THE DREAM MACHINES OF THEO JANSEN
by Marguerite Serkin
Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests are as much about the artist as they are about the creatures he has fashioned; as Jansen has said, “The Strandbeests themselves have let me make them.” The long-awaited Strandbeests are finally coming to Boston, arriving at the Peabody Essex Museum on September 19 after a series of related pre-exhibition “Happenings,” giving viewers at chance to see these fabled creatures in both a museum setting and in settings more akin to their natural outdoor habitat.
For those not familiar with Jansen’s kinetic creations, “Strandbeest” translates from Dutch as “Beach Animal.” The Strandbeests were originally conceived as self-propelling structures that might be used to fortify the dunes in coastal areas of Jansen’s native Netherlands by counteracting the rising sea levels associated with global warming. Beginning with the first Strandbeest in 1990, Jansen’s creatures began to evolve into distinct “species,” or “families,” identifiable by the time period in which they took shape.
One might say they are not entirely lifelike in appearance, but when they begin to move in their organized, often sprightly way, the Strandbeests are mesmerizing and resemble a new sort of animal — one we have never seen before but somehow knew existed, perhaps in our prehistory, perhaps in our shared imagination. Attributing such invested character to moving sculptures made from PVC tubing may sound far-fetched, but it is the genius of Jansen’s work that transforms the Strandbeests into sentient, organic beings.