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Word of the day: strandbeest (beach beast)

Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist who’s got his workshop in the latest Hague residential district Ypenburg. The sculptures that he creates are meant to walk autonomously along the Dutch coast on the beach. They seem to have a life of their own. Sometimes you can see them striding along the seaside if you’re lucky.


These living sculptures have been on my list of Words of the Day for a long time, because I love the word and the idea behind it. Imagine my surprise when I read in this morning’s New York Times on the Opinion Pages this wonderful article about Jansen’s work. You can read the full article here.

STRANDBEEST is a newly coined ‘het-woord’. The inventor of both beast and word is Theo Jansen (born in Scheveningen in 1948). You can see films and photos of his weird STRANDBEESTEN on his website.

Here is an excerpt from the NYT article ‘Why Nothing Is Truly Alive’ which was written by Ferris Jabr (associate editor at Scientific American).

‘On a windy day in Ypenburg, the Netherlands, you can sometimes see sculptures the size of buses scuttling across a sandy hill. Made mostly from intricately conjoined plastic tubes, wood and sails, the many-legged skeletons move so fluidly and autonomously that it’s tempting to think of them as alive. Their maker, the Dutch artist Theo Jansen, certainly does. “Since 1990, I have been occupied creating new forms of life,” he says on his website. He calls them Strandbeest. “Eventually I want to put these animals out in herds on the beaches, so they will live their own lives.”

Poetic, most would say, but Strandbeest are not alive. They are just machines — elaborate, beautiful ones, but inanimate contraptions nonetheless. A few months ago I would have agreed with this reasoning. But that was before I had a remarkable insight about the nature of life. Now, I would argue that Strandbeest are no more or less alive than animals, fungi and plants. In fact, nothing is truly alive.

What is life? Science cannot tell us. Since the time of Aristotle, philosophers and scientists have struggled and failed to produce a precise, universally accepted definition of life. To compensate, modern textbooks point to characteristics that supposedly distinguish the living from the inanimate, the most important of which are organization, growth, reproduction and evolution. But there are numerous exceptions: both living things that lack some of the ostensibly distinctive features of life and inanimate things that have properties of the living.

[…] We must accept that the concept of life sometimes has its pragmatic value for our particular human purposes, but it does not reflect the reality of the universe outside the mind.

Recognizing life as a concept is, in many ways, liberating. We no longer need to recoil from our impulse to endow Mr. Jansen’s sculptures with “life” because they move on their own. The real reason Strandbeest enchant us is the same reason that any so-called “living thing” fascinates us: not because it is “alive,” but because it is so complex and, in its complexity, beautiful.

Watch a Strandbeest’s sail undulate in the wind, its gears begin to turn, its legs bend and extend in sync over and over — so dauntless, so determined. It does not matter whether this magnificent entity is alive or not. Just look at it go.’

Photo: © Copyright Theo Jansen, Animaris Adulari ‘t Stille Strand 2012