As the Strandbeests Invade Chicago, an Interview with their Creator

Theo Jansen in front of one of his Strandbeests, Animaris Umerus (2009) on Scheveningen Beach, Netherlands. (Loek Van Der Klis)Theo Jansen in front of one of his Strandbeests, Animaris Umerus (2009) on Scheveningen Beach, Netherlands. (Loek Van Der Klis)

It doesn’t take much to create new life – just yellow tubing and a knowledge of engineering, if you’re Dutch artist-human Theo Jansen.  

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Since the early 1990s, Jansen, 67, has been making his Strandbeests–that's Dutch for "beach animals"–sometimes massive and always complex stick creatures designed to move across beaches using only the power of the air.

Starting Saturday, the creatures visit Chicago’s Cultural Center in Jansen’s first-ever American exhibition tour.

At "Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen," visitors will see eight “dead” versions of the creatures reanimated using air compressors. Kids and adults alike will also get a chance to bring the plastic animals back to life, simultaneously learning the mechanics by which they operate. Guests will also see documentation of the Standbeest evolution via photographer Lena Herzog, who’s followed Jansen’s work for the past nine years.

We caught up with Jansen via phone.

Chicago Tonight: This was an idea you first had in 1990 as a way to build up the dunes along the coast of the Netherlands. Tell me about that.

Theo Jansen: This all started with writing a column about this fantasy of robots on the beach which would build up the dunes to protect the country from the rise of the sea level and that’s how it all started. But it turned out that during the first years, I got more interested in evolution and making life that then I forgot about saving the country and I got more involved in life itself, how life was coming about. And so over the years, the generations became better and better at surviving the storms and the sand and the water on the beach and that process is still going on.

Usually in spring I bring a new beest to the beach and then I do all kinds of experiments during the summer and then in the fall, I declare the animal extinct. So they’re dead and they go to the boneyard. And these extinct animals, they get reanimated in the exhibitions and that’s also gonna happen at the Cultural Center.  

(Courtesy of Theo Jansen)(Courtesy of Theo Jansen)

CT: Why do you do that? Why introduce a new species and then declare it extinct? Why not just let them all keep living?

TJ: The thing is, after a while you get sick of repairing everything. And I’m also following the same things which happen in evolution. Once an animal doesn’t function anymore the way you want it to, it dies out and then there starts a new branch on the family. I’d rather begin a new one than keep on repairing the old ones.

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CT: You’ve got these things that are designed to survive by themselves, typically on a beach. Do people ever try to injure or destroy them? Is man a factor with their safety?

TJ: I was afraid of that when I first started this, but it turns out that has never happened in 25 years. It’s a strange phenomenon because I thought in the beginning, maybe I should give them some sort of weapon like poisonous arrows or things with which they could defend themselves, but it turns out that they charm people. And that’s the best weapon you can have.

Theo Jansen in front of one of his Strandbeests (Loek Van Der Klis)Theo Jansen in front of one of his Strandbeests (Loek Van Der Klis)

CT: The proportions by which these things are built are also really important. You’ve previously talked about creating “the new wheel” when it comes to their mobility.

TJ: In 1991, a year after I started this project I invented this leg system which is the way the Strandbeests are walking. So the special thing about the way is they don’t move up and down. So they stay on the same level while walking – all other animals move up and down, like we do. And this is because of the proportion of length of tubes which is in the beasts. I wrote a genetic algorithm in the computer to define these 13 lengths of tubes in the leg system and this is effectively the secret of the Strandbeests. You could also see it as their DNA code. They walk on a proportion of numbers.

CT: How would you describe yourself? As an artist? An engineer?

TJ: For me, it’s not really important. I see me just as a human being. And I’m so surprised that I exist I wouldn’t call myself something. I mean, of course, people want to call you something. If you’re in a museum, then people call you an artist and I don’t like being called an artist actually. In fact, I like to show my work in an arts environment because then it turns out that people seem to put more imagination in the way they’re looking at it.  

CT: You talk about the beasts as animals, as having brain, a nose, a stomach and about their being able to survive. How do you feel toward them?

TJ: People think I have the feeling like you feel to other persons, like you feel to your dog or your children. And no, I see it as a totally different specimen than we are, so I don’t feel love to them. Of course, I love them but in a totally different way than I think of other persons. It’s not the personal kind of love, it’s the love for mathematics or love for mechanics.

(Courtesy of Theo Jansen)(Courtesy of Theo Jansen)

CT: You were born and raised in Scheveningen, a small coastal city in the Netherlands. Was your childhood full of creating things like this?

TJ: I’m the youngest of 11 children and I was born almost on that beach, so the beach is a big part of my brain. I think I was a normal kid, not really special, no. I don’t think people thought I was special. I think it came later when I was about 24, then I became a painter. And I was studying physics before that. And then the creative process really started.

CT: In “Theo Jansen,” a short documentary about you and your work, you talk about waking up and then working on ideas that don’t often succeed, but still finding a way to move forward through new ideas. Tell me about that creative process.

TJ: I restrict myself to this material, these yellow tubes which we use in Holland for cables in houses, so it’s everywhere on the streets, it’s very cheap. And I restrict myself to this material just like you could see the real creator restricted himself to just protein to make us. So I try to restrict myself to these tubes, but that also means that you cannot realize all your ideas because of these restrictions. The tubes, they push me. My plans don’t succeed and then the tubes come up with their own ideas, you might say. The process is very unpredictable and the road is very capricious, so you can never know where you’re going. So I think it’s a real evolutionary process. It’s not like intelligent design where there’s the hand of god that leads the material, no. I’m not god, I’m more a slave of these tubes. I have to obey them – they dictate to me what to do.

"Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen" runs through May 1. For more information, visit the Chicago Cultural Center’s website.

This interview has been edited and condensed for space.

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