Wonder of the Strandbeests

By Evan J. Berkowitz

The 2,500 parking spaces at Crane Beach  in Ipswich are nearly full even a half-hour before PEM’s Strandbeest pop-up is set to begin.

“It’s like Strandbeest Woodstock, or Strandbeestpalooza,” says PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense Trevor Smith, arriving fashionably a little late (due to traffic) in a charcoal grey sportcoat and dark wash jeans.


Photo by Allison White

The truck opens, and there they are. The beests creak and are laid down: a nest of arthritic joints around a buckling crankshaft. Preparations complete, PEM handlers brief each-other on their arduous task: carrying, like a beached whale, the yellow beest to its shoreline habitat.

Cameras click constantly as staff from the Trustees of Reservations  and PEM help keep an open path for the beests to roam. The most noticeable camera, though, is high in the sky.


Photo by Allison White

Visitors are captivated by a camera drone, buzzing like a green-head fly (a creature happily absent on this cool day) as it shoots 4K video from above.

“It delivers a perspective that can’t be achieved any other way,” says Mike Magee, the drone’s pilot. His partner at Pictures From the Sky, Louise Michaud, operates the camera while he’s flying.


“It’s out-of-control beautiful,” Michaud says. “It lends itself to aerial video. … We’re really excited.” Down on the beach, Magee requires complete silence while piloting. PEM security personnel are there to help.


Photo by Allison White

Such security is visible in every direction. A bevy of boats watching the scene from the waves has grown and gotten closer to the demarcated swimming area, prompting lifeguards to whistle them away. This is the latest measure of a day that could be subtitled “crowd control.”


Photo by Allison White

“It’s like herding cats,” one PEM staffer remarks idly as she passes by.

Down the seashore, Trevor Smith guides the beest forward with purpose and a solemn excitement. Theo Jansen may be the creatures’ loving father, but Smith is surely their watchful American uncle.


Photo by Allison White

The beests ford a marshy stream with greater ease than their human minders (some barefoot, some not). The Strandbeest phenomenon is evident in the crowds forming at each beest’s side.

The crowd may be swelling too big, but it bodes well for PEM’s exhibition, set to open tomorrow, September 19.

“It’s great for so many people to show up for art, instead of the Patriots,” says Jared Charney of Marblehead, a freelance photographer shooting the pop-up for a local media outlet. “I think if more people showed up for cultural events like this, our society would be better off,” he says.


Photo by Allison White

His photographic eye leads to an appreciation for the cool grey weather.

“And the overcast,” Charney enthuses. “It’s like everything New England with this alien invasion.”

Also in the media, George Hicks of WBUR follows the beests intently with his microphone — trying to capture “the sounds of the machines themselves.” Turns out, he manages to do just that with his story that goes national.

The beests’ stringy tendons lift the feet up with each high, strutting step. PEM photographer Allison White wades into the ocean, braving the cold Ipswich water for a near-perfect shot of the amazing scene.


Photo by Allison White

Having arrived at a suitable spot, PEM staffers attach the sails — panels of woven packing tape and flutterers of sailcloth — mindful that, if a breeze catches them, the beests are liable to walk away. It’s an organic process.


Photo by Allison White

“It’s open to interpretation,” says PEM handler Dave O’Ryan. “I’ve seen Theo do it maybe 25 times, and he’s done it 23 different ways.”

The sails billow a bit, little zip tie feelers shaking like saltmarsh grass in the brisk, westerly wind. The beests feign movement in short jerks before walking on their own (although on a short leash) up and down the beach with a commendable determination. They clip-clop wondrously over the sand. The Boston Globe has reported that “they move with a wild, uncanny gait unlike anything else on earth.”


Photo by Allison White

“It’s very exciting to be here for the second Strandbeest event in the U.S.,” says visitor Bob Fabry, who traveled from San Francisco, where the exhibition will go next spring. “It’s much more interesting to be here and see them in person.”

“I thought it would be really interesting,” says visitor Nathan Purmont of Newmarket, N.H. “They have a lot of really interesting movement. They don’t roll on wheels — they walk like animals or people do.”


Photo by Allison White

“They’re very animated,” Purmont adds. “They’re almost alive.”

“It’s really cool that it’s completely powered by wind,” adds visitor Katy Wilkes of Salem. “It’s kind of relaxing watching them on the beach.”


Photo by Allison White

“There’s a great beauty in them,” Wilkes says.

Smith says he’s glad of the crowd and its reaction.

“The best thing is always seeing that look of wonder on people’s faces when they see [the Strandbeests] spring into life,” Smith says. “It’s one thing with a small crowd,” he added. “It’s another with thousands of people.” 


Photo by Allison White

The feet dangle happily as the beests are carried over the dunes. The crowd is huge for a grey, 60-degree day. This is no beach weather, but the beests and their fans don’t mind it a bit. 


Photo by Allison White

Smith, smiling with approval, reflects on the day’s event.

“I think that Theo embodies the spirit of creativity, the idea that someone with limited means and a great mind can create something extraordinary.”

 For more posts on PEM’s blog about Strandbeests click HERE

Evan J. Berkowitz is an editorial intern at PEM where he enjoys writing about interesting individuals, copy editing forConnections magazine and interacting with art as often as he can. He is a journalism student at the University of Maryland, where he covers the fine arts for The Writer’s Bloc and works as a designer for The Diamondback. His writing has also appeared on TeenLife Media and the now-defunct Boston Globe Green Blog.


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