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The Shed in New York City, the expensive contemporary art institute under the direction of Brit Alex Poots and Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, has given in to the trend of experiential shows. The exhibit Fragile Future consists of six consecutive rooms, each displaying an installation by the artist duo DRIFT. A thematic progression from the natural to the synthetic is implied in the series, starting with small, fragile dandelions and ending with massive concrete blocks. The first piece in the exhibition consists of a geometric structure of round light bulbs encased in a bronze multicubic structure that would look good in most living rooms. A closer look reveals dandelion seeds with their lovely plumes glued around each bulb. Its title Fragile Future, eponymous to the exhibition, most likely refers to that organic component, rather than to our overuse of electric current which powers nearly all pieces in the exhibit. The DRIFT duo has been working for years with dandelions, producing an award-winning lamp, also called Fragile Future, which has been for sale in the MOMA shop. In fact, Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, who describe themselves as artists, have been formed at a design school in Netherland.
As a sequence to the static dandelion piece, the tiny floating lights in the next room are animated by the breath of a blowing machine, just as we often puff on dandelions to make them disperse. Coded Coincidence comes across, with its magic quality, as a celebration of the random movements found in nature. In the next room, a net made out of extra thin material takes the shape of a large rectangular prism as the wires that hold it up are activated by machines. It is entitled Ego, and the shape goes through permutations that are less rigid and geometric and more lifelike, sometimes evoking a bird or a spirit. “(…) as though it is responding to varying emotional states, from a seemingly inflexible and imposing rectangle to a vulnerable and yielding presence,” clarifies the label. This kinetic sculpture, as every piece in the exhibit, is accompanied by music composed by ANOHNI. It’s a rather unexpected thrill to find her music here. She is well known in the pop world for her beautiful ballads, her warm, vibrant voice quality, the sad loveliness of her tunes. Her compositions for the exhibit, while mostly abstract, retain the poignancy of her songs, particularly when her voice intertwines with the instrumental modulations. Then follows a room with a collection of exhibits made of rectangular prisms of various sizes and materials. Each prism corresponds to one of the components (plastic, wood, metal, etc.) of a particular object, such as a Nokia, a Kalashnikov or a Starbucks cup. In effect, the prisms are like a 3D diagram, displayed with visual elegance, and satisfying to the curious mind. The geometric compositions bring to mind constructivist sculptures, but this art movement with its exploration of inorganic shapes meant to celebrate industrialism and the power of the human mind over nature, which is not the stated purpose of these creators. Contemporary artists, such as Camille Henrot or Leone Contini, tend to represent nature as the complex, volatile system that is so much richer than our regimented industrialism.
This progressive introduction to the rectangle prism, or what the DRIFT duo calls “Drifters,” comes to conclusion in the last two rooms. First, two films are projected on opposite walls, one a collage of footage of New York City found on the internet. The people who shot the city during the pandemic were contacted, and offered licenses for their footage, states one of the artists who wander the rooms, making themselves amiably available to questions. Their drifters levitate above the streets, float through the skyline. On the wall opposite, those same drifters dance their sad choreography above natural landscapes. The massive concrete blocks, instead of coming across as powerful and indestructible, inspire pity. They look almost identical, their holes figuring sad, unseeing eyes. They’re heavy, unyielding. They’ll never change shape. Unlikely to know love, they have been produced for maximum efficiency. For their price to value ratio. You pile them up, and you have a building or a bridge. People are naturally soft, and irregular in shape, both internally and externally. As humans, we are in danger of becoming less individualized as we undergo pressure from society to conform and be efficient.
The two films are most likely meant to express dissimilarity, the natural landscape contrasting more with the blocks than with the city which is described on the label as “dystopian.” Some New Yorkers might beg to differ. The label expounds with the earnestness and expansiveness running throughout the exhibition: “(…) The two Drifters films in this room explore a recurring strategy in DRIFT’s practice, through which they visualize the universal desire to seek out purpose and connection.” The contrast between manmade and nature might have been more effective with images of Dallas or Singapore, but even these hyper modern cities shift shape spontaneously, have moods and neighbourhoods with different flairs. Any city, and New York City particularly, is a living organism too, it is not just a collection of metal and concrete components, as were the objects in the previous room. We all remember that this city suffered a heartrending wound in 2001, a mental depression in 2008, and a dropsical disease in 2012 with a relapse in 2021. The best proof of that vibrant soul, of that throbbing heart, of that vulnerable body, can be found in the footage on show. It looks beautiful. It makes one proud, fellow New Yorkers! Check out their cinematic talent as it showcases the beauty and character of the city. These people were also documenting a moment in the life of the city that will hopefully be defined as historical as the pandemic becomes something of the past. Still, the drifters moving slowly above the urban landscape are poignant.
So are they in their physical form present in the last room. This polyvalent section of the Shed can be expanded or shrunk at the push of a button. In that huge space, they evolve high above the humans looking tiny and fragile by comparison, and if these are really blocks of concrete, which I hope they’re not (The designers do not reveal the details of their technical process), they would crush the humans into a sorry pulp should they fall on their heads. One of the exhibit’s goals according to the accompanying copy is to rouse “empathy toward nonliving objects.” We can definitely project on these blocks our fears and our aspirations for connection. The two DRIFT artists must also identify with the blocks to have titled them after their own name. Usually, concrete blocks are inert. Here, the slow choreography has turned them into blind beings, made all the more poignant by the music by dear ANOHNI. “DRIFTER culminates the exhibition in a transition from the digital to the physical realm (…). It likewise embodies the power to be found in embracing change.”
It is very difficult to define art, particularly in the 21st century. Design, on the other hand, can be described easily: the creation of an object that delivers a solution to a need or a problem. The DRIFT duo has clearly expressed what they see as the problem: humans need to connect more with their planet, and with the urgency to protect Nature. They conceived the exhibit with the goal to address that need, and it’s up to the visitors to decide for themselves whether that effort has been successful. As for many experiential productions such as the Klimt immersive show, it can be questioned whether this is art, design, or entertainment. In their opening speech, the DRIFT Duo stated that they want to take people out of their heads where their digital world locks them up. However, the work has a lot in common with what has proven so addictive in the digital world. Modern technology and its electronic devices offer movement, sounds, spectacular effects, sources of amazement. All are present in the show. Nature also offers movement, sounds, effects, and many sources of amazement. But we have to wait, or travel far for them, and there is often no guarantee. I have seen just once a pod of dolphins gallivanting down the Chesapeake Bay. Every time I sit on its shores, my eyes resting on its waters, I hope to see them again. It’s been 15 years. But I can move from one room to the other in The Shed, and there is no waiting time for things to happen. Performative is the word used to define the work in the press release. What does it mean? Nothing, as far as scholar Dorothea von Hantelmann is concerned. “There is no performative artwork because there is no nonperformative artwork,” according to her analysis. Experiential is another word found in various texts concerning the exhibit. Experiential means relating to experience, and that is certainly what artwork produces in viewers. There is no experiential artwork because there is no nonexperiential artwork would be an apt paraphrase.
Still, it is true that the experience of the viewer produced by an artwork has become an area of exploration for artists in contemporary art. They are too numerous to list here; Vito Acconci and his melting ice constructions, Bruce Naumann’s corridors, and the artists of Gutai are just a few examples. Works appealing to all senses including kinetic have been produced since the 60s, only the technology has changed. The pieces that are labelled performative or experiential or immersive these days have that in common that they use highly performing technology, are on a large scale, and take place in huge spaces plunged in darkness. They’re also popular. Van Gogh The Immersive Experience drew more than two million people in Paris. Here is to wishing the Shed that Fragile Future will attract numerous visitors, prompting them to care more about Nature, to spend less time in their digital world, and that they will reflect on what our future and that of the planet might be.
Arabella Hutter is a writer with a particular interest in women issues and the arts. She writes articles about art and literature for magazines, pieces about New York City for European newspapers, and her fiction is represented by Lotus Lane Literary. She has a background as a film and television writer/producer whose work includes films and documentaries for the British Film Institute, the BBC, and Channel 4, in addition to several international independent and experimental films. She collaborated on 14 episodes of "Inside the Actors' Studio" for Bravo with Glenn Close, Jessica Parker, Holly Hunter, Gene Wilder, and more. She was the Executive Director of The International Quorum of Motion Picture Producers from 2012 to 2015. Raised in Switzerland, based in Brooklyn, she travels the world on a regular basis with a preference for India, Thailand, Turkey, and Italy.