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Honorary degree citation - Theo Jansen

By: Ingrid Bachmann, June 2011

Mr. Chancellor, it is my honour to present to you Mr. Theo Jansen, kinetic sculptor, and innovator in bringing together the arts and engineering.

Theo Jansen a entamé des études de physique à l’Université de technologie de Delft, qu’il a délaissées pour se consacrer à sa passion : la peinture et le dessin. Au fil du temps, il s’est attaché à combiner sa pratique artistique avec la science du design, réintégrant ainsi la physique à sa vie. Parmi ses premières créations à attirer l’attention figure une machine à peindre. Ce dispositif mécanique utilisait la réflexion de la lumière pour produire une image peinte sur un mur. Ainsi, le désir et le don de l’artiste de comprendre comment les choses bougent et fonctionnent ont fini par imprégner son œuvre.

His UFOs, literally flying saucers, flown over Delft in 1980 and Paris in 1981, attracted considerable public and media attention, as has the work that has occupied the last twenty years of his career – the Strandbeest or “Beach Animal”.

Kinetic sculpture – such as the Strandbeest, uses moving parts or depends on motion, usually propelled by wind, for its effect.  The Strandbeests are large yet elegant wind-powered wood and plastic structures are exhibited in motion outdoors on the beaches of Holland. They have formal scientific names (the “animalus ondulus” for example), calling on Jansen’s view that they are themselves, evolutionary creatures. Each moves in eerily lifelike ways, able to move on the sand by the wind, with only rare assistance from Jansen. The self-propelled beach animals, are made of recycled plastic bottles containing air that can be pumped up to a high pressure by the wind (we’ll see this shortly on the screen)……the pumps are driven by wings that move in the breeze. Some of the animals, such as the Animaris Percipiere, have a stomach….each skeletal creature lives on wind, living and shaping the beach landscape by moving sand with their feet and tails.

Describing Jansen’s work without a visual just does not do it justice – so here, on the screen, are the Strandbeests….



He has described his work as an attempt to “sculpt the air around us” and to “map the progress of mobility”. The walking sculptures look alive as they move, each leg articulating in such a way that the body is steady and level. The Strandbeests’ movements are said to incorporate primitive logic movement, so that the structure can reverse its own direction if it senses dangerous water or loose sand where it might get stuck. Jansen’s idea is that these creatures will be able to operate on their own on the beaches, and so his work focuses on making them and their movement more autonomous. Lifelike, dynamic and aesthetically engaging, Jansen’s Strandbeests stretch our definitions of the organic, of movement and continue to blur the lines between art and engineering.

Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and honour to present to you Theo Jansen so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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