Berndnaut Smilde

It was in Kentucky, at one of his first solo-exhibitions, that Berndnaut Smilde had to deal with an angry visitor. The woman had travelled far and expected to see a cloud at the exhibition. ‘I had to explain to her that it doesn’t work that way. That the clouds I make only exist for ten seconds before they dissipate. To me, the cloud isn’t art, it’s the picture.’ And Smilde’s cloud production certainly makes for great pictures. Since the first time he made a fluffy Fremdkörper inside a room in 2012, they’ve gone around the world and been shared many times. The surrealistic mystery of the images stimulates imagination. The artist was almost always travelling these last few years to meet the global need for clouds, from Shanghai to Istanbul and from the United States to Australia. ‘I was even asked for a B-horror movie once,’ he tells us, ‘but I don’t do everything I’m asked for. By working in a series I can expand the idea, but that doesn’t work if I keep making the same image. Besides, the space has to be interesting.’’


Smilde’s Nimbus-series covers a broad selection of locations. ‘And each time, the meaning of the cloud changes. In a church it quickly gains a divine presence, but in an old building that contained a psychiatric institute until the 1970s, the result was cinematic. I also did three museums, which is also different. An atrium in a museum is an ideal room for art and as such the cloud gains the aura of an artefact. On the other hand, I’m disrupting the natural order of a space by placing something strange in it. I’m actually using the cloud to highlight and question the space.’ And the cloud itself? ‘Of course, that refers to the landscapes in Dutch paintings – after all, it is a nimbus, one of those typical rainclouds. But it’s also ambiguous. It symbolizes fertility and also threat. It’s a natural phenomenon but artificially made. And a picture is all that remains, an image that makes you wonder if it’s actually real.’-


Smilde made his first cloud at artists’ initiative Probe in Arnhem. He was asked to make something for a scale model measuring six square metres, which was a good connection to the installations he was making at the art academy. ‘It was a miniature space where I could do anything I wanted, somewhat like a god. At first, my thoughts were all over the place. I wanted to fill half of the room with water and have horses gallop through it with the water up to their stomachs, something very dramatic. In the end, I arrived at the opposite. I decided to stage a disappointment. What would it be like to enter a room containing just a little cloud, which might also start raining on you?’ Easier said than done. How do you make a cloud? Smilde didn’t want something with wires or other machinery. He went to work with dry ice and aerogel, the lightest solid material on earth, which consists of 99 per cent air and is used by NASA to catch dust particles. None of it worked. He looked for help from theatre makers who told him that smoke would probably deliver the best result. After a series of tests Smilde developed a working and repeatable method. ‘the space has to be humid and as cold as possible. I then create a curtain of water vapor that the smoke binds to. For a short time.’ Before taking one successful photograph, Smilde is often busy for a day and sometimes multiple days. ‘The space has to be prepared: windows taped and light regulated. And no two spaces are alike. Museums have a strictly regulated climatology. When I was making a piece on the central staircase of the Bonnefantenmuseum, I had to close off all the side rooms and I was constantly mopping. And in a hammam in Istanbul the temperature just wouldn’t go down, and I was only able to make two clouds a day.’

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upside down

The volatility and ambiguousness of the clouds is also present in Smilde’s other work. Conditioner, for example, is made out of an air filtration system that looks like an intestinal tract and cycles an antiseptic hospital smell. For Until Askaeton has Street View the artist made a replica of the shed façade in the American town of Askaeton that features prominently on Google Street View and placed it in a much older Irish town with the same name but without Google-view. And during a residency in Bolder, Colorado, Smilde constructed a gigantic prism with which he could create an artificial rainbow, only upside down. ‘A rainbow symbolizes happiness and beauty,’ he tells us, ‘but what if you turn it upside down?’ Smilde’s plans are getting more and more ambitious, as are his clouds. ‘I was asked to make one outside last year, in the desert of North-West Australia. Of course, that had little to do with the original idea of the work, but the landscape is so old and untouched that it did make sense to temporarily add something to it. It was a huge undertaking. We had to bring generators and water, a photographer and someone who’d tape everything. I got very nervous for a moment there. At that point it has to work. And it did. The red earth interacted beautifully with the white of the cloud, which floated one metre off the ground. Exactly what it looks like in Dutch landscapes from the seventeenth century.’ Smilde isn’t close to finished with his nimbus. ‘With every image the series gains more depth. I also keep getting better at it.’ His wish right now is to be able to make a cloud in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern museum in London, where his hero Olafur Eliasson installed a massive sun in 2003. ‘That would be great, to make a cloud float through that hall a few times every day, preferably for several minutes.’


This interview was published in WOTH issue No8 still available in our shop