Raw Materials

Mitch and I were in the process of missing the eleven p.m. train. It was a Saturday, and he had told me specifically that morning that he did not want "to be in the city forever." The "L" was simply not going to get to the Metra station in time, and there was nothing we could do about it.

I had The New Yorker out on my lap, reading, in an attempt to make the best of things. In it there was an article about a Dutch engineer/sculptor who makes huge mobile "beach animals" out of PVC pipe and zip ties. Ultimately, he wants them to be able to, powered by wind, shovel sand from the ocean shallows up onto the beach dunes. Holland is very low-lying and it seems in danger of massive flooding if the water rises just slightly. For now the Strandbeests just trot around.

I keep thinking about something Theo Jansen, their sculptor and creator, said:

"The walking Strandbeest is a body snatcher. It charms people and then uses them so they can't do anything else but follow, and I am the worst victim, you could say. All the time I think about them. Always I have a new plan, but then it is corrected by the requirements of the tubes. They dictate to me what to do. At the end of my working day, I am almost always depressed. Mine is not a straight path like an engineer's, it's not A to B. I make a very curly road just by the restrictions of goals and materials. A real engineer would probably solve the problem differently, maybe make an aluminum robot with motor and electric sensors and all that. But the solutions of engineers are often much alike, because human brains are much alike. Everything we think can in principle be thought by someone else. The real ideas, as evolution shows, come about by chance. Reality is very creative. Maybe that is why the Stranbeests appear to be alive, and charm us. The Strandbeests themselves have let me make them."

I'm not a fan of motivational posters. Slogans, "Attitude is everything," "Everything happens for a reason," etc, strike me as willful delusions undertaken to make the world more friendly and coherent. That said, I also do not prefer to be absolutely fatalistic or to admit only bleak beliefs(which, at least, do not smell of sentimentality) into my personal canon because I do not want to be depressed and petrified in earnest -- I only want to seem that way cause it's edgy.

Jansen's quote, therefore, has worked itself into a nice little corner in my brain. What he's saying makes sense to me, and I had not thought about it before. He talks about the relationship between him and his surroundings, the raw materials that he has to work with. For him, it is his subject's limitations that enable him to make something fresh and astounding. Whimsical, even. A leap in creativity and innovation precisely because he does not have materials that are exactly suitable to his needs.

Extended, he could be talking for me. I have a supportive family, wonderful friends, degrees in English and Physics, and some talent and a love for art, but little direction and less experience. In true form, I could say that I've been stupid and naive or that I've been lied to about the nature of reality or that the world is cruel and there's not a place for me in it. (Don't let those edgy people convince you that there's not sentimentality in being pessimistic.) Or I could see those as my raw materials and be thankful that they insure me a life that looks different than the standard career launch and race to acquire things of escalating price. It says to me that creativity thrives when possibilities are obstructed.

I just hope that this damn beest will let me make it.

*Top photo by Lena Herzog

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