On the Fringes of Sculpture: Studio Drift

If you don’t already know these names, make sure to remember them now: Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn. For they are the minds behind Studio Drift, an Amsterdam-based artists’ duo founded in 2007, who create works which may best be described as natural phenomena, captured by technology. Let me explain. Their vast array of work is frequently inspired by, or mimics, occurrences such as the flight of birds, the blooming of flowers, or the way a tree interacts with its surroundings. They then apply their inspiration using cutting-edge technology like virtual reality, drones and sophisticated kinetic sensors, occasionally partnering up with researchers at the Technological University of Delft (TU Delft) if what they are looking to do is not possible yet. The result is dreamlike; it is an ode to nature, an enhancement of its charms, and reveals a deep fascination with its complex systems. Studio Drift is perhaps best known for its large installations, including Flylight (which mimics the flight of a flock of starlings and reacts to people’s movements), In 20 Steps (inspired by the movement of wings), and Fragile Future (a tetris-like construction of little cages which each hold a single dandelion, illuminated from the inside by a small LED-light).

But the works of Studio Drift are also deeply concerned with mass and space. Flirting with sculpture and the way sculpture occupies space, many of their works interact with a room beyond having an ornamental function. More importantly, they react to human presence in that room. This becomes apparent when you compare their installations with more eclectic, though just as impressive, pieces such as the Tree of Ténéré (a climbable work with LED-light technology which plays soft music and changes colour according to who touches it) and Drifter (an enormous flying block which slowly rotates despite no being supported by any apparent mechanism). It is perhaps the Materialism series (2018-9) which comes closest to sculpture. It constitutes of several objects – as big as a Volkswagen Beetle or as small as a light bulb, as complex as an iPhone 4 and as simple as a water bottle – deconstructed into their various materials. The materials have been condensed into blocks, in quantities proportionate to the object, and arranged in elegant structures which vaguely recall high-rise cities.

The Materialism works are sculpture in form; there certainly is no other way to qualify them, as the terms ‘collage’ or ‘assemblage’ do not really cover their physicality. There is nothing ‘sculpted’ about them however, though it is debatable whether that quality is what makes a sculpture. Their content or intent, too, suggests a different definition. They are philosophical enquiries, in the form of arrangements or juxtapositions of materials, which ask the viewer to question our use of resources. By confronting us with the things we use and the space they take up – a poignant example is the typical Gazelle bike, owned by every Dutch person at some point in their life – we are forced to consider how much we consume. The possibilities for enquiry and reflection on life’s materiality are endless. For example, the series both neutralises and enhances the power of certain objects (a bullet and a machine gun), by reminding us that similar materials may be used to harm or to cycle on, depending on their application.

It is certainly impactful, as is all that Studio Drift does. There is an otherworldly effect to their creations, yet the ideas behind them are very much rooted in our world. An additional consideration comes to mind: that technology and design can create peacefulness and quiet contemplation, in contrast to the overload of images, noise and information with which they are generally associated. This too is due to the sculptural quality of much of their work. Sculpture provides a frame of reference, of familiarity, which the works then break from, question or subvert. Scale and interaction with space are used to their advantage to engage the viewer, to place them at the centre of the work. This in turn forces the viewer to take time to consider what it is they are experiencing. This interdisciplinary, immersive art then ultimately revolves around people, human connection and symbiological relations.

Studio Drift has gained increasing visibility over the past few years, with a major mid-career retrospective titled “Coded Nature” at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 2018, participation in Burning Man 2017 with their Tree of Ténéré, and a collaboration with the fashion designer Iris van Herpen, as a result of which In 20 Steps was featured as the backdrop of her Autumn 2018 Haute Couture show. This reflects the multiple purposes and applications of their work, and suggests that Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn will still further leave their mark not only on contemporary art, which they far transcend, but on the technology which shapes our world.