strandbeests: the kinetic lifeforms of Theo Jansen
“To make my animals, I try to make a new nature. I don’t want to copy the existing nature.”
Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist who sculpts new forms of life from PVC. He calls them “strandbeests,” which is Dutch for “beach creatures,” and they cruise the coastline powered by wind, or — in certain more sophisticated models — pneumatic pressure. The intersection of nature and art always has a special appeal to me. There’s something unnervingly gorgeous about the autonomous specificity of works that combine shaggy naturalness with an imperative to aestheticize, not to mention the chaotic otherness that resists a fully conscious domestication of the work of art itself in terms of our ability to grasp it intellectually. Works of art that are primarily made from natural materials or that are inspired by natural forms retain a wildness about them that always keeps them an arm’s length away. They are the feral friends we encounter in dreams.
Jansen’s strandbeests fall in line with a long tradition of artists who get their inspiration from an engagement with natural form — including Paul Klee, who wrote the following in his highly influential set of Notebooks:
Yesterday’s artistic creed and the related study of nature consisted, it seems safe to say, in a painfully precise investigation of appearance. I and you, the artist and his object sought to establish optical-physical relations across the invisible barrier between the “I” and the “you”. In this way excellent pictures were obtained of the object’s surface filtered by the air; the art of optical sight was developed, while the art of contemplating unoptical impressions and representations and of making them visible was neglected. Yet the investigation of appearance should not be underestimated; it ought merely to be amplified. Today this way does not meet our entire need any more than it did the day before yesterday. The artist of today is more than an improved camera; he is more complex, richer, an more spatial. He is a creature on the earth and a creature within the whole, that is to say, a creature on a star among stars.
Klee’s Notebooks, a collection of lectures, essays, and sketches that were made when he was teaching at the Bauhaus school, as well as material that was compiled later, contain sketches of natural forms and textures that formed the basis for Klee’s aesthetic discoveries. You can view a segment of the Notebooks, published by Jürg Spiller and translated into English as The Thinking Eye, here.
Thanks to Adam Savage, I now know that Jansen’s strandbeests have also been made into model kits by a company in Japan. You can be sure that I’ll be keeping my eye out for them.
The photo below is of a different kind of strandbeest: the indigenous Northern California driftwood creature. These creatures, which tend to show up after major winter storms, will appear suddenly and spectacularly on Northern California beaches, the skeletal imaginings of creatures that we want to walk the earth with.
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Tags: Adam Savage, aesthetics of nature, art and nature, beach creatures, driftwood, driftwood creatures, driftwood sculptures, natural form, Paul Klee, Paul Klee Notebooks, strandbeests, The Jansen