Anyone who has tried drawing or painting clouds knows that they’re incredibly difficult to reproduce in pictorial form. Well, that can’t actually be tougher than making them, right? In the last few years, artist Berndnaut Smilde has made a name for himself as a sculptor of clouds. His Nimbus series captures the fleeting “manmade” cloudage that he has created inside old gallery halls. They last for a moment, and then, just like that, they’re gone.
Smilde’s magical powers are little more than elementary science. “It’s not a high-tech process at all,” he tells Co.Design. After settling on the initial idea (“Would it be possible to exhibit a raincloud?”), he experimented with several materials, including aerogel, a porous substance that has been likened to “frozen” or “solid” smoke. It wasn’t quite right, though. Eventually, Smilde found himself working with a smoke machine after realizing that it created vapor that had a visual resemblance to clouds–and that the results were relatively easy to control.
He begins each one of his projects by selecting a space, either a quiet artspace or, increasingly, the aristocratic chambers of prestigious museums. He empties them of their contents and sprays the room with water droplets. The preparations, which he calls “moisting the room,” thicken the air and give the smoke something to momentarily cling to. The smoke machine, positioned in a corner where it can be easily obscured, emits its puff of fog into the middle of the room, where it floats for a few seconds before completely dissipating.
The work is labor-intensive–sometimes a few days long–and gives Smilde only a small window in which to snap his photographs. So he’s inclined to continuously shoot and conjure up new clouds, he says, and calls the process “addictive.” The clouds materialize in slightly different forms each time, which can be both maddening and exciting, lending Smilde’s project an air of wild unpredictability. “I can control the space, he explains, “but the clouds will always be different. It always takes a while to get them where I want.”
The photographs are the only evidence that Smilde’s wispy indoor clouds existed at all. It’s the images that count, he says, and not the process: “A photo for me, it is the best way to present the work. I am not so interested in the process of ‘making.’ The work is really about the idea of a cloud inside a space and what people project on it.”
Smilde has realized 11 clouds to date, and continues to make adjustments as the work progresses. He has recently become interested in choosing particular rooms and framing them so that the architecture comes to form a “representation of an ideal space.” He cites the Green Room in San Francisco’s War Memorial & Performing Arts Center, the recent setting of one of his nimbus clouds. The hall is an American take on the famous mirror room at Versailles, which it knowingly references and, more important, abstracts. Seen this way, the space becomes a “plinth” for Smilde’s vaporous interventions, a surrealist contrast that enriches the photographic experience.
Smilde says his clouds possess an underlying ominous meaning that’s not altogether palatable for most viewers. For those people, he offers an alternative reading, a “cartoon” raincloud, perpetually suspended over a Charlie Brown-like figure. “There is something you cannot grasp about clouds,” Smilde says. So they become a substance onto which we project our ideas: “People have always had a strong metaphysical connection to clouds and through time created myths and meanings around them.”