“The lign between art and engineering exists only in our minds.” Theo Jansen
“Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen” is a photographic tribute to the creatures of Dutch artist Theo Jansen. These black and white photographs were taken by Lena Herzog, a Russian-American artist who documented the constant transformations of these creatures from 2007 to 2014.
The “strandbeesten,” or “beach beasts” in Dutch, are mechanical installations created from plastic tubes assembled by cables, capable of moving on the sand of beaches with the help of the wind. These machines have articulated legs and wings made from plastic sheets, and have sensors that allow them to feel the water and soft sand. Without electronics, the movement of the strandbeesten is generated solely by wind power.
On the beaches of Scheveningen, in the Netherlands, we can see these strange constructions moving by themselves, as if they were alive. Their structures resemble giant insects that crisscross the beaches; their movements are fluid, supernatural, almost eery.
Theo Jansen was born in 1948 in Scheveningen, the fishermen’s neighborhood of The Hague. After studying applied physics at the prestigious TU Delft University, he decided to become a self-taught artist in 1975. At the same time, Jansen had his own column in the Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper, where he could write about his latest whims. From this column came the first thoughts of the strandbeesten.
After observing the tides on his beloved beaches of Scheveningen, Theo Jansen realized that the water level was rising year after year! He then came up with the idea of creating moving dikes, able to detect the rising water and to move according to the tides. In 1989, He declared in his column of the Volkskrant that he was going to save the Netherlands by next year.
His first successful beach machine was born in 1991, although it was not his first attempt. Since its conception, the strandbeesten have continuously evolved and become more “independent”. An algorithm he created in the 1980s allowed him to simulate the evolutionary processes theorized by Charles Darwin. Little by little, this program allowed him to calculate the exact measurements of his animals’ limbs. His very first strandbeest, created in 1990, was never able to walk because its limbs were attached with tape. When he used cables to bind the different parts, the first strandbeest walked on the beach.
From 1991 until today, Theo Jansen’s strandbeesten have been improving year after year. Adding sails, raising the limbs, simple plastic bottles that store compressed air, allowing the creatures to walk without needing wind. Some changes were more successful than others; one species he dubbed the “Suicideem” was particularly ill-suited for the uneven terrain of sandy beaches, never lasting more than 30 seconds before collapsing.
Every summer, Theo Jansen strives to make his creatures more robust, intelligent, and self-sufficient. Although he has since moved away from the idea of a moving seawall for the time being, he still expects to get there one day, perhaps in a few million years. He knows that he probably will not succeed in his lifetime but wishes above all else that his works survive him. This is why he puts all his research and algorithms on a website he created for his works, available for everyone. He hopes that other individuals will carry the torch and continue his work.
It is also the very ephemeral nature of these works that makes Lena Herzog’s photographs particularly touching: she captures unique moments, which contributes to preserving the memory of these creatures, destined to live only one year.
Herzog’s pictures capture the creatures with great poetry, showing them in their “natural” environment. Taken in black and white, these photographs highlight their grid-like structures, almost rhythmic in their foundation, which contrast strongly with the softness of the flat country horizon. Beyond the scientific genius which allowed these machines to see the light of day, Lena Herzog sees in them a true artistic revelation: the strandbeesten are at the same time “archaic and futuristic” at the same time because they evoke numerous references from the history of art, from Leonardo da Vinci to Marcel Duchamps. They also call back to the kinetic sculptures of the Russian constructivists of the last century, such as those of the famous Alexander Rodchenko.
For Herzog, her photographic work during those seven years became a “family album” of the different generations of strandbeesten, then a glimpse of the daily life of an artist. It documents with great sensibility the relationship of Theo Jansen to his work, to which he gives daily care and from which a tension also emerges, that of the demiurge and his creation. Through a mise en abîme of artistic creation, Lena Herzog’s work reveals the man who hides behind these machines that seem so autonomous and animal like.
The creatures fascinated Herzog, especially by the questions they raise: what is the purpose of art? With the strandbeesten, the answer is obvious: to innovate. Without any pretension, Theo Jansen’s creatures embody the creative force and the capability of art to create something truly new. The photographer laments contemporary artworks that justify themselves through theses, which claim to be innovative, without achieving it. The strandbeesten fascinate, question, amaze and innovate without justification, without using irony. Although they have several layers of understanding and evoke many previous works, they do not need these references to be apprehended.
In her interview with Laurence Welcher, several of her photograms are also featured in the book. The photograms were made with fragments of strandbeesten, inspired by the work of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy, both of whom were fascinated by kinetic sculptures. Herzog’s photographs are thus a continuatuib if a tradition in the history of photography. The very nature of this medium goes against kinetic sculpture. It was however a great subject for the photographers of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. How does one translate the movement on a frozen, immobile support? For Lena Herzog, it is impossible to photograph movement: one can only reproduce the impression of it.
Thus, Lena Herzog transmits to us these moments spent over those seven years with the strandbeesten on the beach of Scheveningen, freezing these moving sculptures on the pages of this book.
JANSEN, Theo, HERZOG, Lena, et WELCHER, Laurence. Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. Taschen, reissue of 2021.
 Interview by Dijk, Pancras. “De strandbeesten van Theo Jansen”. The National Geographic Magazine Netherlands, March 2018.
 You can find Theo Jansen’s website at: https://www.strandbeest.com/
Lena Herzog interviewed by Welcher, Laurence. Strandbeest. Taschen, 2021, p. 274.