Imagine a space where “beasts” that walk on wind roam freely. Technically they are not alive and yet they seem to have an existence all their own. Maybe there is some sort of “life” in them, is a thought that pops into your head. Breathtaking yet with the slight element of the unexpectedness is what makes Theo Jansen’s world-renowned Strandbeests so special and unique.
These famous moving sculptures are certainly something to be seen and at present you won’t have to travel too far. The Strandbeests landed in Singapore and until the end of September, you just have to head to the Dutch artist’s first South-East Asian exhibition at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum. Audemars Piguet is the sponsor for Wind Walkers: Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests.
Audemars Piguet’s relationship with the Strandbeests go a long way back. For Art Basel’s 2014 show in Miami Beach, they co-presented Jansen’s animal-like kinetic scuptures which harnessed wind power to walk along the seashore. For the respected watch brand which has always sought to integrate creative vision with superb artistry and technical know-how in various ways, these complex and compelling creatures evoke the essence of watchmaking in a language that could only have been developed by an artist.
It has been noted that in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, Jansen trained as a physicist, before focusing on art. His background in both art and science were applied to create these amazing self-propelled Strandbeests that utilise windpower to walk, and in a startlingly lifelike fashion too! These beests have been exhibited in major galleries and museums around the world and seen by millions of viewers online. They’ve even become popular culture sensations.
Originally the beests were conceived as a solution to combat rising sea levels due to global warming. The Strandbeests (Dutch for “beach animals”) were designed to roam the beaches, pushing and piling sand on the shore to form dunes to protect the coastline.
After over two decades of experimentation and development, the Strandbeests have evolved in design and function to respond, interact and adapt to changing environmental conditions to ensure their survival. They are said to have the capability to store wind power, navigate the shore through changing tide directions and anchor themselves ahead of oncoming storms. While he has spent the past 28 years developing new versions of the Strandbeests, Jansen says that he dreams that one day they will be able to roam the beach freely, surviving on their own.
The exhibition is presented in four sections and it begins by charting Jansen’s imaginative vision and the origin of Strandbeests while unfolding the science behind their unique locomotion and the creative processes that have driven their evolution.
Besides showcasing 13 extraordinary Strandbeests, the exhibition also features films, prints, artist sketches and prototypes in an immersive environment that recreates Jansen’s workshop.
Visitors will be invited to walk with Strandbeests in the galleries during special sessions. This is something to try and it gives an inexplicable amazing feeling of interacting with something bigger than yourself. The exhibition concludes with a new installation by Singapore-based artist, Isabelle Desjeux. Her installation, Backyard Lab, is inspired by Jansen’s creative process, and his use of simple, everyday objects. Like Jansen, Desjeux trained as a scientist before becoming an artist.
Michael L. Friedman
Historian, Audemars Piguet
A highly intelligent man with the gift of being able to talk on almost any subject with ease, Michael Friedman is an established horological expert, appraiser, creator, lecturer and auctioneer. In 2013, he joined Audemars Piguet as the brand’s Historian. His primary responsibility is of acquiring rare Audemars Piguet watches for the Museum. He develops and manages relationships with auction houses, collectors and global experts. He also develops brand content, does research writing and works with various markets.
Friedman works closely with Sebastian Vivas, director of Audemars Piguet Museum & Heritage. Together they help to weave the past, present and future.
Certainly an expert in what he does, he believes in a continuity loop in what they do. He says, “Many companies recreate but we don’t. Why redo? Yes, you get inspired from what’s been done in the past and you get technical knowledge and cues, etc. but why recreate?” He believes in doing something new.
He explains time is perceived and experienced in various ways. Long before, we were stargazers. If you look at civilisation, clocks are several hundred years old and sundials were what were used before. Science fiction asks about time in different ways. With watchmakers, they speak as though the watches are alive.
“Mechanically, with something that interests us, we produce a project. A watch, if kept in good condition, can be worn by someone’s great, great, great grandchild. Theo’s works are also going to be celebrated for a very, very long time. In a hundred years, looking at a Strandbeest, would they know when it was made? It’s the same with a successful watch design. It lives outside of its time.
“How can for instance, something so many years old look so good … cutting through timelines, not just for the moment but beyond that and we tie it to an art commission.”
He feels that one of his greatest achievements is really working with the heritage department as a team. He says with sincerity, “The dedicated archivist, dedicated curator, wonderful restoration staff … we work together. Our team has discovered that every Audemars Piguet watch was unique until 1951, only one of its kind and we can prove it. That’s incredible!”
He also loves that Audemars Piguet is big on embracing culture outside of watchmaking, outside in the world!
He says, “The founders of the company are interested in what is happening outside the world as well. They travelled, they experimented. The structure of independence makes everything more unique”.
The brand feels strongly about the work of our watchmakers. “When we engage in a project with culture, it is not about the watches, it’s about presenting this artist, this unique individual … and that comes with the confidence and knowledge that we know what we do well. We incorporate what we do well with someone we can learn from, engage in a way that will lead to other fantastic discoveries,” explains Friedman.
He is also proud of how rare Audemars Piguet watches are. “Do you know how few complicated wrist watches we made in the 20th century? From the first minute repeater in 1892 until 1977, only 550 wristwatches with a complication were made! This is nothing … as a collector and scholar, I knew the timepieces were rare but I never would have guessed only 550.”
He adds, “We didn’t produce for ourselves but for our clients. The design history — every watch becomes fascinating.
Friedman shares that by doing this kind of work, he changed his philosophy in life. “I value every moment. Time is religion. I now spend time with people who I give my respect to. I try to bring happiness and intrigue to people around me. I spend time with people I can love with, laugh with … I’m glad I discovered this before it was too late. It very much calibrated my life. I’ve lost people, parents … Life and loss bind us together. Time and memories can still be recollected … our neurology. Why is it that I can remember something that my grandmother cooked for me so many years ago? Maybe as far as the brain is concerned, the old memory is as fresh or fresher than the one two days ago.“
When asked what else he would like to share with us, he answered, “I think I would want to share the goal of the company, which is to provide the lifestyle and the means, figuratively, to give the life wanted or needed by watchmakers to do their best work. This is getting lost in the watch world but it is not only central to the company but the soul of the company.”
Spend some time with Friedman and you will easily come to understand what makes Audemars Piguet watches so special and so sought after.
Dutch Kinetic Sculptor
Jansen began his artistic career as a painter in the 1970s. He studied in physics and he began experimenting in areas such as aeronautics and robotics, tapping into his fascination with primitive and artifical intelligence.
This led to exploring a field of study which would define his career. His first renowned work was UFO (1979). It was constructed from PVC pipes, assembled in the guise of a four-metre wide flying saucer. Between 1980 and 1981, Jansen filled the construction with helium and launched the work over the Dutch city of Delft and Paris as a hoax on the population below. It made for a memorable moment as some of the people below actually thought they were seeing something extraterrestrial.
His biggest success came with his Strandbeests, a word meaning “beach beast” in Dutch, which resemble prehistoric skeletons of plastic tubes, bottles and bicycle pumps, and use the force of the wind and wet sand to “walk” along the beach.
Each Strandbeest he creates has a different name that sounds scientific and when asked, he shared, “I try to solve a surviving problem of the beach … blown away, or walking on wind and then have a dictionary and look up the letters, etc. Usually the names are based on my hopes, not so much on what its done … for instance walking on wind. I’m not sure if it will walk on wind, but I have to hope that it is going to! There is a lot of hope in the names.”
On his partnership with Audemars Piguet, he says, “We have been working for several years now and I know the people personally … which is always nice, of course. The basis is the similarity. In the tradition of making watches the farmers in the mountains in winter used to build with the stuff that was there … restricted in the choice of materials. Just as I restrict myself with the tubes, they had to improvise. And strange enough, when you don’t have everything, you become a lot more creative.”
He believes that during that period of time, the watch was in fact something alive for the people. With no cars or planes, the people were not used that things were moving by themselves. Says Jansen, “That was in fact the first image of artificial life, I would say and I keep myself busy with life as well. Another analogy with watches and my work is that we both love mechanics and geometry and how things are transformed in movement. It gives us a basis to work and our allegiance … we don’t like electronics, we like mechanics.” On his partnership with Audemars Piguet, he says with sincerity, “They are marvellous, they don’t shove Audemars Piguet and they don’t force me to wear a watch. They are respectful and I appreciate that.”
He explained that the first time the beests don’t walk very well. “Growing the first animal took three years before they were walking well … the caterpillars also took three years before they started walking. It’s a small step forward … I think evolution is the same, we didn’t immediately have running dogs.”
He adds, “Nature is a big inspiration for me but I don’t want a copy. I don’t want to make a dinosaur … the resemblance is just a coincidence.
The shape form comes from something inner.” He doesn’t set it in stone and it’s like a new evolution.
On watchmaking he says, “It’s amazing how these watchmakers have a heart for their work. The number of parts … because I got crazy with five parts and they still are okay with 700 or 800 parts in a watch. I think that was the most impressive thing! How can you get an overview of so many parts?”
He used tubes as they were something very available where he came from. As a young boy, he used to blow paper darts with them. The tubes were on the street, everywhere. It was quite a common material. Then he did the project with the flying saucer or UFO after which he started building quick constructions and writing an article for a newspaper and the combination came just right. “This tube saw so many more things, it turns out it is endless. You could heat it up, bend it … Now, I can think in these kind of tubes, all kinds of methods. Just like a carpenter has his tricks with the joints, I have tricks with my tubes … it’s a special profession, a way to work on the tubes.”
When asked how long the process takes, he shared, “Usually half a year to build a beest, bring it to the beach in summer and run all kinds of experiments … beach, water and sand. In the fall, we’re wiser and then I declare the animal extinct. The cycle is about one year … the modifications, it’s not you who makes an animal. I have a plan and it is changed very early in the process and it becomes a different thing. It is a process of growing. I might wake up with a very good idea in the morning. Then in the afternoon, the tubes, they always protest, never want to do what I want to do. I cannot predict where the beest is going.”
Jansen also created a middle sort of a backbone and leg system in 1991 in a certain combination of length of tubes. Otherwise it won’t walk at all. There are 13 numbers as a DNA code of the leg system. Based on the leg system, there is a middle sort of back movement, and it makes the legs walk.
Obviously evolution in the process! We can’t wait to see what the next Strandbeest will look like and will it one day be a unique kind of life form of its own?