Dream Machines

This Churchill Fellowship brings challenges and surprises on so many different levels. I'm now on the second leg, currently in Boston where I was expecting to spend my time with boffins at MIT.  Instead I have been captured by unexpected beasts and beauties. A short trip out of the city to the old town of Salem Massachusetts brought surprising inspiration at the Peabody Essex Museum with Theo Jansen's captivating Strandbeest (Beach Creatures).

An early "fossil" of Theo Jansen's Strandbeest family which continues to evolve to develop bigger and better brains

Having seen his beasts in action on the beach (here online) I was worried that seeing them "in captivity" inside an exhibition space would be much less exciting.  I was wrong. The exhibition is both playful and deeply enquiring. It tells stories about process and cleverly deconstructs the beasts so visitors can understand why and how these marvellous creatures not only move (using wind power through recycled plastic bottles) but can also detect water and rescue themselves from dangerous waves.  

Recycled plastic bottles form the "wind stomach" of the Strandbeests when they are out on the beach and exposed to the maritime winds.

Jansen restricts his palette to materials available in your average Dutch hardware store. 

The language of the exhibition is designed to reflect Theo Jansen's hardware/laboratory aesthetic : the exhibition design thus reinforces the pleasures and power of curiosity, of tinkering, of seeing what happens if....

Visitors move the fossils to experience the extraordinary motion of these early creatures.

Simple but funny interactive game helps visitors explore the components and gives Theo a chance to explain his engineering thinking to anyone who wants to hear.

Jansen restricts his palette to materials available in your average Dutch hardware store. The main components are plastic conduit piping for electrical wiring, plumbing joints and plastic ties. That such beauty and wonder could emerge from such utilitarian parts adds another layer of pleasure to the awe-inspiring experience of seeing how his Dream Machines actually work. This approach speaks powerfully to the work of the Exploratorium in San Francisco where art is science and science is art. There is no distinction between the two disciplines. Both are processes which help us understand the world and the universe around us and inside us. 

Stunning photography by Lena Herzog also captures the beast of Theo Jansen's working process. 

The exhibition may at moments feel like a kind of zoo where creatures that were meant to be in the open air are confined between suspended ceiling and carpet. But what really gets unleashed here is the power of the imagination, a call to explore, to be curious, to try things out and above all to try to KNOW the world by using our hands.