Excursions in the Imagination

Dutch inventor Theo Jansen shares his journey of designing wind-powered sculptures called Strandbeests—an evolutionary process that interweaves art and science.

Text by Ariel So
Portrait by Jovian Lim
Additional photographs courtesy of Theo Jansen / Marina Bay Sands / Media Force

It is 2:54pm on a Tuesday when I find Theo Jansen sitting patiently at a table with a view overlooking Singapore. He is waiting for me inside the ArtScience Museum, which is currently filled with 13 of his kinetic sculptures. Prior to our meeting, I had indulged myself with videos of his beests’ awe-inspiring, lifelike movements; they often made me forget that they were in fact mechanical systems, composed of PVC tubes and zip ties.

He greets me, shakes my hand, and gives me a personal tour of the exhibition. As I follow next to him, he gestures towards the different kinds of “animals in the past” as though we are in a museum of fossils. He points out the various parts of Animaris Sabulosa—the first animal he made when he was still working with adhesive tape, and had discovered he could heat PVC tubes to bend them into all sorts of positions.

Vision Meets Conception

For 22 years, Jansen wrote a fortnightly column for the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. As we stand before one of his original articles from 1990, he explains he had envisioned the Strandbeests to combat the rise of sea levels in his home country the Netherlands, by having them pile up sand to form natural barriers.

“[My column] was a lot of excursions in the imagination. And this [article] was just a fantasy of skeletons on the beach,” he says. “Half a year, nothing happened, then I passed the tube shop, and I bought these yellowish tubes, which we use in Holland as cables in houses…I promised myself to spend one year on the tubes…and that got totally out of hand.”

He tells me he was inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker to write computer programmes based on evolution theory, creating “worms” on the computer screen that could reproduce and develop themselves. Later, he wrote a genetic algorithm that produced a combination of what he calls “13 holy numbers”. This helped him determine the length of PVC tubes that would get a beest to stay at the same level while walking—a manner he describes as a less energy-consuming way of moving. By developing different anatomical functions over time, Jansen’s animals have now evolved into his latest invention: the Uminami, which rarely gets sand in its joints and can move quickly across uneven terrain.

An Evolving Routine

Jansen credits his journey to neither himself nor being a straight line from thought to realisation, but rather the tubes themselves: “Usually, I wake up with a wonderful idea in the morning, and then during the day, always, these tubes, they protest, they want something else than what I want. The next day, I might wake up with a new idea, but it’s based on the experiences with the tubes of the day before.”

Every spring, Jansen brings a new animal to the beach. He makes experiments during the summer with its storms, sand, and water, then eventually declares the beest extinct and puts it in the boneyard in the fall. He explains that an extinct beest often gives him ideas he may only realise in a new animal, and that this cycle allows him to become wiser about the animal surviving on the beach. Without it, everything breaks and he gets sick of repairing all the time. He likens his path to an evolutionary process of trial and error, describing his ideas as “a kind of mutant” that can keep on trying and developing through time.

While he does experience lots of disappointments along the way, Jansen says he gets used to them. “You could speak of it like an addiction. I mean, the tubes, they really got me. It’s in my mind, always, I think. But, this ‘disease’ will give you the feeling that you’re happy. Can you imagine, you can go to work on the beach every day? Of course, it’s not always nice weather, but I feel really privileged that I can do this.”

New Living Creatures?

Intrigued by his characterisation of inanimate objects, I enquire about whether he views his sculptures as a new form of life. He acknowledges that this is something of a utopian thought: Strandbeests may be parallel to existing life forms, but are less well-designed than human bodies. “We’re all mechanical systems—quite complicated mechanical systems. But these animals, they’re mechanical systems as well. So, you might as well call it ‘life,’ only it’s a very simple, very simple life.”

Jansen elaborates that he does not wish to make Strandbeests “more complicated like us,” or for them to be “nice” or “beautiful”, but rather, “more surviving”. What he wants is to forget everything he knows about existing animals, in order to retain a sense of originality.

He states frankly that Strandbeests do not survive very well on beaches. Even with their evolution over the years, they require constant fixing and care to remain intact. He points out, however, that they live on in student rooms and on bookshelves, especially with today’s 3D printers: “It’s a special brand of Strandbeests, which can really reproduce. It just uses humanity.” He rejects the notion that those who replicate his work are “stealing” his ideas; having given out the beests’ genetic code, he considers this a better form of protection than what lawyers or copyrights can provide.

As he says this, I picture the Strandbeests multiplying, as though in movies where robots have left the human population in jeopardy. I wonder if he ever thinks such a scenario would happen. He reassures me that, although the Strandbeests may be “taking over the world already” or making students go “crazy”, this is quite a safe way of being influenced, distinguishing his beests from artificial intelligence.

“Sometimes,” he adds, “I have the feeling the Strandbeests were already in the air before 1990, and that they were looking for brains to land in. I was lucky enough that they took my brain, and they’re using my brain to infect the rest of the world. So, I’m the worst victim, you could say.”

When I ask him if he would ever compare himself to “a kind of creator,” Jansen immediately knows what I mean. “A god…?” he answers. “You couldn’t say the word, right?”

Lightheartedly, he continues: “All the people who don’t believe in evolution theory…they look at me and say, ‘Wow, you’re the Creator. You’re proof that intelligent design exists.’ But I don’t share that opinion. In the first place, they overestimate my intelligence.” Jansen himself is surprised whenever a beest is finished, noting that the tubes have a natural kind of beauty. He compares this to the inherent beauty of animals, and shares his theory that people are perhaps drawn to Strandbeests the same way they are drawn to animal movements.

Personal Life and Aspirations

Jansen tells me he is not impressed by today’s art scene because he believes it is sometimes a grotesque money-making world. Nonetheless, there are some artists he greatly admires, one of whom is Gerrit van Bakel, who died in 1984. Bakel made vehicles that could move about 18 millimetres per day, so they could reach the other end of the desert in over 30 million years. “I like those ideas, you know,” Jansen details.

In his early life, Jansen left school after seven years of studying physics to pursue a career in landscape painting. Since then, his work has continuously interweaved art and science. “I never wanted to leave science completely,” he says. “Maybe I didn’t like the university too much. But the subject, it’s always interested me, from when I was really young. And still, I am very much into science and mathematics…It seems that there’s no ‘club’ where I really feel at home. I’m too much of an individual.”

Jansen discloses that his family did not always like the Strandbeests. In fact, he recounts overhearing his son say to his friend, years ago, that he “wanted to have normal parents, just like he had.” Fortunately, they have come to support his work. They help him to set up exhibitions globally, despite the Strandbeests taking away some of his attention from them. He notes that it is a luxury to survive with the beests, and that he need not beg for acceptance for his work.

As we move back into the larger exhibition space, he leads the animation process, gives a personal speech, and answers several of the audience’s burning questions. Afterwards, he tells me he would never have imagined people wanting to take photographs with him, but that they seem to appreciate it. I can tell from the way he interacts with the crowd that he does not take any of these experiences for granted.

A Work of Craft, Legacy, Inspiration

Ultimately, Jansen wants his Strandbeests to keep on moving for weeks, months, and years. “At the end of my life, I hope that these animals will move on their own without my interference, so I can quietly go away and throw my ashes over the beach, where I was born. And hopefully, I will influence some students to continue my work.”

As I look around the exhibition at his prototypes, sketches, and film, his words echo in my mind. “Talking about the experience of my own life, working on the beach, under the clouds there, I see life as one big miracle. I mean, the fact that we exist…that’s really something you cannot understand. The surprise that we exist, I hope that people see that again, and that they walk out of the exhibition, and they experience their own life again a little bit.”

Even while Jansen’s work serves as a humbling reminder of life itself, he nevertheless calls himself “just the fool, who runs around with his tubes.”

Theo Jansen was in Singapore for the launch of the exhibition Wind Walkers: Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, at Marina Bay Sand’s ArtScience Museum.