Behold the Strandbeest, the Mechanical Animals That Roam the Beaches of Holland

No car­toon Dutch land­scape omits a wind­mill. With their wood­en frames and large blades, those mechan­i­cal struc­tures have been used in the Nether­lands since at least the twelfth cen­tu­ry, first to pump water out of poten­tial­ly arable low­lands, and lat­er for such uses as saw­ing wood and pound­ing grain. Today, of course, there exist much more effi­cient tech­nolo­gies for those jobs, but the wind­mill nev­er­the­less remains a Dutch cul­tur­al icon. In the Nether­lands the wind itself also blows as strong as ever, just wait­ing to be har­nessed: if not by indus­try, then per­haps by art. Enter Theo Jansen, inven­tor of the strand­beest — Dutch for “beach beast,” an apt descrip­tion of its nature.

Elab­o­rate­ly con­struct­ed with off-the-shelf mate­ri­als like wood, PVC pip­ing, and sheets of fab­ric, Jansen’s large and fan­tas­ti­cal-look­ing strand­beesten walk through the sand as if mov­ing under their own voli­tion. In fact they’re wind-pow­ered kinet­ic sculp­tures, artic­u­lat­ed in such a way as to make their move­ments look whol­ly organ­ic.

Cre­at­ed for more than thir­ty years now through Jansen’s intel­li­gent design, the strand­beesten are also sub­ject to a process not unlike bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion. You can see it in the artist’s clip com­pi­la­tion at the top of the post and Taschen’s new book Strand­beest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen by pho­tog­ra­ph­er Lena Her­zog (wife, inci­den­tal­ly, of Wern­er Her­zog, a known appre­ci­a­tor of such “con­quests of the use­less”). You can also pur­chase mini mod­els of the Strand­beest online.

“I make skele­tons that are able to walk on the wind,” Jansen once said. “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.” His goals also include equip­ping future gen­er­a­tions of strand­beesten with a kind of mechan­i­cal arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, which would let them avoid the kind of dan­gers that got their ances­tors top­pled or stuck. But in their sheer uncan­ny mag­nif­i­cence, even the least intel­li­gent exam­ples have fas­ci­nat­ed the world. A few years ago Jansen and one of his cre­ations even appeared on The Simp­sons, sug­gest­ing that one day, car­toon Dutch land­scapes may be incom­plete with­out a strand­beest.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Exis­ten­tial Moments with Theo Jansen and His Amaz­ing Kinet­ic Sculp­tures, the Strand­beests

Behold the Kinet­ic, 39-Ton Stat­ue of Franz Kafka’s Head, Erect­ed in Prague

Metrop­o­lis II: Dis­cov­er the Amaz­ing, Fritz Lang-Inspired Kinet­ic Sculp­ture by Chris Bur­den

A Per­fect Spring­time Ani­ma­tion: The Wind­mill Farmer by Joaquin Bald­win

Alexan­der Calder’s Archive Goes Online: Explore 1400 Works of Art by the Mod­ernist Sculp­tor

Pen­du­lum Waves as Kinet­ic Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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