Americus Umericus, Scheveningen beach, Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis.
When the Peabody Essex Museum’s Trevor Smith encountered Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s jaw-dropping Strandbeests (“beach animals”), he knew he had to bring them to PEM. Like most people, Smith first saw them on the Internet, “walking” sideways on Scheveningen Beach in The Hague. He was hooked on the spot.
“I wanted to show what makes perpetual motion possible and that there is great inspiration in the world,” Smith said. “We all have ideas; we all have creativity. Theo is the poster child for Present Tense Initiative. He is the personification of the blending of the arts.”
The PEM’s Present Tense Initiative, curated by Smith, celebrates the central role that creative expression plays in shaping the world today, and pushes the boundaries of what a museum experience can be.
Four years in the making, “Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen” opens on Saturday, Sept. 19 and is the first large-scale presentation of Jansen’s Strandbeests in the U.S. With its multi-sensory approach that invites touching and playing, it is a must-see exhibit for all ages.
“I wanted an exhibit that would be hands on and contemplative with zones of the intellectual and experiential, which I hope will translate to our audience,” said Smith. With multi-media displays, large-scale kinetic sculptures, artist sketches, immersive video and photography by Lena Herzog, the Russian photographer who spent more than seven years documenting the Strandbeests’ evolution, Smith’s goal is exceeded.
Jansen defies pigeonholing. He is a magician, a physicist, an artist, an engineer, a philosopher, a theologian, and a choreographer, and he calls on all these personae to create his kinetic universe where pistons, crankshafts and complex leg systems transform inert plastic tubing into living beings that dance at the ocean’s edge.
Using lightweight PVC, which is common in Dutch households, and zip ties, Jansen has invented a new species that he describes as “migration animals that have a lot of patience.” Visitors marvel and empathize with these fragile, skeletal creatures that capture imaginations and pull at heartstrings.
Twenty-five years ago, Jansen, wearing his physicist’s hat, set out to design a machine that could pile sand onto the Dutch eroding coastline. The utilitarian project was meant to take one year. Instead, his Strandbeests hit a very deep chord in Jansen’s psyche, reminding him of the origins of life and inspiring him to create an entire new species, complete with life cycles, evolutionary adaptations, fossil records and, despite their Star Wars appearance, deep roots in reality.
“I dreamed that I would give a new specimen to the world,” Jansen told members of the press at a preview of his exhibit. Normally, evolution takes millions of years to occur, but Jansen recently decided to share the genetic algorithm (the Strandbeest’s DNA, which he refers to as his “holy numbers”) that he created on his Atari computer in order to speed up and enrich the process.
“Thousands of students have been making Strandbeests since I published the DNA on the website. That’s how Strandbeests reproduce and survive the wind; they are sitting on students’ shelves,” Jansen said with the seriousness of a biology professor. “These mutants that are created by students might reproduce faster than mine, discovering a solution to survival on the beach.” He estimates that over the next 20 years, the animals will evolve to a point where they can exist on their own.
When Jansen talks about his creatures, the line blurs between fantasy and reality, invention and nature. His Strandbeests are “like my children. You create them, you nurture them, and then you kick them out of the house to live their own lives,” he said with a hint of a smile. He has created a phylogenetic family tree and evolutionary periods with names like the Strap Period, the Hot Period and the Less Hot Period. If Theodor Seuss Geisel had been an engineer, he might have been team-teaching with Jansen.
At the end of the presentation, Jansen stood in front of one of his Strandbeests and in what was the evening’s greatest understatement said, “You can see that I’ve been working hard the last few years.”
Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen opens Sept. 19 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. The exhibit will run through Jan. 3, after which it will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center and San Francisco’s Exploratorium. For more information, visit pem.org/strandbeest.