Miami was where the wild things were last weekend, a rumpus idealistically led by the Strandbeests, Theo Jansen’s herd of articulated sculptures.
In 1990, Jansen wrote a column for the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant proposing a creative antidote to rising sea levels and the potential re-flooding of Holland: build creatures capable of restoring the land-water balance by autonomously displacing sand back to the dunes. Jansen concluded his clarion call with a promise to spend a year figuring out such an environmental feat/fleet.
A quarter century on and he’s still at it, tinkering away at the species he has spawned using plastic plumbing tubes (butter yellow in Holland). His evolutionary process began with discovery of an algorithm for a pivoted foot and double-jointed leg that could languidly graze the ground and thus ensure stability in sand, a core anatomy that survives today amid augmentations like sails and pumps. With the push of a hand or a gust of wind, the crankshaft at the core of every Strandbeest comes to life, stirring multiple pairs of legs into step. On a beach, their movement seems ethereal, an otherworldly actor aloft a sandy stage.
Sadly in Miami, the Strandbeests felt beached in poshness. To restore some of their intrinsic magic, I turn to the inventor twinkle captured in Ian Frazier’s 2011 profile of Jansen for The New Yorker. In it, Jansen describes his “very curly” creative route. “A real engineer would probably solve the problem differently, maybe make an aluminum robot with motor and electric sensors and all that. But the solutions of engineers are often much alike, because human brains are much alike. Everything we think can in principle be thought by someone else. The real ideas, as evolution shows, come about by chance. Reality is very creative. Maybe that is why the Strandbeests appear to be alive, and charm us. The Strandbeests themselves have let me make them.”
The charm of chance: Frazier recalls his first sighting of a Strandbeest, via a video played on a laptop, pulled out at a restaurant in Manhattan: “To see inanimate stuff come to life that way was wild, shiver-inducing — like seeing a haystack do the Macarena.” (Van Gogh must be chuckling.)
I wish I had witnessed the Strandbeests in isolation, far from the visual barrage of Art Basel, on a wuthering shore somewhere. There I could have experienced, in situ, the seemingly effortless geometry of Jansen’s sculptures (or Chloe’s perfectly pleated pants) galloping with the wind toward a bright horizon.