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Art review

There’s beauty in Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests

SALEM — Idle thought, but imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had delivered a TED talk. All the funding he would have attracted! All the exhibitions he would have been offered! The convention appearances, the artist residencies! He could have employed a whole staff. He might actually have finished something.

Theo Jansen and one of his Strandbeests.
Theo Jansen and one of his Strandbeests. Loek van der Klis

Of course, all this may have diminished his deathless mystique. But as Theo Jansen has proved, there is no shame in actually executing your most harebrained ideas, nor in delivering TED talks about the hard-won results.

Jansen’s Strandbeests — beautiful, Leonardo-esque, wind-powered machines made from PVC piping and designed to walk on beaches — are the subject this fall of a show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

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Jansen, 67, from the Netherlands, has been building Strandbeests (the name means “beach creatures”) for around two decades. He developed a walking system, built around a rotating crankshaft and articulated legs, that is brilliantly designed to cope with the challenges of sand.

Later versions involved other adaptations, including “sweat glands” that distribute water by pressure through the beest’s feet and legs to stop sand from jamming them; outrigger poles for greater stability; and “wind stomachs” — Jansen’s term for the ingenious mechanisms that force air from the sails into pistons. The pistons in turn compress the air into plastic containers that function as stored energy for when the wind dies.

The exhibition is fascinating, in its way. But it doesn’t really do justice to the Theo Jansen phenomenon. It’s neither big enough nor quite amazing enough. You need, I suspect, to see these “beests” out in the elements to grasp their poetry.

Sensing this, the show’s organizers offered a sort of prelude earlier this month: a demonstration of several Strandbeests on Crane Beach near Ipswich. If you missed that, you may want to spend eight minutes watching Jansen’s TED talk online. More than 3 million people already have. It lets you see a little more of these creatures wandering across Netherlandish beaches than the exhibition allows (although the show’s website is also worth checking out for this).

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In the TED talk, Jansen explains some of his inventions’ component parts: the “brain,” for instance, that helps the machines judge distance and respond accordingly; the feeler that can sense water and, with the help of plastic bottles holding compressed air, trigger a reversal in direction. (The Salem exhibition does have screens showing snippets of Jansen speaking, but what he says is more abstract than the demonstrations he offers in the talk.)

Jansen’s Strandbeests are defiantly analog, made from the most rudimentary materials.
Jansen’s Strandbeests are defiantly analog, made from the most rudimentary materials. Loek van der Klis

Not unlike the voice recognition software I am using now to dictate a draft of this article, Strandbeests are impressive but far from perfect. My phone’s voice-recognition capability, which is contingent upon processes and parts I can neither see nor comprehend, relies on sophisticated digital technology. And yet, each time I say “Jansen,” the name that appears on my screen is, inexplicably, “Yentzen.” Even when I adopt the fake generic American accent my phone seems to understand better than my own Australian accent, I have no joy at all in getting it to “hear” and transcribe Jansen’s birthplace, Scheveningen, or indeed the word “Strandbeest.”

Jansen’s Strandbeests — and this is what makes them so appealing — are of a different order. Defiantly analog, they are made from the most rudimentary materials. They are also proudly transparent: You can see and easily grasp how they are constructed, and how they work. And if, as it turns out, they don’t work in every particular instance, that is part of their poetry.

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When my phone’s voice recognition software doesn’t work, it’s just mildly annoying. When Jansen’s Strandbeests falter, something more interesting is going on — something poignant, indexed to the fantasy narrative Jansen has constructed around them.

That narrative hinges on the idea, promoted by Jansen himself, that the Strandbeests are actual creatures, evolving year by year, and that Jansen is not so much their creator-god as their slave. As problems arise, he simply harnesses the beast’s inherent logic to come up with solutions. The beests themselves slowly approach autonomy; Jansen, meanwhile, enslaved by his obsession and their own internal logic, cannot do otherwise . . .

That, anyway, is the conceit, and although it is obviously a fiction, I find it immensely charming. It makes you wonder: Just who is in control of this strange, ill-fated system of input and output we have arbitrarily labeled “life”? To what purpose “intelligence”? What if death arrives before “success”? Who is observing and measuring it all?

Seeing installations here of the homemade components Jansen uses reinforces the Strandbeests’ poetry. The parts, made from yellowing PVC, resemble nothing so much as fossils categorized and neatly arranged by paleontologists.

A “retired” Strandbeest, meanwhile, is suspended over the museum’s entrance foyer in the manner of a dinosaur or prehistoric whale skeleton in a natural history museum.

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It is marvelous to be able to study up close the intricate connections between parts and to register the extraordinary simplicity of the materials involved. Under supervision, you can also push some smaller Strandbeests across a span of the exhibition floor, and, every couple of hours, watch one of the bigger beests briefly propel itself using stored air.

All the Strandbeests’ “adaptations,” it appears, were designed to get the species closer to two end goals: survival, first and foremost; but also the ability to traverse a seven-mile stretch of beach in Jansen’s native Netherlands, overcoming obstacles as they arise without human assistance.

Will this capacity be achieved during Jansen’s lifetime? If not, will it be achieved after he is gone ? No one really knows. But if it ever happens, it will be something to witness — that I can say.

Theo Jansen and one of his Strandbeests, which are made from PVC piping and designed to walk on beaches.
Theo Jansen and one of his Strandbeests, which are made from PVC piping and designed to walk on beaches. Uros Kim

Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen

At Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, through Jan. 3. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.