Wednesday, December 26, 2007


"I don't like standard beauty – there is no beauty without strangeness." Karl Lagerfeld

Warren Spector sent a couple of us this link, to a speech given by a Dutch artist Theo Jansen, about his sculptures

“Eventually these beasts are going to live in herds on the beaches. Theo Jansen is working hard on this evolution,” the narrator says. “I want put these forms of life on the beaches and they should survive, over there, on their own, in the future,” Jansen explains. He calls the sculptures “Strandbeests” or in English, Beach Creatures. They are made out of conduit, hinged and light. They are moved by wind, and their motion, a kind of many-lagged walking, feels biological. Not necessarily animal. They are somewhat insectile, with their many legs all moving in series. But they aren’t creepy. They are compelling. You watch because you want to know what they are. How they work. Our brain perceives them as organic, as animals.

Are they alive? Jansen says he is several years from getting them to the point where they can ‘survive’ on their own. He says their biggest enemy right now is storms, which drive them off the beach, or into the water, and break them. He is busily figuring out a way that they can ‘detect’ storms and survive them, the way they now ‘detect’ the surf.

I don’t think they are alive. I’m not sure viruses are alive. But the sculptures don’t reproduce, they don’t heal themselves. But it’s not that they are handmade is what keeps me from identifying them as ‘alive.’ Which leads me to wonder, why aren’t the people who are so up in arms about The Golden Compass getting all twisted about this guy? The movie The Golden Compass is about as anti-church as a shoe store. But this guy, he’s claiming to create life. And obviously, he’s not really worried about whether his beasts have soul, or if there is some spiritualist/materialist dualism he’s compromising here. More importantly, he’s raising questions about what’s alive, what it means to create life, who creates life and what life is, that could, down the line, make things very dicey for religions that believe in souls. It’s very possible that if someone does create a complex, self-replicating molecule, like DNA, that can encode information, like DNA, then the results of that could get very complex indeed. I mean, once you’ve done it, making it complex is just a matter of iterating.

What he has done is beautiful. It feels organic, even if it isn't. The amazing thing about these sculptures is how they are as robotic as Tinker Toys, all pipes and hinges, and yet, there is something essential about them that says, 'this is how something alive could move' and just a clearly says, 'something alive is in some important way, a mechanism.'


Blogger Responsible Artist said...

I think it's that Righteous Indignation has its limits, and you can only be incensed about certain things, but if you are incensed about all then you go crazy.

December 26, 2007 8:35 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

My first thought was that the "beast" was beautiful. I didn't know what it was, and I don't know its maker's work. You raise great questions, Maureen. One question I have is: can humans truly heal themselves?

December 29, 2007 11:09 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Amy, there is something that feels healing about the beast, isn't there. Although it's made of conduit, and it is, at some level, yet another piece of consumerism masquerading as the organic, it doesn't feel that way.

December 29, 2007 11:16 PM  
Blogger SquidgePa said...

Here is a link to a youtube video, showing a simplified version of the leg motion.

December 30, 2007 4:03 PM  

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