Theo Jansen, the man with the wind sculptures

Do you know Theo Jansen? Ask this question around you, you will probably only get negative answers. Then specify: “He builds structures out of plastic tubes that move on beaches, pushed by the wind. » Very often, you will be told: ” Oh yes ! I saw videos on the Internet. » Theo Jansen, 74, is thus a very famous but very little identified contemporary artist. He has fun with it, with the tongue-in-cheek humor that he never seems to depart from: “YouTube is my best PR agent. »

Theo Jansen’s artistic adventure began long before the Internet. Eleventh and last child of a Dutch Catholic family, he studied physics after dreaming of flying. He tried his hand at painting then sought to bring together his technical knowledge and his artistic dreams. He invents a painting machine or flies a flying saucer over Delft, the city where he studied. Emotion in the people. “It made me famous for a few weeks”remembers the troublemaker.

“I suffered a lot of failures”

In the 1980s, he was a columnist in a major Dutch daily, From Volkskrant. His texts sometimes take the form of a science fiction novel. “One day, I imagined sorts of skeletons on a beach, driven by the wind. They moved the sand to raise the dunes and protect the Netherlands from a rise in sea level.” The idea then does not leave Theo Jansen. In 1990, he decided to give himself a year to translate his dream into reality.

In a DIY store, he buys yellow PVC tubing for electrical conduit, very typical of the Netherlands and Belgium. It is with this that he begins to build the skeletons he had imagined. “At first, I thought I was a god creating a new form of life. But I suffered a lot of failures. It made me humble. Reality is much more creative than the brain…”

Little by little, however, the structures take shape and are perfected. Theo Jansen operates them on a deserted beach near The Hague and the farm where he lived as a child. They are equipped with pieces of canvas to take the wind and then are equipped with a ” stomach “ : the mechanism of the sails compresses air in plastic bottles, energy that is released when the wind drops.


For more than 30 years now, Theo Jansen has been fine-tuning his “strandbeests” (beach animals) as he calls them. Some forms were tried and then abandoned because they did not work well. Or rather because the artist, by groping, found something better. “My ideas can be compared to mutations. Most of the time the mutations don’t work but sometimes something happens in my hands and I see like a message from the tube saying to me: “you should do this or that.” I’m just following the advice of the tubes. »

Thus, the strandbeests they have now reached their fourteenth generation. Theo Jansen has drawn up a kind of family tree, retracing a process of evolution that does not run over millions of years but only three decades. Each generation has a Latin name: Vaporum, Cerebrum or Volantum. Because there was also an attempt at a flying creature, a gigantic kite baptized Ader, in homage to the pioneer of aviation Clément Ader, whose machines had some resemblance to the animals of Theo Jansen. “Ader was a poet but he didn’t know it. »

With greed, the artist does not hesitate to talk about presentation “paleontological” of the “extinct species” to qualify the exhibitions of his creatures, like the one that started a few days ago in Bordeaux. We see whole animals but also “fossils”, hear plastic parts composing the structures and presented in glass boxes. During the presentation to the press, a piece of plastic pipe detached from a structure. Theo Jansen picked it up off the floor and gave it to a female spectator. “Keep it, it’s worth a fortune on the art market. »

“The public has the same pleasure as me”

The internet having made known the extraordinary grace of these wind animals, Theo Jansen is now in demand all over the world. A South American collector acquired several copies. “He built them a stable”, jokes the author. And the exhibitions follow one another, accompanied by demonstrations. As on the water mirror of the Place de la Bourse, in Bordeaux on September 30. The wind missing a little, Theo Jansen lent himself to the game, pushing, barefoot, one of his sculptures. A child came to him. He gave him the piloting. “The public has the same pleasure as me. In their own way, my works bear witness to the miracle of life. I hope to share this feeling. For this miracle to continue. »

Theo Jansen has long given up on the idea that his creatures reinforce the dunes of the Netherlands. “I’m more interested in their process of evolution than saving the country. » His dream is that when he dies, the strandbeests are gathered on a beach and continue their life in complete autonomy. He is then asked the question: how long can these plastic animals function today without human intervention? ” Five minutes. » There is then a flash of amused tenderness in Theo Jansen’s blue gaze. “They still need me. »


Between the arts and the sciences

1948. Birth of Theo Jansen in The Hague, the Netherlands.

1968-1974. Studied physics in Delft.

1975. Self-taught artist.

1980. Fly a flying saucer over Delft.

1984. Develop a machine that paints.

1984-2008. Press columnist, notably in the daily science supplement From Volkskrant.

1990. Beginning of the development oftrandbeests (“beach animals”).

1996-2002. professor in the photography department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague.

2006. Exhibition in Taipei (Taiwan).

2009. Exhibition in Tokyo (Japan).

2012. Exhibition in Melbourne (Australia).

2016. Exhibition in Chicago (United States).

2018. Exhibition in Santiago (Chile).

2020. Member of the Dutch Academy of Arts, Prize of the Pierre-Gianadda Foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris.

2022. Exhibition in Bordeaux as part of the FAB-Festival international des arts de Bordeaux, from October 1, 2022 to January 1, 2023.

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