In many respects, Fragile Future, a solo exhibition of work by the Dutch artist duo studio DRIFT currently on view at The Shed in Manhattan, is a quagmire of contrasts. Poignant thematic and formal dichotomies abound throughout the show’s five rooms: ethereality and solidity, naturally occurring patterns and computer-generated algorithms, light and dark, the monumental and the minute, permanence and transience. Though most works on view constitute thoughtful embodiments of the environmental processes they seek to illuminate (both literally and metaphorically), the conceptual thrust of the show is somewhat muddled.
Founded by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta in 2007, DRIFT’s stated mission is to “manifest the phenomena of nature with the use of technology in order to learn from the Earth’s underlying mechanisms and to re-establish our connection to it.” Exactly how that re-connection is fostered in Fragile Future is somewhat unclear and, as a result, the visually stunning immersive experience that concludes the show feels like more of a distraction from the exhibition’s conceptual underpinnings than a culmination of it.
Opening the exhibition is the work after which the show is titled, which began in 2007 and remains ongoing; an armature of bronze electrical circuits illuminates an array of LED bulbs to which real dandelion seeds have been adhered. The sculpture can take a nearly infinite number of configurations as bulbs are added and rearranged, resembling a cyborg version of Sol LeWitt’s Modular Structures.
A similar installation follows it, after which the visitor enters a space where a kinetic sculpture titled Ego is periodically activated. Woven from ultrafine strands of Japanese fluorocarbon, the sculpture, when animated by computerized motors, reveals itself to be an ethereal rectilinear cuboid. This shape is echoed in the sculptures of the following room, collectively referred to as Materialism. Though they are situated in a transitory corridor gallery, these works present the most conceptually-grounded works in the show: displayed on a series of pedestals are groups of blocks arranged to resemble a sort of contemporary Bauhaus sculpture.
Comprising the raw materials of a range of items including a bicycle, an iPhone, a lightbulb, and a Russian AK-47, each block is made from the elemental substance of each object, each compressed into block-form and arranged with its constituent ingredients to reveal its relative quantity. The materials of the title constitute the message in a very literal way, particularly at the two pedestals toward the end of the gallery, which compare the amount of silicon needed to house the entire internet in 2000 and 2020.
In the penultimate gallery, dual films are projected on opposite walls; one follows a large concrete monolith as it floats about an urban environment, the other features the same monoliths moving about a foggy green mountain landscape. The blocks constitute the foundational unit of modern construction, representing, in a broader sense, the built environment in which we dwell. It is these same blocks that comprise the elements of the final gallery—suspended two stories in the air, five monumental “concrete” slabs appear to hang in midair, an uncanny feat of engineering augmented by the theatrical lights of The Shed’s outsized performance space. The eponymously titled Drifters seamlessly glide across the McCourt theater, dancing to an original score by ANOHNI. Interestingly, while the rest of the works on view are accompanied by tombstones of text and didactics, Drifters is presented without explanation, its wall text listing only the title and date of the work. The actual media from which the work is made remains unknown, a stark contrast to the previous galleries, yet appropriate for the dreamlike performance it evokes. Given the themes of the previous galleries, the work seeks to emphasize the malleability of our lived environment, a reminder that industrial and technological innovation are constantly unfolding on paths that can be directed or diverted.
Presented in collaboration with the firm Superblue, Pace Gallery’s new immersive art enterprise, Fragile Future languishes in its indeterminacy, providing ample visual marvels but leaving visitors seeking anything more than a vague sense of wonder wanting. While the rectilinear cuboid constitutes a uniting formal motif, the conceptual cohesion of the works on view is a bit more tenuous, rendering the artists’ decision to leave the standout installation unexplained all the more puzzling. Perhaps they were simply aiming to heighten the sense of awe aroused by the scale and technical achievements of the work by shrouding its mechanics in mystery, but, given the environmental concern of Fragile Future and the artists’ practice in general, the illusory approach feels more escapist than empowering.
In today’s Instagram age, getting visitors to focus on anything besides the photographic potential of an immersive artwork feels like half the battle. The presentation of Drifters does little to counter its potential to be absorbed as pure spectacle. That said, reclining beneath a four-story-high cavern to observe concrete monoliths unfurl a gracefully slow aerial ballet to ANOHNI’s gorgeous, haunting soundtrack is a unique experience, one that will undoubtedly leave an impression on visitors and take the burgeoning trend of immersive art installations to a new level.
Drift: Fragile Future is on view at The Shed through December 19.