4 September 2017

Creating Curiously Out-Of-Context Clouds

Clouds have always had solid links to abstract reasoning; they can symbolise misfortune in certain contexts but also represents the captivity of the imagination. To create these billowing clouds, Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde manipulates smoke, moisture, light and a speedy reaction. His technique involves using a smoke machine before releasing a dense mist into the air and reducing the humidity in the room to allow the smoke to take shape. The process is incredibly tedious and often comes with some technical difficulty – the room has to be cold and damp enough for the moisture to stick to the smoke, and then it has to be photographed within 10 seconds before the cloud simply vanishes into thin air.

Preferring to work with photographers who have experience shooting architecture, the setting in which the mass of smoke is pictured during its very brief moment of existence is selected to contain elements like wood and metal in sharp focus, providing a contrast to the soft, fluffy clouds. These transitional settings include abandoned rooms, vacant corridors, desolate elevators and numerous staircases. The trio of inspirations – the concept of time, permanence and temporality – are constantly in tension with one another and this is what adds to the allure of the eerie yet ethereal images. “It looks very scientific and high tech but it isn’t, really!” Smilde told Vanity Fair before adding: “Those water particles stick to the smoke and they kind of keep together for just a short while”. 

The state of dualism, inside and outside, continues to direct questions at the notion of the in-between, uncanny and surreal. On the same path as Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny, the notion of the strange simple can't exist without the non-strange. Familiarity in this case, is prominent in the spaces that Smilde erects his clouds, and the depiction of the unnatural comes to be through removing the clouds from their ordinary context and injecting them into alien surroundings. 

Speaking to Vanity Fair, Smilde said he “wanted to make an image of total disappointment. Like there was nothing to see in the space—it was just a cloud.” Plus, he spoke about the notion of bringing something outdoor, indoor, as well as the duality of clouds themselves. “They can, for example, stand for the divine but also for something threatening or misfortunate,” he said. “Clouds are something really universal. Something that people give meaning to.” They say you can’t control the weather—but for Berndnaut Smildem that’s exactly his life’s work.