Fantastical Strandbeests take their first steps in Boston area
SALEM — Standing in the sun-drenched atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum, “Animaris Ordis,” a skeletal network of bone-yellow PVC pipe, zip ties, and elastic bands, didn’t look like it was going anywhere. Some tubes still bore barcodes. At least one joint had the unmistakable gleam of duct tape, and the entire architecture looked as though it might buckle.
Nevertheless, a clutch of museum handlers had gathered around it, coaxing “Ordis” to cross the atrium and join its fellow Strandbeests. These fantastical kinetic sculptures, created by the famed artist Theo Jansen, harness the wind and roam the beaches of Jansen’s native Netherlands. Driven by billowing sails, they move with a wild, uncanny gait unlike anything else on earth.
And now they are coming here. Over the next couple of weeks, the Strandbeests will stalk selected spots in Greater Boston, including a walk along Crane Beach in Ipswich on Saturday.
“The beast is getting house-trained,” quipped the Peabody Essex Museum’s curator of contemporary art, Trevor Smith, who organized “Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen,” an exhibition opening Sept. 19.
The show features all manner of Strandbeest — everything from “Animaris Suspendisse,” which is bigger than an elephant, to the hippopotamus-sized “Ordis,” with its peaked body, slender legs, and hoof-like feet.
Some arrived at the museum fully assembled; others were still in pieces, awaiting their creator’s arrival to bring them back to life.
“They’re like recalcitrant children or something. They need parental supervision,” said Smith, who looked on as PEM staff received a crash course in their care and maintenance. “Theo often cracks a joke about, ‘Am I their God or am I their slave?’”
The punch line, clearly, is both.
Inspired by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Jansen has toiled for the past 25 years to create what he views as an entirely new species: a nonbiological life form he hopes will eventually have the intelligence to survive on its own.
The sculptures Jansen has built are powered by wind and, sometimes, the pull of men and women. There are no motors or computers, but they’re able to walk.
Like their biological counterparts, Jansen’s Strandbeests (translation: beach beasts) share a basic genetic code. But whereas organic life relies on proteins and chromosomes, the Strandbeests are built mostly from PVC pipe.
Jansen describes the Strandbeests as if he believes they are already alive.
“This tube is my protein,” said Jansen, when reached at his Dutch studio. “Our genetic code is written in protein. This genetic code is written in plastic tubes.”
Each beast has a one-year life span (it then becomes a “fossil,” in Jansen’s formulation), and Jansen retreats to his studio every winter to introduce innovations that will enable the Strandbeests to better survive in their environment without human intervention.
Some beasts now sport a system of pneumatic pumps and 1.5-liter plastic water bottles, “wind stomachs” to store extra energy in the form of pressurized air.
Some have sensors that rely on a system of pumps and switches to determine when they’re too close to the water, while others use a hammer-and-pin system that secures the beasts to the beach during storms.
“I see them as sort of migrating animals,” said Jansen, who added he was working on a sail system that spreads automatically. “I hope these animals will have senses to know the direction of the wind and the strength of the wind and know that it will be low tide. Then they can make the decision to go to the hard part of the beach and catch the wind to walk to the other place.”
He hopes eventually to combine all of the successful innovations into one creation, something he would consider an autonomous animal.
“Every year I try to solve another problem,” he said. “Hopefully, before I leave the planet, I can leave a new specimen on earth that can make their own decisions.”
While “Animaris Ordis” would normally have a sail system to propel it forward, PEM’s atrium has no natural breeze. The sculpture relied instead on a steady pull from collections manager David O’Ryan, which brought the beast whirring to life.
Graceful yet vulnerable, its legs stirred with an equine gait as the sculpture felt its way across the room, its delicate joints flexing in response to O’Ryan’s touch.
“You’re looking at this skeletal object, and it looks like it might fall apart,” said Smith. “But then the wind comes up. It slowly swings into motion, and your heart goes out to it the same way as when you see a child walk for the first time.”
In the exhibit, the sculptures will be accompanied by photographer Lena Herzog’s haunting images of Jansen at work with his creations.
Herzog, who spent years documenting the creatures’ evolution, said that when she first saw a Strandbeest she was struck by how the sculpture seemed at once alive yet mythic.
“It’s lifelike enough that we feel kinship to it,” said Herzog, who is married to the filmmaker Werner Herzog. “Strandbeests immediately induce this sense of awe and wonder, but then you keep thinking and dreaming about them. It’s a description of falling in love or enchantment. It’s a very rare feeling.”
Smith said that Jansen’s creations feel both prehistoric and futuristic. “To just talk about kinetic art, or fantastic machines, or surrealism, or ephemeral work — none of those trajectories fully explains the kind of wonder that happens when they all come together,” he said.
But just as with biological evolution, Jansen’s creations are imperfect. Some adaptations fail, and the artist spends much of his time repairing and caring for his creations.
Jansen hopes that other people will continue to reproduce his creations using formulas he’s shared, furthering their evolution.
“I’ve always been dreaming, of course, that you could feed tubes to an animal and they would make a new animal,” he said. “That would be the ultimate reproduction idea. I could succeed in doing that, but I would need 100 million years.”