You may have seen my earlier Wink Fun review of Elenco’s terrific Mini-beest Kit, a working miniature model kit of one of Theo Jansen’s amazing animated creatures. I wanted to know more about him and his work so I found a copy of his 2009 book, The Great Pretender. The 240-page volume contains notes, timelines, photos, sketches and family trees for Jansen’s “Animarus,” as he calls his species of moving, breathing, and thinking constructions. He creates magnificent beasts out of the cheapest and lowliest of raw materials: thin wall PVC pipes, packing tape, empty soda bottles, and zip ties. When assembled, the giant, articulated creatures walk along the beach in the Netherlands, powered only by the wind.
In the book’s format, each of the verso pages (on the left) have color photographs of the many details about his designs and their construction: hinges and movable joints, leg linkages, molds and fixtures, pneumatic tubing muscles, etc. Each artifact is artfully depicted with low-key lighting and muted backgrounds, like specimens in an archeological volume. There are also beautiful photos of the fully-assembled creatures in their native habitat, strolling along the shore.
The recto pages (on the right) carry the text, with chapter-length explanations of his thoughts and processes on how and why he came to create the various versions of his animated “life forms.” There’s Animarus Sabulosa Adolescense (young sand-coated beach animal) and Animarus Vermiculus (worm animal) and about 30 more, each as amazing as the last. Along with explaining the origins of his animals, Jansen also muses about life, evolution, natural selection, sex, gender roles, memes, and many other topics.
Jansen originally studied to be a physicist, but ultimately he became an artist. His writing evidences this dual nature. His radical (to the “root”) thinking and his very personal (and humorous!) impressions on even dry, technical matters combine to make for an interesting read. He’ll offer a thought like “animals move by changing shape. Repeated changes in shape result in repeated changes in place.” He expands on the concept, going from worms, to shellfish, to limbs, and then shows examples of his design process, which embody these abstract principles in very concrete and ingenious constructions. By limiting his palette to just a few “junk” materials, he has to be fiendishly clever. He coaxes precision out of low tech materials, “nerves” out of tubing, “muscles” out of bathroom caulk, and even creates a rudimentary type “thinking” that lets his creatures sense and respond to sand conditions.
A valuable addition to the volume is a DVD with video interviews, examples of his many other art projects, and plenty of sequences of the Animari in action. After reading the book I had a much fuller appreciation of the mind of Theo Jansen and an understanding of his improbable creations.
The Great Pretender
by Theo Jansen
2013, 240 pages, 8.5 x 11.2 x 1.1 inches
From $90 (used) Buy one on Amazon