Studio Drift at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Every now and then, you encounter an artwork that, for one reason or another, leaves you absolutely speechless. Art like this reminds you why art exists at all; it rejuvenates your passion for creating and your artistic curiosity.

I recently travelled to Amsterdam and while there, I visited the Stedelijk Museum. Dedicated to modern art and design, it showcased a huge variety of beguiling work by artists from Vincent Van Gogh to Steven Aalders. This is where I first encountered Studio Drift.

Studio Drift was founded in 2007 by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, and through their Amsterdam-based studio they explore the relationships between science, nature, and humanity. At the Stedelijk, their exhibition ‘Coded Nature’ involved an enormous concrete block, about 5 metres long, gently floating about in mid-air. Don’t get me wrong…it was exactly as it sounds. The block was the most heavy, cumbersome-looking thing, and yet it really did hover about, very slowly rotating, as if it were absolutely weightless. It emitted a constant, quiet, whooshing sound, rather like that of a stationary jet aircraft. The monolith’s slow but definite movements eliminated any of our suspicions that it might be suspended on hanging wire, pushing it further into the realms of the supernatural.

Although fantastical and extraordinary, the piece as a whole suggests simplicity and minimalism. This is chiefly because it seems to consist of just one component, and that component is of the simplest construction; just a large, grey cuboid. The apparent lack of any relationship with gravity only adds to the minimalist effect.

Coded Nature is visual, has presence, and is a fundamentally a process. The process begins at the beginning of the day, and from then on, the monolith continually moves about to reposition itself, staying within the bounds of its exhibition space. The process ends at 5pm, when the Stedelijk Museum closes. This ongoing process of self-restraint gives the block something akin to a personality and brings to mind the ever-increasing idea of artificial intelligence.

Of course, the people working at the museum refused to give up the secret of how the object actually levitated, only suggesting the ‘whirring noise’ is a clue. I wonder if the whole thing was made of some incredibly light material and stays afloat using a concealed arrangement of rotors. However, I simply don’t know, and of course the artwork benefits hugely from its inner workings remaining a mystery.

The key ideas that are present include a consideration (and apparent subversion of) the laws of nature. There is a definite human element as well; in that the object has an industrial, concrete appearance, like nothing that occurs naturally. I wonder how different the effect would be if it were some kind of flying island, full of greenery and life, like the fictional island of ‘Laputa’ in Gulliver’s Travels. In the case of Coded Nature, the overall effect is a sense of sheer awe and wonder; one feels as if they are in the presence of something beautiful and supernatural yet packed with up-to-the-minute technology. It is both human and nature.

So, a truly inspiring work, to say the very least. My feelings upon seeing it for the first time are the main thing that inspires me; it makes me want to create artwork that ignites the same sense of awe, wonder and bewilderment in those who see it. I am also particularly excited by the involvement of flight in the art world – I’ve always been fascinated by the mechanics of flight and wonder if I could explore it in my practice. This is one of the most inspiring and refreshing artworks I have been lucky enough to see in person, I feel incredibly fortunate to have come across it. Studio Drift have re-defined for me what is possible in a work of art; it harks back to our “impossible sculpture” project in first year in the way it realises something that should break the laws of nature.

So what is the next step? In order to work out how I might respond, I am going to draw up a mind map of the materials I have access to. The goal is to work out how to create an artwork that conjures some of the feelings I felt when viewing Coded Nature.


Published by William Fowler

I'm studying Art and English Literature at the University of Reading. My work includes painting, drawing, installation, film, performance, writing, and music. My main influences are surrealism, psychedelia, philosophy, literature, op art, and Arte Povera.

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