stored compressed air provides potential energy to be used by the creature in the absence of wind.
Animaris Rectus (2006-2008) could sense strong winds and had a mechanism to hammer a stake into the sand to keep itself from getting blown away. Animaris Adulari (2012) could detect water via a nose — an integrated hose that reacted to getting blocked by water — and reverse direction to make for safer grounds. It also had “sweat glands”, or rather a water system to flush out grains of sand that could jam its joints.
It’s not just the design that changed but also the materials. For example, Jansen did not always use yellow PVC tubes and for a while relied on steel or wood from discarded pallets to make the animal heavier and bigger.
Every Strandbeest retains the successful anatomical features of its predecessors. Hence the latest Animaris Omnia sports sails on its back to help it tack sideways (like a sailboat) instead of parallel to the wind. Jansen believes this could be the answer to his initial idea of having the beast build sand dunes.
For now the Strandbeests remain fragile temperamental creatures that require constant nurturing and care, but Jansen dreams of the day they roam the beach freely and are able to survive on their own. “I hope to incorporate all my discoveries for their survival in one beast,” he shares.