Creating “a new form of life” with plastic tubes and the power of imagination.
Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist who is best known for his kinetic sculpture. His ability to skillfully merge art, science and engineering has already gained Jansen comparisons to Leonardo Da Vinci, and the artist himself claims that with his works he is creating ‘a new form of life’. With the help of powerful imagination and scientific knowledge, Jansen constructs intricate creatures employing yellow PVC tubes as his material. Using the wind as their only source of power, these complex constructions can ‘walk’ on sandy beaches all by themselves and indeed look very much alive. Some of the artist’s followers even created a digital DNA structure for these creatures that can be used in 3D-printing.
Jansen’s recent public lecture at Strelka attracted an audience of more than a thousand people. We met up with artist to discuss his work and ask the most intriguing question: when can we expect the next step in the evolution of his creatures?
– You were formally trained in science, and practiced art, painting to be precise, for several years. How did the idea to merge both come about?
– I always liked science as a little boy, so when I grew up I started studying science at the University of Delft. I was very fond of it when I got there, but it felt like a job. Then I took up painting, but I was still very much involved with technical things. Science only properly returned to me when I made my UFOs. But my passion for both has always been there.
– In 1980 you launched a flying saucer into the Delft sky. Your UFOs were such a playful project. Do you think you could ever conceive anything similar again?
– This is something I did when I was very young, of course. It was quite a risky project, because of the potential accidents. I am more careful now (laughs).
– Why did you choose the beach as the habitat for your beasts?
– The beach is a good place because there is a lot of wind and it is very flat. The beasts can only walk on flat surfaces like the hard sand. Another thing is that it’s about life in general, and also about my own life. I was born on the beach, and spent my young boyhood at the beach. Then I went to study in Delft, and lived there for forty years. But now I returned to the beach, and I see the blue sea outside my window. The beach plays an important part in my life and my perception of it.
– Your creatures have evolved over the years. Do you think they could adapt to the city environment in the future?
– Well, they already have in a way. There are students who make strandbeests in towns using 3D printers, so they do in a way inhabit cities. They live in protected environments of student rooms, there is no wind or other disruptive elements there. So it is a very good place to survive and live for many years to come. 3D printing has, of course, been a great achievement and influenced the production of the animals. It might happen so that it would be possible to print really big animals. They would be able to reproduce a lot faster. I did use the computer for some engineering, but personally I love going to the beach and experimenting with the real world. Non-futuristic kind of living. I like things very simple.
– During the lecture, you mentioned you often feel like an astronaut. Do you think your creatures could permeate some other planet?
– One would think that Mars would be an ideal place for the strandbeests, but it has a lot of rocks. It needs to be very flat for them. So I wouldn’t offer it to NASA (laughs).
– Do you think harmony is possible between man-made objects and nature?
– The animals on the beach are part of the nature now. Not entirely, of course - they still need me. In fact, when I look at the beach animals, they really do belong on the beach. Their colour makes you feel that it’s a natural way of being. They don’t have to eat, and the beach does not offer a great variety of food. But they might have a chance to survive on the beach. Them versus all the seagulls.
– The theme of the year at Strelka is urban routines. We have been talking about the quotidian and the mundane. How does your work reflect on these things? Do your beasts disrupt the everyday?
– They are not about boredom, that’s for sure. But for me they are exactly that — a ritual. I can describe how my days look like. I wake up in the morning with an ingenious idea. I hop on my bicycle and go to my studio to work on that ingenious idea, and then during the day the idea turns out to be not as genius as I thought it would be. The possibilities of the tubes are so limited and often they don’t bend the way I want them to bend. So, at the end of the day, I go home depressed. Usually the tubes push me in the other direction and the next day I have the next genius idea, ‘corrected’ by the tubes the day before. You can see that the path towards creation is winding and capricious. It’s very unpredictable, but somehow recreating the ideas of the tubes is far more creative than doing my own thing. If I look back on the animals when they are finished, I am surprised myself how beautiful they have become, and not because of me — because of the tubes.