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: Stretching the Meaning of a 'Life Form'

The Strandbeest and the Hongerbeest

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  • Posted: 06/17/2013 4:06 PM

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

A few million of us have apparently had the opportunity to watch Theo Jansen's TEDTalk online. If you are not one, watch it very quickly below. You'll likely agree it's crazy to see his creepy, crawly, self-propelled "Strandbeest" art making its way around a beach.

As is often the case with art, some will find it beautiful and compelling while others may see little value. Unlike most art, Jansen's art refuses to sit still or be inanimate. It does not hang on a wall or sit in a gallery. On the contrary his art involves action, and for me it inspired action... at least the rather unimpressive, limited action of Googling Mr. Jansen to learn a bit more about him and his work. What was that accent he was sporting? And what sort of background did he have? Is he more artist or engineer? Before long I was looking at his Wikipedia page.

After reading and learning a bit, my main interest with Mr. Jansen stemmed from a tangential observation that on its surface spoke to none of my initial curiosity. I noticed he was born in the 1940s in the Netherlands. Since I spend my days at a company that makes products to fight malnutrition, I could not help but notice that Jansen was born just after one of the most noted and awful famines of modern times. This famine came to be called the Dutch Hongerwinter, a now infamous period for researchers in regard to how well it documented the impact of famine and severe malnutrition on human beings. Before we get back to Theo Jansen and his Strandbeests, it's worth noting how the Hongerwinter happened.

In the winter of 1944-45 near the end of WWII, the Nazi's implemented a relentless siege on the German-occupied part of the Netherlands and the result was the Hongerwinter. The German blockade cut off fuel and food shipments from farm areas to punish the Dutch for their refusal to aid the Nazi war effort. Some 4.5 million were affected, especially in the heavily populated western provinces north of the great rivers.

When the Nazi's cracked down, food stocks in the cities in the western Netherlands rapidly depleted. The adult rations in cities such as Amsterdam dropped to below 1,000 calories a day by the end of November 1944 and to 580 calories by the end of February 1945.

At first oils, cheese and meat were allotted every two weeks, but soon the government issued meat coupons soon became worthless. The bread ration fell to a miserly 2,200 gams per week then further to 1,000 grams in October, and by April 1945 to a mere 400 grams a week. Together with one kilogram of potatoes, this formed the entire weekly ration.

Spurred by hunger, people would walk for miles to trade anything of value for food at nearby farms. Houses and the furniture inside were dismantled to provide firewood for heating. Sugar beets and even tulip bulbs were eaten. From September 1944 until early 1945 the deaths of more than 22,000 Dutch citizens were attributed to malnutrition as the primary cause. Even more died with malnutrition as a contributing factor. The Famine ended in summer 1945, a few short years before Theo Jansen's birth.

Knowing this about the pervasive impact of the Hongerwinter on an entire generation of Dutch citizens, I took a chance and fired off an email to Jansen using the "contact" tab on his website. After complementing him on his creative and interesting work, I then asked a rather obtuse question about the Hongerwinter and whether or not it had impacted his life.

He responded promptly and kindly and connected me with some of his 10 brothers and sisters, now spread around the world. While Theo arrived on the scene a few years after the Hongerwinter, through corresponding with his siblings I learned of its dramatic impact on the family. His sister Adriana, who was only five during that dreadful winter, remembers her dad coming home with two large burlap bags of pig food he managed to get from a nearby farm. "It was a mix of charcoal and milk powder," she said in her email. "After mom added the hot water, it was somewhat thickened and turned a funny faded blue color and tasted absolutely horrible. I can still recall that taste. It was the regular diet for a very long time, but we did not starve" She then added, "I guess we were lucky. We even said grace for having it."

All these years later the youngest of the 11 Jansen kids is still playing on the beach near where he was born. And while he missed the Hongerwinter, he's now hungry to offer the world something altogether new. The same defiant Dutch spirit that brought on a draconian German siege has him stubbornly wandering the beach with his dog and his beloved Strandbeests. I for one am left to wonder what might have happened had malnutrition claimed his mother, as it did too many young Dutch women from the Hongerwinter. What if it had killed some of the siblings, who cared for him and shaped his worldview as his parents struggled to recover in post-war Netherlands? And how many Theo Jansens did it claim, whose brilliant inventions and art we will now never see.

Perhaps someday another younger inventor/artist will add on to Jansen's idea and put newer versions of his beasts to work in creative and useful ways. Perhaps they will pull weeds in organic fields and farms, or partner with dwindling bee populations to pollinize crops? My imagination tends to see them in those roles for the same reason that it led me to see a connection to what is now an obscure, long-passed famine. We need Strandbeests, or something equally out-of-the-box, in those and other roles to fight a modern Hongerwinter. It's no stretch to call the ongoing fight with malnutrition a "Hongerbeest" that relentlessly roams around our globe. Today a child still dies of malnutrition every six seconds, that's nearly the entire death toll of the horrific Dutch Hongerwinter each and every day!

In the end, an important job of art is to inspire and enthrall, providing us with evidence and hope that unique and creative products still flow from the minds and talent of our fellow humans. Whatever one thinks of Theo Jansen's Strandbeests, they certainly do that! As for the Hongerbeest that tirelessly wanders our beaches and villages, it will require our collective effort and attention. The Hongerwinter of 1944-45 came about because of the dictate of a diabolical madman, yet humanity rallied and a massively planned collective assault stopped him. What's our excuse for not taking similar action as a new Hongerwinter death toll adds up nearly every day?

Contributor Mark Moore is the founder and CEO of MANA Nutrition. Interestingly, Hongerwinter in 1945 was brought to an end in part by a famous RAF effort called Operation MANNA.

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