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Giant Sand-Dwelling Skeletons Descend on the Exploratorium

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'Animarus Ordus' takes a stroll on the beach at Crissy Field before the opening of 'Dream Machines' at the Exploratorium. (Courtesy of the Exploratorium)

“The floor is very slippery here,” said Theo Jansen, helpfully positioning his foot against a flailing leg of Animaris Suspendisse as it uncannily propelled itself across the floor of the Exploratorium.

The Netherlands-based Jansen was in town to celebrate the opening of Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen, a traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Mass. that brought the “dream machines” to the Bay Area for the first time. Animaris Suspendisse is used to moving across the hard-packed sands of Dutch beaches, not a museum’s polished concrete floor.

Resembling a cross between a Leonardo da Vinci flying machine and a plastic Erector Set, Suspendisse is the latest and largest strandbeest to date, measuring in at 43 feet of PVC tubing, rubber tubes, zip ties, plastic bottles and rip-stop nylon sails.

Jansen began building the beests in 1990, prompted by the idea of creating a herd of machines that might be able to autonomously repair the Netherlands’ eroding coastline by moving sand from the surf zone to the dunes farther inland, continuously. In the nearly three decades since, the strandbeests have evolved over distinct periods of time — mapped on an Exploratorium wall — to become animated skeletons propelled by the wind, capable of storing compressed air and able to sense their positions on the beach by testing the hardness of the ground and the depth of the water.

Theo Jansen, Sheveningen beach, The Netherlands, 2011
Theo Jansen, Sheveningen beach, The Netherlands, 2011. (Courtesy of Theo Jansen; Photo by Loek van der Klis)

As for their intended purpose? The Exploratorium wall text explains, “The strandbeests did what any creature would do — they ignored human interests and pursued their own: survival and proliferation.” In other words, the beests are less interested in saving the Dutch coastline than they are in taking long walks on the beach.

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The spirit of Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen finds a perfect home at the Exploratorium, a museum that often resembles a really popular playground, each exhibition cleverly concealing its agenda of teaching visitors about science, art and human perception under the guise of hands-on fun. Jansen fits right in; he’s a relentless tinkerer, zip ties always at the ready. Building each new iteration of the beests during the winter, he sets them loose on the beaches of the seaside resort of Scheveningen during the prime summer months.

'Animaris Plaudens Vela,' 2013.
‘Animaris Plaudens Vela,’ 2013. (Photo courtesy of Marco Zwinkels)

At the Exploratorium, whole beests are displayed alongside “fossils,” sun-bleached segments of strandbeest joints, wings and feet. The exhibition might not contain as many touchable elements as visitors to the museum are used to finding, but the beests do wake their creaky joints to participate in daily walking demonstrations, rest assured.

Lining the walls are photographer Lena Herzog’s large black-and-white images of Jansen standing on near-empty beaches — just a man alone with his beests, all of which dwarf him. In many of the images he’s clad, impractically, in a suit jacket and button-down shirt, the wind blowing his hair and propelling his automatons along the water’s edge.

'Animaris Rhinoceros,' 2004. An evolutionary foray into wood, according to Jansen, the one time he was "unfaithful" to PVC tubing.
‘Animaris Rhinoceros,’ 2004. An evolutionary foray into wood, according to Jansen, the one time he was “unfaithful” to PVC tubing. (Courtesy of Theo Jansen; Photo by Loek van der Klis)

The beests aren’t pure whimsy. Jansen’s design decisions are often fueled by evolutionary science. The creatures’ legs were developed with the help of an iterative computer program to achieve optimal leg segment lengths, giving the beests a stable yet millipede-like gait.

The beests even think about self-preservation, to an extent. Animaris Sabulosa adheres sand to its body as a form of camouflage. Animaris Rectus hammers a stake into the sand when the wind picks up, to keep itself from blowing away.

Jansen's signature suit jacket during installation at the Exploratorium.
Jansen’s signature suit jacket during installation at the Exploratorium. (Courtesy of the Exploratorium)

This is a retrospective show, but Jansen is far from done. His singular focus, his playful capacity to make, by hand, these strange and wonderful creatures and then claim it is they who are forcing themselves into existence, is inspiring, both for the ingenuity of Jansen’s creations and the legacy he wishes to establish. “In the next 20 years I hope to work on their future,” Jansen said. “Mark my words, by the time I leave this planet, I will leave behind a new species.”

Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen is on view at the Exploratorium in San Francisco through September 5. For tickets and more information on a whole range of strandbeest-related events visit exploratorium.edu.

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