Ever since Theo Jansen, creator of the Strandbeest, arrived at PEM about a month ago, I’ve been thinking about love. Not evolution, not the intersection between art and science and not dreams. Just love, in all its simplicity, challenge and sweetness.
I originally met Theo Jansen two summers ago when he came to Salem to see the not-yet-finished gallery into which his Strandbeest would eventually be installed. And it was then that I first began to get a sense of Theo’s steady dedication to a very long labor of love; his art.
But it wasn’t until six months later, in March 2014, when I visited Theo in The Hague that I began my own love affair with the Strandbeest. Like the many guests currently moving in and out of PEM’s Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen, I caught my first glimpse of a beest in motion; skittering sideways on compressed air like a determined crab. And, just as now in Salem, I was part of a collective gasp of surprise and delight to see life spring to a series of interconnected PVC pipes.
Theo talked then, almost swallowed alive by the massive converted electric factory where the Strandbeest stood for the Generator: Strandbeest exhibition, of evolution, process, and dreams. His talk was eloquent and playful; rich fodder for any deep thinking person. But what struck me most then, as now, was Theo himself. He was by all accounts a warm and accommodating host — driving me off to the train station in the ancient Volvo the Dutch friends I went to visit later told me was famous for driving around The Hague with bits of Strandbeest attached to the roof. It was then that I began to think about Theo’s quiet perseverance and his understated, every-day commitment to something of great personal meaning for reasons known truly only to him. Theo said to me then, as he has repeated many times subsequently, that he is amused when people refer to him as a god. “I’m a nursemaid,” he laughed. And it made me think of love.
My next encounter with Theo came in December 2014 when PEM brought the Strandbeest to Art Basel Miami Beach for a week long installation that featured daily beest walks on the beach. Theo worked steadily each day all day to install the exhibition and then run it with gusto. His energy seemed boundless. He spoke graciously to every single person who stopped him on the beach, shook hands, posed for pictures and learned the names of each and every one of the dozens of people who helped bring the exhibition together. Everyone loved the beests, but what struck me most was that the same adoring feeling transferred so effortlessly to Theo himself… and back again. There was love again—personal, dynamic and as alive as the Strandbeest themselves appeared to be.
Theo arrived in Salem on August 30, 2015 for a three week stay. He hit the exhibition floor with all the good nature and energy I and my colleagues had come to know well last winter. The Standbeest exhibition, under Theo’s enthusiastic attention, came together beautifully. The beests, alone with us for weeks on end, were suddenly back in the hands of their attentive nursemaid and we all watched them thrive under his care. But I, having been responsible for arranging his accommodations and schedule, fussed around Theo like a mother hen. Was he comfortable? Was he getting enough to eat? Was he sleeping well?
“Yes,” Theo told me in his clipped Dutch accent, “I’m having a wonderful time!” And he went on to describe the solitary, hard work of his everyday life with the Strandbeest. “But here,” he said, “I have so many people to help me.”
It was then, not for the first time, that I thought about all the many people at PEM who worked so hard to make his exhibition a reality and the ways in which we had all come to know and love the beach animals Theo had created. “We’ve all become nursemaids,” I told him.
These days, I can visit the Strandbeest anytime I like. And every time I do, I watch delight steal over the faces of our guests and feel love all over again. So go ahead. Begin your own love affair with the Strandbeest. I promise you won’t be disappointed.