A collection of kinetic sculptures harness art and physics to create something momentous.
The fourth floor gallery of the Chicago Cultural Center has been turned into a zoo, but you won’t find any living, breathing animals in captivity. Instead, the cavernous hall is filled with the creations of Dutch artist and physicist Theo Jansen, who has been creating intricate kinetic sculptures he calls Strandbeests (Dutch for “beach beasts”) for the past quarter-century. Formed from PVC pipes and harnessing the power of the wind, these creatures are able to move across surfaces without human assistance, a feat that makes them appear to be alive.
Jansen creates at least one new Strandbeest every year, retiring the older iterations to focus on his latest effort—he’s currently working on the 39th. “Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen” hosts eight of Jansen’s “extinct” creations, ranging from the gigantic Animaris Suspendisse to the much smaller Animaris Ordis. Each day, a team of “Beest wranglers” conduct a series of scheduled “reanimations” using compressed air in place of natural wind to make some of the larger creations move through the gallery—it’s as impressive as it sounds.
While the Strandbeests are the main attraction, they’re surrounded by a collection of photographs, videos and drawings that shed some light on Jansen’s design process. Striking black and white photos by Lena Herzog depict some of Jansen’s earlier creations, while a selection of Strandbeest-inspired models depict the ways in which others have reinterpreted his work. Venture to the back of the exhibit and you’ll find what appears to be a disassembled Strandbeest, stripped down to its component parts—a skeletal display that demonstrates just how complex a single creation can become.
“When I leave this Earth, I want to leave behind these specimens,” Jansen said during a tour of the exhibition, underscoring his hope that his creations will outlast him. This ethos is reflected in the objects that Jansen constructs—wind-powered contraptions that are largely self-sufficient, relying only on a steady breeze to provide the energy for their autonomous locomotion. As pieces of art, the Strandbeest are moving works—both figuratively and literally.