Beests Around Boston

Posted September 1, 2015 by Tony McMillen in Theater & Arts

“Strandbeests” means “beach animals” in Dutch, because apparently the Dutch don’t already have a word for massive, multi legged, wind-propelled skeleton monsters.  Weird, right?

These mesmerizing creatures made from PVC tubes and fitted with small wing like sails made their big debut at The Greenway in Downtown Boston this past Friday. Large crowds gathered to greet the dynamic walking sculptures as they moseyed and scuttled their way around Dewey Plaza. Up close the beests resembled the Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back if Leonardo Da Vinci had made them for Burning Man. Which means I loved them instantly, and I wasn’t alone. The two hundred or so gathered at The Greenway shared a uniform look of childlike curiosity exceeded only by the expressions on the actual children also in attendance. Which makes sense. It is precisely this childlike propensity for imaginative undertakings which enabled the creation of the strandbeests in the first place.

“I make skeletons that are able to walk on the wind, so they don’t have to eat… eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.”

Dutch artist Theo Jansen has been making his wind walkers since 1990.  He makes them in varying sizes, the largest 43 feet long, the ones at the Greenway that I saw up close were the length of a small car and stood almost 7 feet high. They even had tiny toy-sized versions created by 3D printers for kids to hold and inspect at the Greenway on Friday. I might have held one myself for a bit. Regardless of their shapes and sizes what these various strandbeests all have in common is that Jansen views them less as mechanical walking art installations and more as some newfangled organism of their own.

His wording and terminology while describing his creations reflect this as he talks about what he perceives as their anatomy as opposed to their construction. Take for instance Jansen’s explanation when discussing the method with which his beests are able to detect and then avoid scurrying into the ocean when they’re in their natural habitat of the beach:

“The leg system of the beach animals works because of a combination of certain lengths of tubes. Because of the proportion of lengths, the animals walk smoothly. You could say that this range of numbers is their genetic code.”

He also refers to the recycled plastic bottles housed inside the larger creatures used to trap the air that’s then used to propel the gigantic skeletons along as stomachs. The sails that ensnare the wind he calls the beests’ wings. One gets the feeling this sort of talk goes beyond a charming bit of showmanship from Jansen.  He’s spent almost two decades evolving his animals, they’re not just his life’s work, they’re his children.

They are born, not assembled…”

The friendly stroll the strandbeests took on The Greenway will serve as an introduction as well as an invitation as these mid-sized creatures and their much bigger brethren will take up residence at the Peabody Essex Museum next month. It’s a safe bet that many of us who met Jansen’s brood this past Friday in Downtown Boston will make the trek to Peabody to meet the extended family. The creatures on Friday did make quite the impression despite the fact that they danced more than they spoke. I wonder if there’s a Dutch word for that?