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Imagining Life Through Art

One of Theo Jansen's strandbeests.
Gayle Laird and Amy Snyder
Courtesy of the Exploratorium

If you know Theo Jansen's strandbeests, then you surely have in mind images of mammoth, artificial creatures — made of PVC, plastic ties and bottles — roaming the northern beaches of the Netherlands on the watch for rising seas.

The strandbeests are like an elephantine Cat Patrol, right out of The King's Stilts by Dr. Seuss. But this is decidedly not what you'll encounter at Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at San Francisco's Exploratorium, in its final weekend on exhibit. (Although you do get to see Lena Herzog's enthralling pictures.)

The only live specimens you'll get to see are tame, domestic cousins of the beach dwelling giants, powered not by the waters and the winds but by compressed air. And most of what is on exhibition are members of lines of the strandbeest genus that are now extinct.

Not that it is any less impressive for all that. To enter the the great space of Pier 15 along San Francisco's Embarcadero, where the beest remnants are on display, is breathing-stopping and awesome. I was reminded of what it's like to enter the great hall of the Museum of Natural History in New York and come across the giant blue whale suspended beneath the ceiling.

Indeed, Jansen's animals are awe-inspiring works of human artifice. (I've written about them before.) But that isn't how they read. Nothing is arbitrary here. These may be literally the handiwork of the physicist-turned-artist Theo Jansen — there's a nice film in the show (Strandbeesten by Alexander Schlichter) where you get to see him heating and bending and cutting and blowing life into his pseudo-life-forms — but there is no whim, no fancy, no play at work here. Only a single-minded commitment to letting the demands of survival in the blustery conditions of the open ocean dictate form and structure. Jansen goes proxy, here, for nature itself, or for Darwinian algorithms of change, even if he is also, at the same, in the fullest sense, the creator.

The theme of extinction is not lost on Jansen, or the curators of this excellent exhibition (led by the brilliant Marina McDougall, known to me from other creative endeavors, whose project it was to bring strandbeests to the Exploratorium). One wall of the gallery displays beast "fossils"; the PVC hangs on the walls, parched, bone-like, dead, labelled. Another wall displays the organization of the various strandbeest clades or lineages.

The show is a joyful one. You can't look up at the skeleton-like remains without feeling something like reverence. This is not art. This is not science. This is life — and it commands our attention in the way that only life can or, rather, in this case, an imagined fantasy of whole races of creatures come into being and now gone extinct.

"Jansen's work inspires new reverence for the rarity, the preciousness of life, as well as the tragedy of any species going extinct — given the eons it takes for nature to make a stick insect, a pelican or an octopus," McDougall says.

I woke up this morning to the dreadful news that we are losing the elephants of Africa. I was reminded of words uttered not long ago by a close friend: I do not want to live in a world without elephants.

I do not want to live in a world without elephants. But I am so grateful to live in a world that makes strandbeests possible.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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