Machine God: Audemars Piguet And Kinetic Sculptor Theo Jansen At Art Basel Miami

“I asked Herzog what she found most unexpected while photographing this project. ‘That it could make an optimist out of a Russian,’ she said.” –photographer Lena Herzog, in a New Yorker article by Jessie Wender, 2011.


If you wanted to cast someone as Theo Jansen, you could do a lot worse than to hire Theo Jansen.  Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist (and a lot of other things) who lives in Delft when he’s not on the road with his sculptures.  These are his Strandbeests (“beach animals”) –wind-powered kinetic sculptures he’s been working on since about 1990.  They are made almost entirely of yellow PVC tubing, held together with zip ties (his very first, he says, were held together with tape which proved less than satisfactory.) The Strandbeests have an hypnotically watchable gait: the core of each is a crankshaft, parallel to the ground, to which are attached the Strandbeest’s legs. It’s these legs that give the Strandbeests their uncanny quality –their movement is anthrompomorphic and alien simultaneously, leading to what Jansen calls “a friction in the brain.” Jansen would be a good choice to play Jansen because he reminds one of his Strandbeests: like them, he’s a spare and angular figure given to bursts of unexpected movement.  At Art Basel Miami this year, Audemars Piguet and the Peabody Essex Museum brought Jansen –along with photographer Lena Herzog, who’s chronicled his work over the last nine years –to Miami Beach.

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The original impetus for making the Strandbeests was an opinion piece Jansen wrote in a column for a Dutch newspaper in 1990 in which he speculated that Holland’s beach erosion could be countered by making machines that would live on the beaches and pile up sand in defiance of the action of the tides. Anxiety over the ocean is probably deeply engraved in the Dutch psyche: much of the country is reclaimed land and about a quarter is below sea level, protected by a system of dikes. The Strandbeests however seem to have an agenda of their own –that’s how Jansen talks about them and he’s a charismatic and convincing advocate for his own work –and his long term goal for them now is for them to be as autonomous as possible.  When at home in the Netherlands, the Strandbeests walk the beach at Scheveningen, which was painted early in his career by Vincent Van Gogh.  In Russian-born photographer Lena Herzog’s images of the Strandbeests –she met Jansen in 2005, and began shooting him and his work in 2007 –the beach looks much as Van Gogh painted it: a vast horizontal expanse in which the turbulence of the sea is mirrored in the clouds, which reduces everything in the landscape to an inflection in relentlessly horizontal lines.

For the Strandbeests to walk their legs must do what ours do, what any animal’s does: they must lift off the ground to step forward and then push against the ground to propel the Strandbeest. As it turns out creating a geometry for the Strandbeest’s legs that would do this was not a trivial mechanical problem.  At first Jansen attempted to solve the problem empirically but his efforts met with no success (the earliest models could not walk, he says; they could only lie on the ground waving their feet in the air, which must have been a melancholy spectacle, or comic, maybe, depending on your disposition.) So he did exactly what most artists would not do, when faced with such a challenge: wrote a genetic computer program to “evolve” an optimum structure for the legs in a computer. The program generated 1000 random designs, and then a selection algorithm picked the best ten. From these, another 1000 were generated.  He allowed the program to run for weeks –how many generations, he says, he doesn’t remember; but at the end of it he had 13 numbers specifying the optimum ratio for each rod making up the legs.  (You may read that the number is 11, not 13; the total depends on whether you count the radius of the crank and connecting rod.) Jansen does have a physics background; he studied the subject at university but he told me, “I wasn’t a very good student.  It was the 1960s . . . there were a lot of distractions.”  (Jansen speaks fluent English.) He never earned a degree, but obviously something stuck.  The structure is now known as a “Jansen’s linkage” and consists of two rigid triangles whose geometry does not vary, linked by two flexing quadrilaterals.

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The connection with watchmaking is obvious and was articulated by Audemars Piguet board member Olivier Audemars, who told us that both watchmaking and the Strandbeests take as a starting point very simple, even cheap, materials; watches have for centuries been made essentially of two substances –brass and steel –and the Strandbeests are made of plastic tubes designed to be used as electrical conduit.  These particular tubes have been in use in the Netherlands since 1947; Jansen says he had to buy a hoard of tubing (“enough to last the rest of my life” ) because newer versions have an internal guide-ridge for wiring that prevents him from being able to use them as pistons –the essential O rings won’t fit.

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The Strandbeests have gradually become larger and more complex and one of the biggest to date –the Animaris Suspendisse of 2014 –is not only moved by the wind; it also has a Dimetrodon-like sail on its back that forms a sine wave when the wind blows, turning a series of cranks and bicycle-pump-like tubes that fill recycled soft-drink bottles with pressurized air; this air allows the Animaris Suspendisse to move even when there is no wind.  (Normally the legs of a Strandbeest walk only because the wind is pushing on it, in the same way the wheels of a toy car turn when you give it a shove.) It also has “sweat glands” –reservoirs of soapy water to flush out its joints and keep them from being fouled by sand –and sensory organs that detect water (it will reverse direction so it doesn’t commit suicide by walking into the waves) and allow it to vary its gait depending on the composition of the sand underfoot.  Remarkably, it also has a nervous system.  Jansen has constructed a system of valves that control pressurized air in the same way that transistors control electrical current, allowing him to make pneumatic logic gates.  (“It’s not a new idea,” he told me casually, “the Russians played around with pneumatic computing in the 1950s.”) In principle this means he could implement, with this system, any logic circuit you might find in a microprocessor (we await with eagerness the first 8-bit Strandbeest.) Rather risibly, he insists he’s “not very good with my hands.”

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Each Strandbeest has a one year life cycle and as they become senescent at the year’s end, they become what Jansen terms “fossils” –Animaris Suspendisse is now a fossil but one which he briefly reanimated during a lecture-demonstration at Art Basel Miami.  There is a wonderful charm to the Strandbeests –they have an almost instantly engaging whimsical appeal –but there is also something very melancholy about them, as if even in life their skeletal nature prefigures their imminent demise. For all his vigor Jansen speaks easily and frequently of his own death –he’s 66 this year –and the Strandbeests have an air of both childlike charm and deep philosophical resignation. Build your dikes as thick and high as you like, they seem to say; the sea is patient.

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All photos by Jack Forster for Revolution Press.  Thanks to Audemars Piguet; the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Massachusetts; AP CEO Francois Bennahmias; AP Board Member Olivier Audemars; Lena Herzog; and of course Theo Jansen and his Strandbeests.


Audemars Piguet Presents Theo Jansen: more in-depth info from Audemars Piguet

Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest website

Peabody Essex Museum: Info on upcoming Strandbeest exhibition

Strandbeests in the New Yorker

Lena Herzog in the New Yorker

Strandbeest books

Strandbeest models

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