Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeest” Strolls around Millennium Park

Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeest.”

A crowd of locals, tourists and media personnel gathered around “The Bean” on a cold Thursday morning last week to see Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeest,” or “beach beast.” I was part of that crowd: watching the “Strandbeest” nimbly glide back and forth with the help of Jansen; occasionally the “Strandbeest” was set free, guided by the wind. “The Bean” is usually flooded with people taking selfies and staring at the Chicago skyline in its mirrored surface. Not so last Thursday; Jansen’s “Strandbeest” stole the show.

Jansen, a Dutch artist, has been making “new form[s] of life” for over two decades, according to a 2012 TED blog. With plastic tubes, he creates skeletal structures that brave natural elements. The animal-like appearance is intentional. Jansen refers to the sculptures as “my animals,” and draws parallels between his creations with evolution and anatomy. He talks about using “legs” in his sculptures, for example, instead of wheels. “[Legs] seem to be the best way to move things on beaches . . . a wheel has to touch every point on its path, and legs just jump over it.”

Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeest.”

Unsurprisingly, Jansen’s large-scale structures are no easy feat to create. His work boils down to a lot of trial and error: starting the day with a plan that inevitably “does not succeed,” as the TED blog explains. Jansen starts his day thinking about the “ideas gathered in the night,” before heading to the studio often with his plan. He then works into the evening after arriving back home.

On that chilly February day, Jansen’s “Strandbeest” gained and sustained a steady crowd. There was something about these “kinetic sculptures”, as they are sometimes called, that made people stop, look and keep looking. Rarely do you see people crowd around art, except for pieces like the Mona Lisa. Perhaps even more uncommon was seeing people look at a piece of art for longer than 30 seconds. For me, watching the crowd was almost as interesting as watching the “Strandbeest” — almost.

The crowd that usually swarms “The Bean” was replaced with a more passive one set back from Chicago’s iconic silver structure, watching the “Strandbeest” in action. The crowd got me thinking about Jansen’s work. What intrigued people not only to stop, but to stay? One reason could be that Jansen’s works conflates traditional art boundaries. This large, moving piece blurs the line between science and art. The skeletal frame reveals the process of construction, luring in curious visitors like myself. Exposing its many plastic tubes hints at the creativity and engineering skill needed to make such a structure.

In some ways the “Strandbeest” is like a large kite, only for the ground. Instead of flapping in the wind, this bare-bones structure — equipped with a few tarp-like pieces mimicking sails — propelled across the concrete. At the same time, creativity emanated: the “Strandbeest” is a moveable structure without function, offering aesthetic value and graceful movements.

There could be another reason for Jansen’s crowd. Last Thursday, visitors saw art outside the confines of a gallery or museum — without being a stationary sculpture occupying a specific place. It was refreshing way to see and experience the fusion of art and science in this way.

Watching Jansen’s “Strandbeest” in Millennium Park was a prelude to his exhibition opening at the Chicago Cultural Center on February 6. The show includes artist drawings, photographs, videos and “Strandbeest” performances. Seeing the “Strandbeest” in action in the urban environment proved to be a gratifying experience: not only watching Jansen’s work, but also seeing a crowd of people enthralled with art.

“Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen” is on show through May 1 at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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