The Moving Masterpieces Hit San Francisco
You walk down a hallway of spinning bicycle wheels, flashing lights and buzzing conveyor belts, and above hangs a strange skeletal structure from the ceiling. Stretching longer than twenty feet, it’s not the bones of a whale but one of Theo Jansen’s magical Strandbeests. These crustacious creatures, with their numerous sets of spindly legs are created by the Dutch artist and designed to glide across the beaches of the Netherlands. Captivating to observe, they walk around independently, powered by the wind.
Jansen’s beests are on display here at the Exploratorium until September 5. It is the first internationally traveling show that has been hosted here and it’s a great fit. Besides being visually mesmerizing, the kinetic sculptures have an irreverent back story that comes from the youthful exuberance of their creator.
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“In October, I start to build a new beest and in May, it’s half-finished and I bring it to the beach. And during the summer, I do all kinds of experiments with it. So I learn knowledge of surviving all the circumstances on the beach, like the storms, the sand dunes and the water. Now comes the fall, and I declare the animal extinct.”
Jansen is not just kidding about the evolution of his kinetic sculptures. Despite their low-tech appearance, the Strandbeests are quite refined and laced with technical wizardry. They step smoothly, without lumbering up and down. This is the result of thorough research by Jansen. The leg system is a set of ratios and joints that create a flat movement of the foot when it reaches the ground. Jansen refers to this foot motion as a curve.
“The way the Strandbeests walk is a product of this curve. Now the shape of this curve is very much dependent on the lengths of the tubes. If you have a different proportion of length, then you have a totally different curve,” explains Jansen. “When I started this, I didn’t know which proportion of lengths I needed to get the shape of this curve. That’s why I wrote a computer program on an Atari computer in 1990 which could generate this curve. There are so many combinations possible, that even if you put it in a computer, the computer would be on for a hundred thousand years to let pass every possibility. So that’s why I had to introduce the principle of evolution in the program, so you get a quick result. Maybe you don’t get the most optimal result, but you come there fast.”
The program was run and re-run for a month, mimicking generations of evolution, refining the curve to the ratios that Jansen still uses today. As if that wasn’t enough, he then developed a secondary propulsion system that could store wind power as compressed air inside plastic water bottles. He fashioned “muscles” and “nerve cells” out of the same tubing as the legs, making it nearly impossible to detect what pushes the contraptions around. They simply seem to move as though they were alive.
Besides a few rubber o-rings, some zip-ties and a few hoses, the sculptures are made almost entirely from plastic tubing commonly used as electrical conduit in the Netherlands. Jansen likens this material to the protein, the building blocks of life for his creatures. By limiting the materials he uses, Jansen feels the beests have evolved naturally, the materials dictating the form more than he does. It’s a point of contention for creationists.
“They say, ‘What you’re doing is intelligent design. You’re the god and you’re making the things,’ which I don’t think is the case,” says Jansen. “I try to make them but I don’t succeed and in fact you could see all my trials as mutations.”
But he has made the beests out of other materials, including giant wooden versions. One animal was set loose on an airport runway and achieved such great speeds that it shook itself apart. And since he began making Strandbeests, his work has been documented by video and photography.
“I saw the youtube videos like millions of other people,” says photographer Lena Herzog. “I wrote out of the blue to Theo and said ‘May I stop by and see it?’ And Theo showed me how some of the parts of the animal moved and it immediately spell bound me even more than on screen… And I saw not just people spellbound, because you see children, you see very sophisticated people that can make all this references to Leonardo DaVinci’s drawings,” says Herzog. “You see horses and dogs go wild. Theo told me that foxes also get intrigued by them.”
Much as Jansen has limited his materials, Herzog challenges herself by shooting in black and white on medium format film using an old Fuji 6-by-9. “Limitations are very empowering,” she says. “It’s a good thing to have them.” She develops the prints in her own darkroom using pyrogallol, one of the oldest techniques for processing film.
“It looks a little bit like an engraving when you look at it on a microscope,” says Herzog. “The negative still has that quality of an etching and yet it’s still very much a photograph. So, if you look for examples at the horizon line or the edges of objects, they really look like somebody went around with a pencil and stenciled it in a little bit. I’ve always preferred that. It’s a little tricky to do but it’s worth it.”
“So you see them now in all parts of the world. And this new Strandbeest is a new species that won’t survive on beaches but will survive on student’s bookshelves. And they reproduce so well,” says Jansen, smiling. “And the students have the idea that they are having a good time, but the fact is that they are infected with the DNA codes and they cannot do anything else but make the Strandbeests. And that is how the Strandbeests reproduce. They infect students.”