UNconventional: Theo Jansen

UNconventional: Theo Jansen

Dutch scientist-turned-artist Theo Jansen, creates unique wind-propelled kinetic avatars using PVC piping. Read on to find out more about these fascinating skeletal beach beasts.

UNconventional by FTC is a series exploring creators, designers and artists expressing unique, thought-provoking perspectives of socio-cultural and global significance through their craft. These creators stray away from the conventions and norms of everyday ideas and give them a new meaning through their otherworldly creativity.

Theodorus 'Theo' Gerardus Jozef Jansen, is a Dutch scientist-physicist turned artist known for his ‘kinetic sculptures.’ Born and bred in Scheveningen, Netherlands, Jansen grew up with a talent for both science and art, but decided to pursue physics at the Delft University of Technology.

With an interest for developing new life forms, particularly encouraged by the book ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ by Richard Dawkins, Jansen began working on the mechanisms of these structures almost six decades ago. The complex designs are meticulously and intricately assembled together, usually designed to possess six or more 'legs'.

All of Jansen’s designs are based on a system of triangles and connecting links to create a network which convert the rotation of an axle into a stepping motion. The artist would manifest a skeletal structure on the beach, that would catch wind and collect sand to raise the dunes as a measure against rising sea levels, an was the initial beginning of the creations of these unique beach sculptures.

Stir World

These sculptures or ‘Strandbeests', - a Dutch term that translates to ‘beach beasts’ - possess the ability to move and travel on their own, without any stored or direct electric power. The kinetic structures that have the appearance of massive mutated animals are propelled by the wind and referred to by the artist as ‘artificial life'.

Animaris Umerus (2009)
Animaris Umerus (2009)Stir World

Over the years, Jansen has developed the mechanisms incorporating materials such as PVC piping, wood, fabric airfoils and zip ties to make them as realistic as possible. The most recent edition of the structures are also enabled with intelligence, making it possible for them respond to the environment. For example, the structures can detect when they have come in contact with water and alter their course or direction.

Furthermore, the PVC has storage capacity for air pressure, the primary energy source, that is reserved in so-called ‘wind-stomachs’ and is used to propel the structures in the absence of natural breeze. There is also one model created by Jansen that is capable of anchoring itself to the earth if it senses an oncoming storm!

"I make skeletons that are able to walk on sand with the wind. Over time, these skeletons have become increasingly better at surviving the elements such as storms and water and eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives."

Theo Jansen for Stir World

There are several problems related to the survival and evolution of these kinetic beasts as well - sand and wind being the biggest prevailing issues. The sand has the tendency to settle into the joints of the creature and if the strength of the winds are not accurately accounted for, the animal can sink into the sand.

However, Jansen has meticulously thought out and come up with all kinds of solutions to these problems. To prevent the sand from clogging up the joints, the structures raise a leg every hour or so to shake off the sand. The creatures are also equipped with water sensors that warm them when they are near water to prevent being sucked into the current.

(L) Animaris Ordis (2006), (R) Animaris Sabulosa (1994)
(L) Animaris Ordis (2006), (R) Animaris Sabulosa (1994)Stir World

Currently, Jansen is working simultaneously on three different ‘extinct’ beach animals - caterpillar that is more resistant to cross-winds, the Animaris Turgentia, and an unnamed animal with wings - and aims to release these projects soon.

Jansen has been significantly awarded for his creative and imaginative expertise, receiving the ‘Witteveen & Bos Prize’ in 2002, the ‘Oplineprize’ in 2015, the ‘Award Barnett & Annalee Newman Foundation’ in 2016 and the 'Culture Prize of The City of The Hague’ in 2018, to name a few.

"It is not an intelligent design in which I am the creator, rather it is the other way around, I am a slave to the tubes and have to focus on their directions. I get a response from reality that allows me to make adjustments. This results in a tortuous, unpredictable path that you can really compare with an evolutionary process."

Theo Jansen for Stir World

Animaris Gubernare with rolling windstomachs (2011)
Animaris Gubernare with rolling windstomachs (2011)Stir World

Jansen's animated works are intended to be a hybrid of art and engineering. Jansen's ‘beach beasts', are built on a foundation of scientific principles and engineering that are intended to be a melange of visual and performing arts. Each structure is an imaginary revolution and should be regarded as just that.

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