Nature’s trespassing

Paula van den Bosch, curator Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, NL – 2016

The Netherlands may not be known for its beautiful weather, but it can boast its cloudy skies. Holland’s magnificent cumulus clouds, also known as thunder clouds, inspired many artists in the course of centuries, above all 17th centuries Dutch painters such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan van Goyen. Charged with symbolic meaning, Ruisdael cum suis depicted the natural phenomenon with unprecedented realism.

In 2012 Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde followed in their illustrious footsteps and created Nimbus II: a hovering indoor cloud in the empty setting of a sixteenth-century chapel in Hoorn, a small town in Holland. For that he needed a smoke-machine; a highly increased level of humidity in the space and some dramatic lighting. In Smilde’s hands a semi-opaque cloud of tiny water-drops turned into an ambiguous dramatic sign.  When asked about his intentions Smilde stayed aloof: “On the one hand I wanted to create an ominous situation. You could see the cloud as a sign of misfortune. You could also read it as an element out of the Dutch landscape paintings in a physical form in a classical museum hall.”

Whether it was meant as an ominous sign or not, the cloud photo instantly triggered many around the globe. While a limited edition of the cloud photograph quickly made its way to galleries and private collectors the image went viral and also attracted the attention of the glorious art collector Charles Saatchi, who immediately bought Nimbus II for his London museum. In the same year Time Magazine decided to include Smilde’s rain cloud in its ‘Top 10 Inventions of 2012’-list. Subsequently, Harper’s Bazaar commissioned Smilde to enact a Nimbus ‘shoot’ for their September 2013 issue with an impressive line-up of fashion icons: Karl Lagerfeld; Donatella Versace; Alber Elbaz; and Dolce & Gabbana. The event  entitled: ICONOCLOUD was photographed in its entire baroque splendour by Simon Procter.

This sudden international interest for Berndnaut Smilde’s cloud photographs in 2012 came for the artist – as the saying aptly goes – like a bolt from the blue. With no gallery representing his work, Smilde, after receiving his BA and MA from the Art Academy and the Frank Mohr Institute in Groningen in 2001 and 2005, had only been showing his site-specific installations containing stereotype images of landscapes and rainbows in the alternative scene of artist initiatives and cross-media festivals.

It is, though, not hard to see why the cloud photographs of this inventive Dutch artist became an instant success on internet and in the world of printed media. Besides stemming from a sound native art historical genealogy and providing a perfect vehicle for a suggestive agglomerate of present-day topics, Smilde’s handmade cloud is also simply an incredibly photogenic cloud. It’s almost impossible to take your eyes of the image of this magically illuminated, downy fluff caught, as it were, in the wrong habitat. It is however through careful construction for photographic purpose only, that It’s attractiveness is achieved.

I was lucky to witness in 2013 the making, or more accurately, coming into being of a cumulus cloud at the magnificent stairs of Aldo Rossi’s Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. I learned then and there that humidity can be tricked into becoming a cloud, but not completely controlled in terms of where, when and how it will happen. An exhausting number of steam-cloud sessions and considerable flash were necessary to achieve the spatial and luminous effect that gives the Nimbus its baroque drama. Behind the scenes, so to speak, creating a domestic cloud is a rather mundane affair.

The Danish-Islandic artist Olafur Eliasson (Copenhagen 1967) created in 2003 The  Weather Project, a spectacular realization of a ‘sunset’ at the Tate’s Turbine Hall, by using mist, a mirror reflection and an enormous amount of mono frequency lamps. Eliasson is, like our Dutch artist, inspired by laws of nature. But Smilde’s all-time hero created above all a connecting experience. Visitor were undergoing the magic spell of the fake sunset together, on site and in real time.

Smilde’s clouds have no such relational component, it’s no fun to watch them coming into existence on a photograph. His clouds are meant for, tailored to and even originate from the virtual space of internet. His very first Nimbus was a photographic registration of a tiny cloud, evoked in a scale model of a classical museum space (6m2) and featured in an off-space internet gallery. Subsequently it took Smilde two years to perfect the rain cloud into Nimbus II. 

Using natural phenomena is a concept artists explored already in the sixties of the previous century. Robert Irwin, James Turrell and the likes gave up their studio and, with it, the idea of art defined by its status as an object. Irwin and Turrell are best known for their site-specific fluorescent tube installations exploring the limits of human perception.  One could argue Smilde’s cloud is both a commodity version of these pioneering phenomenal art from the American West Coast and a splendidly isolated nephew from the participatory work of Eliasson, tailored to the parameters of cyberspace.

Because, obviously,  the real site of Smilde’s cloud is the mediated space of the photographic image, thriving best in the fleeting, context-poor world of cyberspace (and magazines). In this virtual world where fact and fiction are no separate categories the incoming daylight light and specific architectural features of Smilde’s chosen backdrops: a gothic church, a run-down mental institution or baroque palace, provide just the right amount of vivid detail to enhance the alienating effect of the strangely displaced cloud. Rather cute than apocalyptic, Smildes human-ridden cloud images nevertheless trigger us because they operate from the unsettling notion of nature quietly but boldly trespassing our over centuries constructed manmade world.