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Living Machines
Tevere MacFadyen
January, 2016

Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen, which just completed its run at the Peabody Essex Museum, raises provocative questions about science, art, and nature. The exhibition is utterly delightful, but a bit disquieting. The subjects are Jansen’s extraordinarily complex, eerily beautiful, strangely lyrical kinetic sculptures – composed of PVC conduit and plastic tubing, sailcloth, duct tape, zipties, and empty soda bottles – and their inventor (he might say creator) a Dutch artist and engineer.

Jansen maintains, without a trace of irony, that his creatures are living beings capable of adaptation and evolution. He gives them pseudo-scientific Latin names (Animaris percipiere) and describes their morphology, anatomy, behavior and lifecycles in the same terms a field biologist might use to document wild animals (or for that matter, an anthropologist might describe humans.) “Since 1990 I have been occupied creating new forms of life,” Jansen says on his website. “Not pollen or seeds but plastic yellow tubes are used as the base material of this new nature. I make skeletons that are able to walk on the wind, so they don’t have to eat. 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.”

The design of the Strandbeest show is deceptively simple, so clean and straightforward that at first you don’t realize how slyly radical its basic premise is, or how profoundly it turns our assumptions on their heads. The beasts are presented very much in the manner of a classic natural history museum exhibition, as if we were in an old fashioned hall of paleontology. Individual specimens are presented life-sized, on plinths, like reconstructed dinosaur skeletons at the Field or AMNH. Sidebar exhibits trace their evolution and explore the biomechanics of their musculature. Scholars and experts, including Jansen himself, offer commentary at video kiosks scattered about the space. There is even a stunning wall-mounted display of the disassembled pieces of a single specimen, thousands of tiny monochromatic parts painstakingly pinned to a huge backboard like so many butterflies or moths. They look uncannily like fossils, or bones, as if these were not machines at all but some now extinct species of marine mammal.

Jansen’s creatures are all about movement. Deployed on the long, flat strands of the Netherlands (“in the wild,” Jansen might say) they’re powered by the wind, which fills their sails and compresses air into dozens of recycled plastic soda bottles. The compressed air in turn powers linked ranks of pneumatic limbs, sending the beasts cantering awkwardly yet somehow still elegantly across the sand, like a band of giraffes running a three-legged race. (There are countless videos, well worth watching, available on Youtube.)

At the museum of course there is no wind, so several times a day the staff rope off a portion of the exhibit floor to form a kind of impromptu corral and use a compressor to fill the bottles. Then they set their animatronic charges in motion, prancing slowly forward and backwards, as we visitors watch goggle eyed from behind the barrier, pointing and exclaiming in delight, just as we do looking into an enclosure at the zoo, when a tiger deigns to grace us with his presence and ambles regally into view.