Quote of Note | Ian Frazier on Theo Jansen

One of Theo Jansen’s self-propelling Strandbeests (beach animals) beside a drawing by the artist depicting the creature’s “stomach” of recycled plastic bottles containing air that can be pumped up to a high pressure by the wind and “muscles” of plastic tubing.

“Theo showed me around his small on-site workshop [near Delft, The Netherlands]. It was filled with tools like vises, saws, clamps, and heat guns for softening the plastic tubes. On perforated wallboards, tools hung neatly inside their black magic-marker outlines. From a workbench Theo picked up a piece of three-quarter-inch PVC tube about two feet long. He said this was the basic element in the Strandbeests’ construction, like protein in living things. ‘I have known about these tubes all my life,’ he told me. (He speaks good English.) ‘Building codes in Holland require that electrical wiring in buildings go through conduit tubes like these. There are millions of miles of these tubes in Holland. You see they are a cheese yellow when they are new—a good color for Holland. The tubes’ brand name used to be Polyvolt, now it is Pipelife. When we were little, we used to do this with them.’

He took a student notebook, tore out a sheet of graph paper, rolled it into a tight cone, wet the point of the cone with his tongue, tore off the base of the cone so it fit snugly into the tube, raised the tube to his lips, blew, and sent the paper dart smack into the wall, fifteen feet away. He is the unusual kind of adult who can do something he used to do when he was nine and not have it seem at all out of place. ‘I believe it is now illegal for children in Dutch schools to have these tubes,’ he said.”

Ian Frazier in his article on Dutch artist and kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen that appears in the September 5 issue of The New Yorker