Last night, the “Strandbeests” were released here in Salem, the kinetic, evolving, mechanical-yet-ethereal “beach animals” of Theo Jansen, a Dutch engineering artist and Renaissance Man. There was a not-so-sneak preview of these PVC-pipe creations a few weeks ago up on Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, but yesterday the big beests were on view for the special opening of Strandbeest: the Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Peabody Essex Museum. The exhibit is interactive but also a bit static–it’s striking to see these “animals” move and with the exception of one of the smaller beests, that really can’t happen in the confines of a gallery. But Mr. Jansen’s own evolutionary process is revealed, and the photographs of the beests on the beach (by Russian-born photographer Lena Herzog, who happens to be the wife of my very favorite filmmaker, Werner Herzog) are absolutely haunting. In the midst of the exhibition, with these big skeletal structures all around me, I became absolutely fixated on reproductions of Jansen’s preparatory sketches–they reminded me of Leonardo’s notebook drawings almost instantly. I spent the summer looking through (reproductions of) these notebooks as I was teaching a course on Renaissance art and science so they were fresh in my mind, but the association is rather obvious: Lawrence Weschler, who wrote the introductory essay to the companion volume to the exhibition, calls Theo Jansen a cross between da Vinci and Don Quixote. Leonardo, of course, was as preoccupied with engineering as much as he was with art (probably more so) and he had his own animalistic creations, including a “mechanical lion” made for a pageant celebrating the newly-crowned King of France, Francois I. But it is Leonardo’s sketches of wings in his passionate pursuit of flight that remind me of Jansen’s drawings, or vice-versa. Dream machines are eternal, it seems. Scenes from the exhibition preview of Strandbeest: the Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; Notebook sketches from Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus, Veneranda Biblioteca and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan.
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