Studio Drift: Flylight

Studio Drift: Amazement at the natural world

The works of the artist duo invite us to immerse ourselves in the wondrous world of nature.

A light installation made up of hundreds of dandelion clocks that glow gently from within and seem to be floating in a lattice of bronze: with »Fragile Future« the Dutch artist Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, originally from England, have created a design masterpiece consisting of electric circuits and dandelion seeds, phosphor bronze, LED lamps and acrylic glass, a work that is typical of the way their Studio Drift sees itself. All nature is full of ingenious technology. Every dandelion is a tiny work of art. The work doesn't betray what painstaking work is involved in attaching dandelion flowers to little LED light bulbs – it radiates infinite lightness and ease. But the works produced by Studio Drift don't just revel in their own beauty. They think about the future, about nature and technology – and ask whether technological progress poses a threat to the equilibrium of nature. The two artists describe their »Fragile Future« series as »a critical and at the same time utopian vision of the future of our planet«.

Studio Drift in Hamburg erleben

Das Künstlerduo lässt mit einer Lichtskulptur die Gebäudefassade der Elbphilharmonie erstrahlen.

Studio Drift: Fragile Future
Studio Drift: Fragile Future © DRIFT

Nature, technology, man

The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where  Studio Drift was founded in 2006, showed the duo's complete work in a first-time major retrospective in 2018. Under the title »Coded Nature«, the exhibition highlighted the studio's artistic core: the duo's objects and installations not only enthral with their beauty, they also adopt a position that floats freely and erratically between the concepts of nature, technology and man. Basically speaking, all their work functions in a similar way: Studio Drift simulates natural phenomena, turning them into art that is nothing short of dazzling. Thus they join a long tradition of regarding art and nature as connected – a tradition that predates the blossoming of Art Nouveau. Back in 2004 the Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe put on the exhibition »Natur ganz Kunst« (Nature is Entirely Art), and the following text appeared in the catalogue: »We all remember collecting chestnuts, pine cones and beechnuts as children, picking up seashells or coloured pebbles on the beach. Feelings of nostalgia for these simple things seem to stay with us for the rest of our lives.«

Mini-documentary about Studio Drift produced by the Stedelijk Museum

That is precisely the underlying principle behind Studio Drift's work, as is clearly shown by the light installation »Shylight«: a kind of ballet danced by shy, glowing flowers that can be opened and closed again, that constantly cast off their petals using lighting technology, and then withdraw again. Here, too, nature with its highly-evolved technique of nyctinastia provides the inspiration for a work of art made of many layers of very thin silk: it seems easy to grasp, but one shouldn't underestimate its depth. Another fascinating work is »Ego«, an opera installation that was created in 2020 for a production of Claudio Monteverdis »L’Orfeo« put on by the Dutch Travelling Opera Company: 16 kilometres of fine fluorocarbon rope were spun into a silvery cloud that floats above the ensemble on stage, constantly altering its shape and thus becoming part of the story – a flexible structure, a spatial and changeable work of art, a kinetic installation that is controlled by motors using software. But the viewer doesn't see or hear all this technology: he watches the constantly changing web in the air, sometimes all fine and light, sometimes solid and heavy – a gleaming, glittering, silvery illusion.

Studio Drift: Shylight Studio Drift: Shylight © Ossip
Studio Drift: EGO Studio Drift: EGO © Ossip van Duivenbode

Dialogue of opposing worlds

The philosophy that underlies  Studio Drift's work is always the »dialogue of opposing worlds «. The two designers find an original language by crossing nature with technology, reason with intuition, science with poetry. Their works seem to still to radiate the spirit of Romanticism, with a Romantic view of nature, a feeling for the decorative typical of Art Nouveau and a pure longing for everlasting beauty. Yet at the same time they contain lots of science fiction, a love of technology and a decisive »Yes!« to the future. One of their biggest projects to date was »Franchise Freedom«, which was first put on in Miami Beach, literally on the beach, in 2017. It is a flying sculpture consisting of a swarm of 300 illuminated drones that imitates the natural flight of a flock of birds; an imitation of life, already described in an R.E.M. song in 2001, controlled by decentralised algorithms and based on the movements of starlings in flight. What is more important? Individual freedom, or security in a group? This is one more question that Studio Drift asks in this remarkable work, which formed part of a major show put on last year by the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

DRIFT © Teska van Overbeeke

»The world itself is one big exhibition. You just have to look closely. At Studio Drift we want to depict the wonders that surround us in nature.«

Lonneke Gordijn


»Immersed in Light: Studio Drift at the Mint« was the first museum presentation of Studio Drift's work outside Europe, and showed the large-scale installations of the duo, which now employs 20 people, works together with university research institutes and sees itself as an artists' collective and a technical start-up in equal measure. Annie Carlano, head curator for fashion and design at the Mint Museum, sums up the work of the two Dutch artists thus: »Their explorations of natural and supernatural phenomena take us on an emotional journey from ›Wow!‹ to ›Miraculous!‹.«

And Lonneke Gordijn herself has repeatedly identified this sense of amazement at the natural world as a driver of her work: »People find the time to look at art in a gallery, but the world itself is one big exhibition. You just have to look closely. At Studio Drift we want to depict the wonders that surround us in nature.« She goes on: »Our aim is to forge a dialogue between nature and technology, a perfect combination of knowledge and intuition, science fiction and nature, imagination and interactivity. We hope to encourage people to notice things that they don't notice any more. (…) If people without any artistic background can still understand what we are trying to express, then we've been successful.«

Franchise Freedom at the 2018 Burning Man Festival

Reality and simulation

One of the duo's most surprising works is »Drifter«, a huge block of concrete that floats in the air and slowly turns on its own axis. How does this work? Is it magic? How can something so heavy seem so light? This work, too, touches on fundamental issues: with the increasing technical sophistication that comes with digitalisation, the potential for experiencing illusions has become ever greater. The role that art plays in this process is currently the subject of vehement debate in the art scene: does it just represent the technical possibilities, does it allow us to drift off into virtual worlds – or does it express criticism and suggest alternatives? The art of Studio Drift possesses utopian potential. It touches on central questions relating to the human condition: How do we find our way in a simulated world? How do we distinguish reality from simulation? Is nature competing with digital systems?

Studio Drift: Coded Nature exhibition Stedelijk Museum 2018
Studio Drift: Coded Nature exhibition Stedelijk Museum 2018 © Ronald Smits

One can ask all these questions while gazing in amazement at  »Drifter«. Studio Drift makes us drift off into a world of wonder. We don't know how »Drifter« actually works – maybe it is really as light as a feather. Obviously there is a technical explanation, but we needn't know it. Studio Drift recently showed the work in Helsinki's Amos Rex Art Museum together with works by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898–1967). And not without reason: like Magritte, Studio Drift creates dreams and evokes disbelief. Surely there is no such thing as a floating block of concrete. Or is there? As Magritte himself might have said: Ceci n’est pas un bloc de béton.


Text: Marc Peschke

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