Watch Theo Jansen’s ‘skeletons that walk on the wind’ at the George Town Festival

Dutch artist Theo Jansen is famed for his kinetic structures, his way of creating new forms of life'. — Pictures courtesy of Theo Jansen
Dutch artist Theo Jansen is famed for his kinetic structures, his way of creating new forms of life'. — Pictures courtesy of Theo Jansen

KUALA LUMPUR. June 26 — In L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow lamented that he didn’t have a brain and travelled along the yellow brick road to ask the Great and Terrible Oz for one. Fantasy? Maybe. But Dutch artist Theo Jansen may disagree.

Jansen, who had racked up more than 3.7 million views on his TED talk on “a new form of life”, decided he would create new creatures, made not from flesh and blood, but plastic yellow tubes and give them “brains” through the use of artificial intelligence.

His Strandbeests walk on beaches; eventually he hopes to put entire “herds” of them out there so “they will live their own lives.” Basically, he makes skeletons which are able to walk on the wind. Visitors to the George Town Festival this July and August will be able to see his creations as Jansen will be bringing them to South-east Asia for the first time.

Born in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, Jansen grew up with fond memories of the beach (“I was born almost on the beach,” he says) so it was no surprise it played a big role in his early years and his first experiences of life. The beach would be a theme he would return to, again and again.

In 1968, Jansen decided to study physics but later made the switch to painting. He recalls, “In the beginning of the 80s, I wanted to make a flying saucer which could really fly. I launched it over the town of Delft and the people in the street really believed they had seen a UFO. It was on television which made me famous for a few months in my country. In the meantime I started making machines which resulted in the Strandbeests in the early 90s.”

It’s not easy to describe the Strandbeests (strand is Dutch for “beach”, while beest means “beast”), or rather, no description seems to do these kinetic structures that appear to walk justice. Jansen considers them a type of artificial life, “wind-walkers” that began at first as a rudimentary “breed” before evolving through the use of computation techniques into machines that are able to react to their environment and even survive the elements, even storms.

Many have asked Jansen where he came up with the idea for the Strandbeests but even he isn’t sure. He says, “Sometimes I think the Strandbeests were in the air in 1990 looking for a brain to land in. And I was so lucky they landed in mine. You could see it as a disease. They hypnotised my brain. Strange enough it gives me the illusion I am happy. And if you have the illusion you are happy, then you are happy.”

'Siamesis', one of Jansen’s Strandbeests on the beach.
'Siamesis', one of Jansen’s Strandbeests on the beach.

The thought of “skeletons which are able to walk on the wind” is beautiful. Jansen’s decision to equip his work with their own artificial intelligence has created art that is truly alive. He says, “You could see the Strandbeests as my mental children. I want them to survive on their own. To survive on a beach it is very handy if you have muscles, nerve cells and brains. We humans know how a brain is a good tool to survive. That is why the Strandbeests need a brain.”

What fascinates Jansen, the artist who creates fascinating creature-sculptures? While books by Richard Dawkins about evolution theory have inspired the artist, more often than not his subjects are dictated by the beach: the storms, the water and the sand. He explains, “I try to adjust the Strandbeests to those circumstances. So I designed a hammer to drive a pin in the ground to anchor the beast, so it won’t be blown away by the storm.”

According to Jansen, a frequent reaction of visitors to his exhibitions is a smile on their face as soon as they see the Strandbeest walking. “This reaction is universal,” he says. “It happens in all countries in the world. It is also the cause of its spreading through YouTube. People see an animal walking, but at the same time they see just a bunch of tubes. This contradiction somehow turns over a switch in our brain that makes us smile. And I really don’t know how I accomplished that.”

In the coming summer, Jansen plans to work on systems which will fight the combination of storm and sand. He explains, “During a storm the feet — that is, the shoes — are covered with sand. So if the animal doesn’t do anything after a while it will be buried. I am working on a system, which will lift the animal up every 15 minutes and shake the sand off of its shoes, to prevent this.”

Fans can look forward to the exciting results of Jansen’s research project during the following summer as his 2017 Asian exhibition tour will kick off then. What new wonders will the ingenious Dutch artist come up with next?

Strandbeest by Theo Jansen

July 30-31, 2016: Demonstration at the A+SEAN Showcase, Esplanade Padang Kota Lama, George Town, Penang

August 2016: Month-long exhibition at both the Penang Science Cluster (Wisma Yeap Chor Ee, 37, Gat Lebuh Cina, George Town, Penang) and Penang Tech Centre (Level 47 Komtar, Jalan Penang, George Town, Penang)

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