Theo Jansen’s menagerie of Strandbeests roams free at Art Basel Miami Beach
Whether it’s the historic art deco architecture or the Speedo-favouring locals (of a certain age), Miami’s South Beach is known for its many special sights. This year, a part of the beachfront has been turned into a temporary menagerie for the Dutch artist Theo Jansen’s fantastical ’Strandbeests’ - a family of six kinetic, wind-powered creatures, with the largest measuring 42ft long.
With skeletons made from PVC tubing, plastic bottles and recycled materials, each beast is able to effortlessly move on its own. Presented by Swiss watchmakers Audemars Piguet and the Peabody Essex Museum until 7 December as part of this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, the shoreside exhibition is an otherworldly sight to behold. The project includes a reproduction of Jansen’s workshop on the beach and an exhibition of Lena Herzog’s photographs of the Strandbeests.
Jansen’s self-propelling creatures are powered by reserves of pressurised air that are pumped by the wind. It can take a few hours for the bottles to fill up, but that enables the animals to move without any aid. It’s a concept that the artist has been developing all the way since 1990. He has made a beast almost every year, starting in winter and then testing and refining it until the autumn, when it is retired as ’extinct’ and preserved as a ’fossil’. The 42ft-long ’Animaris Suspendisse’ is the 37th and newest beast to exist.
’These started off as fairy tales. I used to write columns for the science part of the [Dutch] newspaper and I wrote this piece about these skeletons that gathered sand on the beach to build dunes and protect the country from rising sea levels,’ recalls Jansen. ’For a long time after that, nothing happened, but then I found the tubes and decided to spend a year building the skeletons. By the end of that year, I was addicted.’
As a result, the artist became fascinated by the principles of evolution. ’Instead of building the dunes, I started to realise that I was making new forms of life,’ he explains. ’I was like a new god in their world. I wanted to forget everything that existed in nature and to make something new. I didn’t want to imitate [existing animal forms].’
Jansen’s beasts feature a unique leg system that the artist developed to enable them to move. Gliding laterally with little lifting up and down, the creatures exude an ethereal grace as they travel. Some come with wings, while others have spoilers to protect them from strong winds.
The animals have travelled all over the world to science and art museums alike. While their physiology is firmly secure in scientific fact, Jansen prefers to identify them as artistic creations. ’My experience is when people see it as art, they use more of their imagination and are more willing to join me in my dream.’