Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Theo Jansen at the Spacex Gallery

The Dutch artist Theo Jansen (that’s pronounced Tayo Yonson) currently has an exhibition at the Spacex Gallery in Exeter, but the actual display of his work in action will take place elsewhere, as it is not designed for such a narrowly confined space. The artist will instead let his strandbeests loose on the beach at Exmouth on the weekend of the 25th-27th June, and in the rather more constrained and built-up environs of Princesshay Square a week later on the 2-4th July weekend. Jansen is an exponent of what’s known as kinetic art, which essentially means sculptures which move of their own accord. . He painstakingly models and constructs large skeletal creatures which are designed so that they are able to fuel their own movement, taking on an independent life of their own. As you walk into the gallery, you come across a compilation of short films and TV clips showing in the room to your right which give of a broad overview of how Jansen makes his creatures and the mechanical means through which they are brought to life. He uses sections of PVC tubing, either bought new or scavenged from skips or construction site dumps (although I suspect that he’s now well enough established to be able to afford his own regular supply). He fixes them together into movable joints using silicone sealant, his mass-manufactured (although couldn’t the same be said of the natural version) equivalent of synovial fluid. These hollow bones are then fuelled by the wind, which is harvested by the creatures’ ‘wings’, or sails, and stored in one litre plastic bottles, arrayed along its back or side like the plates of a Stegosauraus. The intricacy of the interleaving struts which form the creatures frame are of such complexity that Jansen sometimes uses computer modelling to plot their structure and predict the way in which they will move. Ultimately, though, their viability as a species or genus has to be tested out in the real world. There is a particularly enjoyable piece of footage of Jansen driving a car around a deserted warehouse in the city of Delft where he lives and works, one of his creatures attached to the roof of his car (and its size matches that of the vehicle) in order to test out its wings, which move with a gently rippling motion in the passing airstream. He later takes it out on to the road, where locals no doubt look up and think ‘ah, there goes Theo again’.

Jansen playfully (I hope) places himself in the role of Creator. His mis-steps are presented as evolutionary dead-ends, with mutations of form which failed to provide the necessary adaptations to environmental conditions. It’s a neat way of incorporating work which wasn’t up to scratch into his overall concept. All creations, no matter how short-lived, are granted their own Latin taxonomic names, such as Animaris Currens Ventosa, or Animaris Percipiere. The Spacex Gallery was hung with various fragments of older creatures, which Jansen refers to as fossils. Indeed, the white PVC piping, sand-blasted and worn by the elements, does have the look of aged, unearthed bone, or cracked and discoloured ivory. With skeletal remains hanging from the ceiling above your head as you walk in, and displayed in glass boxes and on the walls elsewhere, the gallery comes to resemble a museum of un-natural history, albeit one in which the Creator tips his hand through the inclusion of various blueprints and computer models. There is also a timeline on one wall, which distils the evolution of the strandbeests into geological eras along the lines of the Triassic and Jurassic, although the span of time is here measured in years rather than millennia, and marks artistic as much as evolutionary progression; although in terms of Jansen’s overall concept, there is no division between the two. The artist’s own ongoing development of ideas and techniques is incorporated into the grand design of his accelerated evolutionary Creation.

Alterations are made to successive creatures based on observations of how each new model behaves in the real world. For example, Jansen introduced an evolutionary development designed to cope with the strong winds blowing in off his home turf (or sand) of the Delft coast. This adaptation consisted of a blunt peg-like appendage on its tail which, with a certain amassing of wind volume, would be driven into the sand by a levered hammer, thus giving it temporary anchorage until the winds died down again. The peg and hammer DIY ensemble gave its tail something of the look of an ankylosaurus, one of my favourite childhood dinosaurs (alongside the stegosauras, which had those plates and some cool spikes on its tail. I always think of it as being purple, since that was the colour of the plastic airfix kit which I made and never bothered to paint – but I digress). Some computer designs for as yet unrealised creatures begin to cover the skeleton with a segmented carapace of translucent plastic sheeting. Whether this has any practical purpose or is just an aesthetic choice I’m not sure. They are referred to as woodlice, but look more like shiny beetles.

In one of the TV extracts, Jansen is quoted as imagining a future day when his beests will wander the shore in a world empty of humanity. To this end, he has designed some of them to scoop out incrementally larger piles of sand as they scuttle along, painstakingly maintaining the shoreline’s natural defences against the encroachment of the sea. Presumably this will serve to preserve the remains of a vanished human civilisation, here exemplified by the city of Delft. The creatures will become its curators. With this kind of vision of a post-human world in mind, it becomes particularly appropriate that the beests are constructed from the plastic detritus of human civilisation, the kind of industrial waste which he imagines outlasting the species which produced and discarded it and taking on a life of its own. This gives these creatures, with their fragile forms and small, tentative pigeon steps, a certain poignancy. It’s the same kind of melancholy nostalgia for a pre-lapsarian past as viewed from a despoiled future which was present in the first half of Wall-E. You can almost imagine the Creator’s role eventually being excised, and these creatures beginning to assemble themselves and their descendants from an agglomeration of whatever rubbish is readily available. Such forms of self assembling detritus are found in Theodore Sturgeon’s short story It, and in China Mieville’s city of New Crobuzon in his novel Perdido Street Station, where an artificial intelligence gives itself embodied form by using an assemblage of material from the rubbish dump. Such creatures would slowly wander the empty strand like the giant crab-like creatures which the time traveller encounters on the terminal beach in the dying days of Earth at the end of HG Wells’ novella The Time Machine.

This science fictional element to Jansen’s work is also reflected in an earlier project from 1980, footage of which can be seen in the TV compilation in the first room of the gallery. This involved the release of a specially constructed UFO by the artist and some friends and collaborators (whose look seems to place them more circa 1972). This flew above the skies of Delft, emitting sparks of light and beeping sounds at intermittent intervals. Subsequent street interviews and newspaper articles reveal that, whilst never quite reaching Orson Welles proportions, the effect was rather more startling and disruptive than anticipated. The music accompanying the launch of the UFO from a hill above the city was from Franz Waxman’s marvellous score to James Whales’ 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein. It could have been equally (or perhaps more) appropriately applied to his later work.

In a darkened room to the back of the gallery, you can sit and watch film of Jansen’s strandbeests in motion, projected in all their gargantuan glory onto the walls. These films form a kind of constantly switching triptych on three sides of the room, with two generally providing a contextualising sea or dunescape, giving an impression of the Delft coastline. The third shows the beests being let loose and slowly lumbering into motion. Surrounded by these sounds and images, you can really lose yourself and allow yourself to be transported (it has to be said, this is made easier by the fact that we seldom have company when we go to the gallery). I can imagine this acting as one of Brian Eno’s Civic Recovery Centres, a sound and visual environment in which you can retreat from the busy rush of the outside world for a span. This room, which tries to recreate something of the experience of encountering Theo Jansen’s creatures in their ‘natural’ environment, is an essential part of the exhibition, and imbues the ‘fossils’ which are scattered around the rest of the gallery with a meaning which they might not otherwise possess. They accrue the weight of mortality and passing time which the remains of any once-living thing carries.

Theo Jansen has released his creatures in England before, when one was set loose in Trafalgar Square during his 2006 at the ICA in London, but to my knowledge, this will be the first time that they have trod the sands of a British beach. And the beach is, after all, the environment for which they have been fashioned. The particular genus or species which Jansen has created for the occasion is known as the Ventosa Siamesis, and is some 10 metres long. There will also be a smaller creature with which the public will be able to interact. Jansen himself will be in attendance on Saturday and Sunday from 3-5 in the afternoon, and there is a further opportunity to hear him give a talk and demonstrate his methods at 7 in the evening at Exeter Central Library on Friday 2nd July. As for those heading for the beach with no prior knowledge of what they’re about to encounter, they’re in for a big surprise.

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