We Talked to the Artist Creating Clouds Inside Cathedrals

Man-made clouds billow through Neuehouse as Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde brings his 'Nimbus' project to New York.

by Katherine Tarpinian
May 20 2015, 9:30pm

Berndnaut Smilde, Nimbus NeueHouse, 2015. Photo: Object Studies. Courtesy the Artist, Ronchini Gallery and NeueHouse

Cloud. The image means so much to so many. Since the dawn of thought, it seems, they've been at once nurturing, water-providing, subtly evolving forms of endless entertainment and fixation across the world; divine sources of inspiration, reflecting light, and characterizing our atmosphere with unique and transient beauty. 

Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde specializes in bringing that intangible beauty inside, up close where we can finally touch it. Using a combination of precisely-calculated fog, moisture, and temperature control, Smilde creates ephemeral sculptures that billow and self-destruct in the same few moments. In doing so, he allows the pure and natural beauty of a cloud’s familiar form to contrast with the man-made space it's housed in—before it makes its inevitable departure.

Nimbus Minerva, 2012. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

Smilde has been accumulating clouds, preserving them in stunning photographic render since the inception of his photo series, Nimbus, which The Creators Project detailed back in 2012. The series features Smilde’s temporal creations appearing within static backdrops; cathedrals, galleries, refined Dutch interiors, and all manners of large, empty spaces.

On the occasion of Frieze week, Smilde brought his simple magic to New York’s NeueHouse, where we had a chance to watch the artist work, and to chat a bit about his lofty creations.

Nimbus d'Aspremont, 2012. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

The Creators Project: Can you create a cloud in any sort of indoor space? Are there size-related or other specifications that it needs to meet?

Berndnaut Smilde: It does need to have a certain size. It needs to be not too small, but also not too big because there is a limit to the amount of smoke you can produce, and it still has to be kept together in a way. But you can control the space very much with moisture, and temperature as well. Sometimes it’s really hard when it’s really warm outside. That’s funny because the outside atmosphere intrudes into the space as well. So one of the first ones I made in Holland, like in the North Chapel, it was freezing out there, and inside it was about five degrees, and it was really wet, and it was the perfect conditions for it. And then it will stay quite long, but in the end, maybe maximum ten seconds or so... But here it’s just a few seconds and then it’s dissipating already.

What did you do to this space in order to get it ready?

It’s basically the use of water. So, I moisten the floors and then where I want to position the cloud, I make a wall with water droplets, and they stick to that smoke. And they pour down from it; otherwise they would just go straight up to the ceiling. It’s a very simple, very basic process actually.

The artist moistening the space at NeueHouse. Photo by the author

How long does it take you to produce a cloud?

It’s quite fast, actually. But it’s a repetitive thing. I’ll be constantly testing, looking for that ideal cloud. Sometimes after a few hours, I think okay, this is the one I’m looking for, but then maybe the next one... I can control them size-wise and shape-wise a bit, but they will be different every time. I can’t control how the light will reflect on it, nor how it will grow. In here there is air conditioning on, and it does something to the air. It really depends on how the atmosphere is in the space.

What are ideal conditions? What kind of space works best?

It’s better if it’s dead silent in the space, no people moving, no moving air. That will be perfect.

Have your best clouds happened when you’re working alone?

Yes. Also then, you have the time to really prepare for it, and control the lights in the space.

Behind-the-scenes image, courtesy of NeueHouse

How do you control the size and the shape?

That’s by kind of aiming the machines, and also they have different output levels which you can adjust. In this case I’m using two machines on top of each other to kind of get a little bit more density.

So you’re drawing the clouds in the air, coloring fog over the water droplet outline?

Yeah, I kind of know where I want to have them, and I know what the output of the machine does and how far it will reach. So depending on that, I’m kind of fine-tuning it constantly, to find the right position.

Berndnaut Smilde, Nimbus NeueHouse, 2015. Photo: Object Studies. Courtesy of The Artist, Ronchini Gallery and NeueHouse

How many clouds have you made, if you had to estimate?

Now? You mean today?


Oh, well, even here today we will make probably a hundred clouds, and select one. But I’ve made about 20 different ones in 20 locations.

Say a hundred for each—that’s about 2,000 clouds?

Yeah. I know how that works now, probably.

Berndnaut Smilde, Nimbus NeueHouse, 2015. Photo: Object Studies. Courtesy of The Artist, Ronchini Gallery and NeueHouse

Initially the project had been about disappointment, sort of a symbol for sadness.

I work in reaction to spaces, and I was working in a miniature space. It was also a curatorial project of an arts collective, they had like a miniature exhibition space, about a quarter of the real size. And yeah, I kind of liked that idea. I wanted to make, like you said, the idea of disappointment. Like you’d walk into an empty museum hall and there’s nothing there, just a cloud that could rain on you. Then I started working with that idea and it worked quite well, and then also you get into the other aspects—the fleeting aspect, the romantic painting—that stick to it in a way, and so it kind of started from there and moved into a different direction.

Where is it moving now? Away from disappointment, more towards artistry in crafting individual clouds?

Yeah, and also really the materiality of what a sculpture can be, in a way, like it’s building up and falling apart at the same time, and also the idea that people project on clouds for centuries, but also now and what it means. Working in different cultures you find out different aspects of it. When I made an exhibition in China, I’d be looking at how they used clouds for centuries, and I’d see like in the old drawings, like almost a way of perspective drawing to create depth. And in other cultures it’s used more as a divine thing. I kind of like all those different meanings around it.

A cloud is so universal.

Yeah, and they have been for a very, very long time. So, I kind of like that one thing—we still cannot fully control that aspect of nature. Well, we almost can.

Photo by the author

Berndnaut Smilde - Nimbus from NeueHouse on Vimeo.

Click here to learn more about Berndnaut Smilde.


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