Category Archives: material

Materialism, an exercise in dismantling consumer culture

Studio Drift creates elegant installations and interactive sculptures that explore the relationship between nature, human and technology. The creative duo currently has a solo show at the new, spectacular Amos Rex art museum in Helsinki. During my visit there, I was vexed to learn that everybody but me knew the work of Studio Drift.

Studio Drift, Light bulb, from the series Materialism

Studio Drift, Drifter, 2019. Photo: Stella Ojala for Amos Rex

Studio Drift, VW Beetle 1980, from the series Materialism. Photo by Stella Ojala for Amos Rex

A huge block of concrete floating above visitors’ heads, a light sculpture made of dandelion seeds and LED-lights, etc. Studio Drift excels at experimenting with technology. Materialism, the work in the show that impressed me the most, was decidedly less technologically sophisticated but it nevertheless tells a powerful story about how little we know about the objects we surround ourselves with.

For this series, the designers took consumer goods such as a vacuum cleaner, a classic Nokia phone, a Volkswagen Beetle, a pencil, a PET bottle, a light bulb and a bicycle and literally reduced their complexity to the raw materials they are made of.

Still, Materialism is an affecting exercise in dismantling consumer culture, in leaving aside functions and in ennobling the resources we extract from the Earth at great human and environmental costs.

Studio Drift, Materialism

Studio Drift, Pencil, from the series Materialism

Studio Drift, Gazelle Bicycle 2005, from the series Materialism. Photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij

Each big or small object in their Materialism series becomes unrecognizable. A bicycle is converted to blocks of rubber, polyurethane, steel, aluminum, lacquer paint and other materials. A pencil becomes wood, graphite and a bit of paint. Sometimes the inside of objects is rather surprising. Who knew that a Volkswagen Beetle from the 1980s contained horsehair and cork, for example?

Studio Drift writes that “If humankind could somehow perceive this connection to materials, to our collective consumption and the earth it impoverishes, it would be a leap in our social evolution, in building an awareness that we must somehow become better stewards of our future.” I disagree with that confident statement. I think we’ve been warned time and time again that our reckless looting of the earth is becoming “unsustainable”. Newspapers, documentaries and scientists have spent the past few years telling the Western world that we need to consume less, that resources are not infinite, etc. And yet, we’re still here. Students are protesting in the streets and politicians pretend younger generations will get tired of asking for a future we’ve stolen from them.

Studio Drift, Nokia 3210, from the series Materialism. Installation view at Amos Rex

Studio Drift, Dandelight, from the series Materialism. Photograph by Gert Jan van Rooij

Studio Drift, VW Beetle 1980, from the series Materialism

Studio Drift, Materialism at Amos Rex. Photo by Stella Ojala

I’ll end with a few images of the Amos Rex art museum. Its programme of exhibitions that mixes the ultra contemporary with modern artists (right now they have a big show dedicated to René Magritte) is almost as impressive as its architecture. JKMM Architects excavated the ground beneath an ex-bus station, hid the museum down there and created skylights that bubble up through the surface of the ground as domes, turning the square into a playground for skaters and children. The space also has the usual museum shop and an exquisitely renovated Art Deco cinema called Bio Rex.

Amos Rex Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo / Amos Rex, 2018

Amos Rex Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Mika Huisman / Amos Rex

Amos Rex Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Mika Huisman / Amos Rex

Amos Rex, Bio Rex, Helsinki. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo / Amos Rex, 2018

Amos Rex, Bio Rex (interior), Helsinki

Elemental, Studio Drift’s solo show, remains open at Amos Rex in Helsinki until 19 May 2019 alongside the first show in Finland dedicated to René Magritte.

Climate Surprise, a temperature-sensitive exhibition

If ever you happen to be in or near the city of Mechelen in Belgium this Spring (Spring starting in February courtesy of global warming of course), don’t miss a small but incredibly fascinating show at WINDOWBOX #, an artist-run space a short walk away from the splendid Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral.

Kaat Van Doren, MIROIR NOIR, 2017

The exhibition was curated by Sue Spaid and changes according to temperature. As for the title, “Climate Surprise”, it subtly echoes the rise of extreme and unpredictable climate events that have brought about scientific studies of how “climate surprise” impacts human behavior and health but also environmental policymaking.

I was particularly fascinated by the use that Kaat Van Doren, one of the two artists in the show, has made of bitumen, a material most of us would normally overlook. Because it is used for road surfacing and roofing, bitumen appears mundane and unsophisticated. And because the majority of the bitumen used commercially is a residue from petroleum distillation, we might view it as an inert and nasty material.

Van Doren, however, saw the artistic potential of the material. When the weather is cold, it becomes hard and brittle, its surface appears shiny and glass-like. When sun rays hit bitumen however, it gets more pliable and spreads a golden glow. The wonders of bitumen don’t end there. While visiting the show, i was told about the pitch drop experiment, an excruciating long-term experiment that aims to demonstrate the high viscosity or low fluidity of bitumen (which is a form of pitch, hence the name of the scientific exercise.) The material appears to be solid at room temperature, but is in fact flowing extremely slowly, taking several years to form a single drop.

The Pitch Drop Experiment – University of Queensland, Pitch Drop Time Lapse 2 years to date

The artist thus experimented with the various material dimensions of bitumen in photos and sculptures.

The most spectacular one is the giant Mirror Noir she made by spraying with bitumen an abandoned gas station in Campus Coppens, a former military site near Antwerp in Belgium. She covered both the inside and the outside the disused building, creating a striking contrast with the vegetation that had started to regain ground after human activities left the area.

Kaat Van Doren, MIROIR NOIR. In situ installation at Campus Coppens site, 2017

Kaat Van Doren, Miroir Noir inside 17092017 / 11.18 h

I was amazed by the poetry of the result. Bitumen, after all, is a sticky form of crude oil, a liquid i had come to associate with all the ills and evils of this world. As the artist explains on the page of the project:

Thanks to the special properties of bitumen the gas station Miroir Noir is not a finished product but a constantly evolving work, as the material remains susceptible to the impact of climatic aspects. Miroir Noir is both a reflection of and witness to the (in)visible processes of change in which we are all entangled: political, economic, climatological and ecological waves propelled by history.

Kaat Van Doren, From the Bitumina series, 2017

Kaat Van Doren, From the Bitumina series, 2017

Kaat Van Doren, From Bitumena series, Fig.1 to 24 (of 32), 2017

Kaat Van Doren, From the Bitumina series, 2017

The title of Van Doren’s series alludes to a painter’s tool called Mirror Noir. Also named Claude glass (or black mirror), this portable mirror was slightly convex and its surface tinted a dark colour. Picturesque artists in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries used it as a frame for drawing landscapes. They would turn their back on the scene to observe the reflection of the scenery in the mirror. The tinted surface reduced the colour range and precision, evoking the paintings of 17th Century landscape painter Claude Lorrain.

The black mirrors of our times are of course the black screens of our tablets and phones. The reflection of reality they produce is much sharper than the black mirrors of 19th century landscape painters but they nevertheless provide us with an experience that is more mediated (and sometimes even manipulated) than real.

Isabel Fredeus, Under the Weather #1 and #2, 2018

The other artist in the show is Isabel Fredeus. She explored another tool from the 19th century: the storm glass. This instrument was invented to help ship captains predict weather and thus the storms much dreaded by sailors. Her hand-blown storm glass sculptures also visibly react to weather, becoming more animated as temperatures rise.

Climate Surprise is curated by Sue Spaid. The show runs until 05 May 2019 at WINDOWBOX #, an artist-run space in Mechelen, Belgium. You can experience the changing exhibition through the gallery window as you walk by or take an appointment to enter and visit the show. There will be an event on Sunday 05 May 2019 to mark the closing of the changing exhibition.