Wonder and light

The Arts

December 2, 2019

From Burning Man to NASA to Charlotte — Netherlands-based Studio Drift brings its thought-provoking, technology-driven artworks to The Mint Museum.

by Grace Cote    •   Photographs by Richard Israel

“What if we tried to …? Why don’t we use …? Who do we ask …?” These are the questions at the root of the works of Studio Drift, the Amsterdam-based artist collective that is currently the subject of a solo exhibition at Mint Museum Uptown. Using light, technology and determined imagination, the artworks replicate everyday natural phenomena: the pattern of a bird’s wing in flight, the swirling murmurations of flock of starlings, the soft morning light illuminating wispy dandelion seeds. The seemingly straightforward artworks provoke emotional and awe-filled responses from audiences.

Studio Drift was founded in 2007 by Dutch artists Ralph Nauta, 40, and Lonneke Gordijn, 39, and has grown to include more than 40 artists and engineers. Immersed in Light: Studio Drift at the Mint, which opened in September and runs through April, presents five works in the studio’s first solo exhibition outside of Europe. 

It is the kind of show that makes you want to take your camera out and simultaneously put it away — and definitely something you’ll want to tell your friends about. The art is playful and accessible to people of all ages and from all backgrounds because it combines design, science, technology and imagination in equal measure. For proof, look to the variety of groups Studio Drift has exhibited with in the last few years: Burning Man, Miami Art Week, NASA and the Venice Biennale, to name a few. 

Studie Drift’s goal is to show the beauty of nature through man-made technologies. 

“Technology shouldn’t take us further away from nature, it should bring us closer to nature,” Gordijn says. 

“When you look closely at nature, you realize it is the most high-tech part of our world,” Nauta adds.

Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted with “Amplitude,” a large installation that debuted in Venice at the 2015 Biennale, an international art exhibition held every other summer that features visual arts, dance, theater and more. A series of long, unconnected glass tubes hang horizontally from the ceiling, each see-sawing individually. Their timing is perfectly synchronized: As the tubes move together, they replicate a flapping bird wing in slow motion, the rolling waves of the sea or any number of repetitive, undulating movements found in nature. 

“Franchise Freedom” is another work that consists of as many as 600 drones with pre-programmed movements that mimic the murmurations of starlings. The work was most recently performed at the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing at Kennedy Space Center in July. Though “Franchise Freedom” will not be performed in Charlotte, a number of drones from the work hang from the ceiling while a short documentary about the flying sculpture plays on a loop in the galleries.  

Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta of Amsterdam-based Studio Drift

This work highlights a theme of Studio Drift’s practice, which is that sometimes the artists’ ideas begin development before the technology to execute them exists. 

“When we came to this idea, only two drones could fly together,” Gordijn says. “Technology had to catch up with our idea in order for us to be able to make it.” To produce “Franchise Freedom,” the studio partnered with technology giant Intel, creating a work that adhered to federal drone restrictions. For example, the drones could never be less than 15 feet apart from each other. The piece is performed at night, and the drones — each affixed with a light — dance through the sky in a choreographed mass that expands, contracts, spirals and swoops. 

The piece is set to the atmospheric piano music of Dutch composer Joep Beving — a soundtrack that was specially commissioned for the artwork. Conceptually, it explores the falsehood of freedom — how even when we think we are free or breaking away, unforeseen life events will always direct our paths. 

Light is a critical part of Studio Drift’s practice because it produces such an emotional connection with viewers. 

“Amplitude” is a series of glass tubes that mimic undulating movements found in nature.

Another work, “Fragile Future 3,” consists of three-dimensional bronze electrical circuits illuminating LED bulbs covered in hand-picked dandelion seeds. The labor-intensive process, from picking the dandelions to hand-gluing them onto bulbs, is a statement for craftsmanship in an era of mass production. The effect of the dandelion seeds on the bulbs is a softening, a warmth and a welcoming invitation to take a closer look. 

“We want people to see [the works] as living organisms,” Gordijn says.

“Coded Coincidence,”which is making its international debut in an industrial space on the fifth floor of the museum, provides an opportunity for visitors to see an artwork in progress.As of mid-November, the work was not yet complete, though certain parts of it were in the final stages of development. Once finished, it will be an immersive installation inspired by the sensation of elm seeds swirling amid gusts of wind, a common phenomenon in Amsterdam. Visitors will stand in a large acrylic chamber while seed-like objects blow around them, guided by 30 steerable wind blowers.  

For Studio Drift, artworks take about a year and a half from idea to full execution —  sometimes longer. 

“We don’t make up a project fully in the beginning,” Gordijn says. “We have a starting point and an idea we want to achieve,” but as the work progresses, alterations are made until they find the emotional connection they want people to feel with the work. “This is something you cannot plan,” she says. The artists will travel back and forth from Amsterdam to Charlotte until “Coded Coincidence” is completed. 

Process and creative problem-solving are at the root of Studio Drift’s practice, but its ultimate goal is to bring awareness to the natural world in order to promote its well-being. The artists ask, “How can you connect better with the environment? If you feel the environment, if you respect the environment, if you are one with the environment, you can actually take much better care of it,” Nauta says. 

Through the use of technology, the artists of Studio Drift provoke feelings of wonder in their audiences that linger long after they leave the exhibition. When this perspective shifts, it’s hard not to join them in their awe.  SP


Immersed in Light: Studio Drift at the Mint runs through April 26 at Mint Museum Uptown. From Jan. 24 – Feb. 5, the museum will partner with the Charlotte Ballet on an experimental performance inspired by the exhibition. More information at MintMuseum.org.

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