The first time I saw the North Sea, I was 21 years old and a newly minted college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history. I had gone, that summer after graduation, to Belgium to—of all things—help excavate a medieval church in Stavelot. I wanted to see for myself how history crawls its way out of the earth (or books or art or objects) and comes to enlighten the present in new ways. And one chilly, rainy day I somehow got it into my head that seeing the North Sea was worth a special trip.
So I boarded a train to Ostend and spent the afternoon walking the long, empty beach with a baffled, but indulgent friend. I still remember the gray emptiness of that day. Now, 16 years later, I have just returned to the North Sea—this time to The Hague in Holland—and found something entirely different. The amazing thing is that the return has, in a way, brought me full circle.
I first met the Dutch artist, Theo Jansen, about eight months ago. He visited Salem as a first step in the early planning stages for a major exhibition of his work (the first on American soil) set to open at PEM in late 2015. My recent trip to Holland was a next step toward fleshing both the exhibition checklist and the concepts which will drive the exhibition’s themes and design. Theo was our remarkable and kind host for three days in The Hague where he wove a web of artist’s magic around us in the simplest and most enchanting of ways.
I could write at length about what Theo makes, but I advise you to visit his website or YouTube to get the fullest idea.
Believe me, you won’t be sorry. But in a nutshell, Theo has spent more than 20 years making large-scale kinetic sculptures out of PVC pipes. He refers to these works as Strandbeest (which translates to beach animals) because he builds them to “live”— he hopes eventually independently—on the beaches of the North Sea. The sculptures, true to their name, are very much alive. They walk, sweat and sense just like any organic creature. It’s just that they happen to be made of plastic tubes, empty soda bottles, twist ties and sometimes a sail. They are powered by the wind and built, mostly, on the beach itself.
Our team visited the beests in winter quarters at an exhibition of Theo’s design at an old electric factory — complete with a fantastic art deco window and ceilings that went up forever. We moved through this remarkable space, drunk with wonder and questions. We looked, we touched and we marveled. But mostly, we listened to and observed Theo talking about, working with and dreaming of his creations; an inner landscape that we will work to bring alive to future visitors of the PEM exhibition and its subsequent tour.
There is no substitute for hearing the creator talk about his own work. But I will say that much of his focus is on a literal evolution of the new life he creates. He started years ago, one night when he couldn’t sleep, to assemble the first building blocks of what would become the Strandbeest. He has since tried, failed, tinkered and improved upon many beasts, each built upon the successes and failures of the ones before. He keeps them all —“fossil” remains of where he has been and where he has yet to go. One evening at dinner, Theo compared his fossils to those remains found at any archaeological site; the shards and bones that are thrown away only to be unearthed much later and used to understand all the history that follows. And just like that, my own life’s evolution was folding back in on itself. I was back at the North Sea.