Theo Jansen studied physics at the University of Delft, Holland before becoming a painter. After his seven year career in painting, he started work on the UFO project which entailed the creation of an actual flying saucer that flew over Delft in 1980 causing pandemonium in the town and attracting considerable attention to his work.
For more than 10 years now, he has been working on the genesis of new nature in his Strandbeest creations which he envisions becoming completely autonomous, intelligent, wind-powered life forms. As an introduction to this work, here is his presentation on this fascinating project for TED:
Theo Jansen: The art of creating creatures
What prompted you to quit your studies of Physics at the University of Delft and becomes a painter?
I was young of course. The hippy period was there. I was distracted from my study by all these new dreams of people and a lot of friends of mine were artists and so I decided to become one as well and started becoming a painter.
And have you continued painting?
No, it stopped as soon as I started the UFO project at the beginning of the eighties and then the UFO project had such a success also media wise and I had been famous for about three months in my country for that and so I chased it more or less on bigger projects. After that, I couldn't paint anymore, sit in my studio and just paint. It wasn't possible anymore.
Following on from your painting, you seem to have had a desire to “work outside the box” and pursue new forms of expression through the painting machine and light sculptures. How did these projects develop?
After the UFO project, I had to do something more technical things and my interest for physics which has never been away during painting, it was really a rebirth in the technical interest after the UFO so I wanted to make something technical.
The painting machine was something interesting because in those days there were no printers yet so it was quite unusual to paint with a painting machine like that especially as the perspective of the images that came out of the painting machine because it made real size photos in front of the wall so the distance didn't matter at all. If a chair was standing a meter or 100 meters it would be the same size. That was the special thing about the painting machine because you could also make the opposite perspective objects with it so I also made photographs of chairs and tables which were in opposite. Things which were closer were smaller and things which were bigger were further away from the wall so it's just the opposite of normal perspective.
What did you learn from them?
My mind was really going on thinking. It made me change my living just for a lot of dreaming about abstract 3D forms in my head and the possibilities of machines. It really did change my thinking and my attitude. I was asked to write a column for a university magazine that really was sort of, this is a Dutch expression, “a stick behind the door”. That means that someone is standing there beating you up when you don't do your homework.
And did this work have any influence on your Strandbeests?
It surely had as this column really forced me to think about anything in the world and because every time I tried to find new, strange perspectives on reality and in effect, the strandbeests they started off as a column in the newspaper and that is about 18 years ago now and in the first period after that nothing happened. I had written the column and then half a year later, I got the idea of going to the shop and buying some of these tubes. I started playing with it and I did that for an afternoon and in the period of the afternoon, I decided to spend one year on these tubes, on these conduits because I saw so many possibilities in there. It turned out to be more than I could ever think of all those years ago.