What are they?

Sculptures, art installations, kinetic experiments, inorganic life forms. Dutch artist, Theo Jansen, designs the Strandbeesten (or Beach Beasts in English) to mimic the natural biological processes underpinning digestion and mobility, with oscillating sails to feed on wind energy, bladders to digest compressed air, and muscles to operate spidery legs. Built from PVC tubing, bottles and sheeting, the beasts roam Dutch beaches, following wind patterns in a new and fascinating artificial life.

Jansen’s most recently evolved Strandbeest, the 12m long Animaris Umerus, will soon be coming to Australia. It will spend February roaming the central piazza at Federation Square.

First seen in an article in The Age, viewable here.

What do we think?

Jansen’s background in physics led him 20 years ago to develop a computer program that utilised a genetic algorithm to emulate natural evolution. In it, virtual creatures competed against one another to determine which would reproduce. The Strandbeest project, ongoing since then, brings this early program to life.

The use of simple, limited materials – PVC, nylon thread and adhesive tape – to create creatures of great complexity mirrors nature’s own production process. Jansen observes that in nature, almost everything is made of protein used in various ways: from it come nails, hair, skin and bones. He explains that “there’s a lot of variety in what you can do with just one material and this is what I try to do as well.”

Jansen’s constant references to natural processes – skeletons, digestion, self-preservation and catacombs – are no accident. Though his media are inert, he is nevertheless conducting a long, slow dance of evolution: each Strandbeest learns from the mistakes of the last, is built to survive better and for longer. Recent improvements include high-wind sensors linked to sand anchors that protect the Strandbeesten from toppling over, and bottles that store compressed wind energy and drive pistons in their legs to move to safety at high tide.

What have we learnt?

There is a lot of science to Jansen’s project. His use of materials, the sophistication of his creatures’ limb joints and his inclusion of ancillary systems, have all improved significantly over the last 20 years, a clear indication of a systematic, scientific approach. However, like nature itself, there is also a lot of art. The Strandbeesten have a magical quality to them, evoking the multi-faceted movement of crustaceans, the ponderous size of elephants, the alien forms of the imagination.

Jansen’s dream, like the dream of any parent, is for his offspring to outlast him. His poetry lies in the Strandbeesten continuing to roam the beaches of Netherlands long after he himself has passed on.

We look forward to meeting the Animaris Umerus in person next month. Until then, we must satisfy ourselves with this short and beautifully-shot documentary, A Portrait of Theo Jansen, by Alexander Schlichter.

VCA art workshops exhibition

What is it?

A recent exhibition of graduates’ work from three casual workshops held by the Victorian College of the Arts. The three workshops run across a full year, covering drawing, painting and sculpture disciplines.

The casual workshops have no entry prerequisites, trying to appeal to the widest possible audience. This is a commendable philosophy that establishes a great diversity in students, though it also has the inevitable result of a wide range in quality. Most of the works, we have to say, were not memorable. Trevor Liddell’s drawings and Angela Pye’s sculptural installation were exceptions – both real gems in the rough.

What did we think?

Liddell’s drawings, Neutra Series (above), are re-workings of photos of Richard Neutra’s modernist architecture. He successfully combines both cerebral and craft-driven techniques into vivid renderings of the great architect’s famous imagery. Through mirroring, selective deletion and exaggerated perspective, Liddell filters the original photos through a lens that exposes the core geometries  of modernist form-making. The fine line-work and warm tones of the drawings reveal a meditative process of making that further sharpen the works’ inherent beauty. The resultant, semi-abstract images are architectural, graphical and iconic.

Angela Pye’s sculpture, In Between, is a field of 200 slip-cast porcelain noses. Taken from the noses of 30 friends and family (including Pye’s own), both the finished work and the process of making them are experiments in proximity. Pye states that she is “intrigued by the distance between noses… as one of the protruding parts of the body and a defining feature as one gets closer to another.” Viewing the work, the first thought that comes to mind is how awkward and intimate its production must have been, a sentiment echoed by Pye: “It was fascinating to feel the initial awkwardness of being so close to someone and see this slowly dissolve.” In Between is a compelling work in equal parts empathetic and humorous.

Both Liddell and Pye demonstrate the consideration, technical skill and immaculate attention to detail typically found amongst experienced artists. That both have other “day” jobs and neither work full time as artists makes these attributes even more remarkable. We congratulate them both on their engaging works, thank the VCA for providing them the opportunity to practice and exhibit, and eagerly anticipate future contributions to the wider artistic discourse.

Emerging glass exhibition

Warped Morphed by Samantha Cuffe

What is it?

An exhibition of glass art currently showing at Glass Plus Gallery in South Melbourne, featuring the work of four young glass artists who have each won the annual Glass Plus award for outstanding graduating glass artists. Mariella McKinley won the award in 2007, Annabel Kilpatrick in 2008, Lisa Krivitsky in 2009 and Samantha Cuffe in 2010. Opening last week, the exhibition runs until the 20th of August.

What do we think?

For a discipline that does not enjoy as widespread practice or patronage as painting or sculpture, it is difficult to consider glass art without comparing it to these more mainstream endeavours. Emerging offers some valuable insight into two contrasting pursuits evident within glass art – those of narrative (painting) and representation (sculpture).

The works of Kilpatrick and Krivitsky both demonstrate an interest in the former, utilising plates of glass carved to reveal pictographic scenes, in much the same way that a painter utilises a canvas. While Kilpatrick’s works in particular possess a nostalgia that is both engaging and beautiful, we find this approach has limited capacity to explore the nuanced and translucent properties of glass.

Taking a decidedly more sculptural approach, the representational work of Cuffe and McKinley fully captured our attention. Rather than regard glass as a blank surface on which to imprint an image, both artists have fashioned small sculptural forms derived from explorations into simple representational ideas.

Mariella McKinley

McKinley uses a complex caning technique to evoke the fractured imagery of the kaleidoscope. Her works have an alluring delicacy with such intricate spiralling geometries that they appear naturally formed or possibly computer-modelled. As well as the kaleidoscope, there are clear references to sea urchins and even woven steel cables.

Cuffe’s works are grouped into a repetitive collection of mirrored baubles, reflecting the viewer in an array of fascinating curvilinear shapes. The collection attempts to reveal the scission between “Our real selves and the reflections we perceive in the mirror… It plays with the subjectiveness of body image and allows its audience to question how they are seen within their environment”. Each piece is a precious object that appears at first glance to have perfectly formed mirror surfaces, but upon closer inspection reveals a satisfyingly handmade quality whose undulations and irregularities create unexpected delight in their grotesque distortions.

Both McKinley and Cuffe are interested in the juxtaposition between precision and imperfection – an exploration well-suited to the unique qualities of glass. Starting from specific representational seeds that could just as easily have sprouted traditional sculptural works, their pieces in glass flower with many potential qualities. Thanks principally to the delightful relationship between form and translucent / reflective surface, they make many analogous suggestions that depend as much on the experiences of the viewer as they do on the finely crafted and beautifully detailed objects themselves.

Bernini’s David

What is it?

A sculpture of David by the Italian Baroque sculptor, architect and painter, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It was produced between 1623 – 24, whilst Bernini was in his mid-twenties. It is currently located at the Borghese Museum in Rome, along with three of Bernini’s other similarly extraordinary works.

What do we think?

In contrast to Michelangelo’s earlier David, which depicts him prior to his battle with Goliath, with sling draped over his shoulder and body relaxed, Bernini chose to capture David at the moment of extreme action. His brow is furrowed with concentration, sling stretched to its limit, body twisted and ready to release the fated stone.

As only Bernini knew how, David’s body is unmistakably one of a simple farmer, well muscled though somehow still frail: we can almost see the calluses on his fingers from working the fields. His furrowed brow speaks of determination but also self-doubt, the fierce concentration on his face clear as he pushes away these doubts and focusses on the seemingly impossible task at hand. And his body, twisted back to stretch out the sling, is on the verge of athletic explosion.

It can be argued that the differences in Michelangelo’s and Bernini’s Davids can be attributed to the contrast between the Renaissance focus on classical stasis and the Baroque interest in dynamic movement. But we feel that the quality depicted in Bernini’s statue is more personal – here is a work that does not celebrate the godliness of David but his humanity.