For a fleeting moment, Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde controls clouds, an intangible natural phenomenon, by pressing a single button on a remote control. Triggering a smoke machine into an environment where variables like temperature, humidity and light are carefully monitored, Smilde creates a picturesque, billowing cloud that assumes a natural density and airiness in a surreal, vacant space. TIME Magazine named Smilde’s technique of creating indoor clouds among the best inventions of 2012. The artist’s signature effect inspires the imagination and seduces the senses. The displacement of the cloud from its natural environment as condensation floating aimlessly in the sky, becomes a tangible object that is momentarily contained indoors and then photographed to insure its permanence. Installation is thrilled to share the recent work from The Avant/Garde Diaries Making Clouds, a documentation of Smilde’s ominous practice that brings his mysterious clouds to life.
Installation Magazine: Your artwork employs a multi-disciplinary practice combining performance, installation and photography as a means of documenting an ephemeral moment. Do you take the photographs yourself? If not, whom do you collaborate with?
Berndnaut Smilde: I work in whatever medium necessary to complete the work or tell the story. I am not a photographer. For the Nimbus series, I worked with a local professional photographer.
What do you consider the “real” art- the cloud itself or the photograph? Is it the moment or the evidence?
For me, a photograph is the best way to present the work. I am not as interested in the process of making it. The work is really about the idea of a cloud inside a space, and what meanings people project on it. This is best represented by an image. The physical aspect is important, but, in the end, the work only exists as a photograph. The photo functions as physical evidence of something that happened at a specific location and is now gone.
How did you develop the process to produce clouds? What role does scientific inquiry play in your practice?
The first problem I came across was how to materialize them. When I was researching on how to make clouds, I found really interesting materials such as aerogel. Eventually, I simply started experimenting with smoke because of its visual similarity with clouds. After testing variations of temperature and humidity, I got the hang of it. It’s not a high tech process at all. I can control the space, but the clouds will be different every time. It always takes awhile to get them where I want. The most exciting part of my process is that every space works in a totally different way.
When was the process developed?
I made the first cloud for a project in a small-scale space at the end of 2010. I started to work in conventional size spaces early 2012.
Do you feel that your work engages in a conversation with traditional Dutch paintings of landscapes, nature and the heavens?
You could say my work is in line with the Dutch tradition. I’m still fascinated by old seascape paintings and their impressive skies. The cloud series is titled Nimbus, which is the name for a rain cloud, but can also mean an aura surrounding something or someone. In Classical mythology, a “nimbus” is a shining cloud that surrounds a deity when he or she is on Earth.
Your practice is site-specific and you work in various types of spaces. What architectural elements attract you to a particular space? Are they typically abandoned or currently under construction?
Any elements that stand out such as beautiful floors, ceilings, walls and tiles. Most spaces are empty and are being used as exhibition spaces as well. This way I try to keep a relation to the artwork itself and the history of that location. The spaces are important, as they give the clouds a specific context. For example, the chapel in Hotel MariaKapel emphasizes the divine and transient connotations of the work. Although it is an exhibition space, I really like the architecture and the element of time in this 15th century chapel. The architecture also plays an important role in Nimbus D’Aspremont, where the contrast between the original D’Aspremont-Lynden Castle in Rekem, Belgium and its former use as a military hospital and mental institution is still visible. In my recent works, the architecture is becoming more prominent as a representation of an ideal space. Nimbus Green Room in San Francisco is a copy of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The spaces, in a sense, function as a plinth for the work.
Are any elements of the space constructed?
I adjust the spaces where necessary. For example, I sometimes stick colored film on the windows to capture the light or atmosphere I am going for.
In order to achieve the full effect, does the climate in the space have to be controlled at a particular temperature?
The space needs to be as cold as possible.
How long does it take to set up the machinery before you can create a cloud?
It typically takes a couple of days for preparing the space, finding the right settings and testing it.
What is the duration of the smoke effect?
A couple of seconds and sometimes longer depending on the space. In Nimbus 57, the smoke kept its position for a relatively long period of time.
Installation art has often been compared to theater because it is fully immersive and is subject to the passage of time. Do you identify with this idea? Do you feel that your works are theatrical?
I definitely see the similarities between my work and the theater. Like the theater, I direct the mise-en-scène and use “props” to question the reality of what I capture.
Is there a spiritual, supernatural or religious aspect to the cloud work?
People have always had a strong metaphysical connection to clouds and have projected lots of ideas on them over time. There is something you just cannot grasp about clouds, and that is what I find interesting.
The black and white tiled floors in Nimbus D’Aspremont are reminiscent of a motif founder in Jan Vermeer’s paintings. What artists have inspired your practice?
Contemporary artists Olafur Eliasson and Gregor Schneider are artists that I admire. At the 49th Venice Biennale, I saw Gregor Schneider’s work Totes Haus u r, and the experience impacted me greatly.
What does it mean that you can create a cloud? What does that say about the power of the artist?
Even though a cloud eventually disintegrates, I am able to place its image inside a foreign space, even though it is only for a brief moment. That kind of power allows me to freeze time for people to take it in and start making new connections.
As the smoke clears and the cloud fades away, the viewer becomes aware of the passage of time, and perhaps, by extrapolation, of his own mortality. Does your work confront death explicitly?
The Nimbus works present a transitory moment of presence in a specific location. They can be interpreted as a symbol of loss or becoming, though I see my work dealing more with duality. Just as clouds build up and fall apart at the same time, my work functions in between reality and representation, that it has potential, but will never truly function.
We have addressed your cloud installations, and they have received accolades and press as of late, but what about your other work? Unflattened is also an ephemeral installation.
In Unflattened, I projected a colour spectrum onto a photo mural, making the idealistic landscape even more desirable than the original. The suggestion of a rainbow can be read as a sign of perfection and promise. But seeing the rainbow placed upside down, you start questioning these values again. What looks at first as an ideal sunrise could also be interpreted as an apocalyptic image when you realize the rainbow is upside down.
Cumulus is made of frozen smoke. What is its relationship to your other pieces? What inspired its creation?
In my research on how to make clouds, I ran into this magical looking substance called aerogel. It is also known as “frozen smoke,” and consists of 99.8% air and is the lightest solid material on Earth. NASA used it for collecting interstellar dust. You can look right through it, and it has a magical blue-ish shine because of the breaking of light. I placed it onto small scale models of exhibition spaces. They resemble the idea of the Nimbus works, as they are also basically air on empty spaces. What I like about this artificial material is that it’s just a little bit more dense than air, and, for me, it represents our human urge to compete with nature.
What narrative structure drives your work?
There is no beginning or end. I am interested in the the moment of friction between construction and deconstruction. In such a moment, there is no finished outcome we can relate to. It shows both traces of history and visions of the future. In these transitional situations, you are not really sure about what you are looking at, nor does it have a clear function — and it is therefore open for interpretation.
All images © of the artist