The Dutch artist and Laura Havlin discuss what his ephemeral work reveals about the human condition
In an age where fine art is traded like a luxury good, perhaps the most radical work an artist can make is something that is ephemeral – and there is nothing so transitory as the gathering of a few particles of moisture in the form of a cloud. Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde’s ‘Nimbus’ – which TIME Magazine hailed as one of the top ten innovations of 2012 – is a multimedia work for which the starting point is a synthesised ‘cloud’, produced using smoke and moisture, that lasts for just a few moments at a time.
“Art is not a luxury good,” says the artist. “For me, art is always suggesting: What if…? I’m making things because I like to question ideas. The ‘Nimbus’ works can be interpreted as a sign of loss or becoming, or just as a fragment from a classical painting. People have always had a strong metaphysical connection to clouds and through time have created myths and meanings around them. I like the temporary aspect of the work. It’s there for a few seconds before it falls apart again. The work is really about the idea of a cloud inside a space and what people project on it.”
At the core of ‘Nimbus’ is the manifestation of the cloud itself. Photographs are produced by way of preserving the moment, now a memory, the cloud – as the artist explains – is but an idea: “The work is really about the idea of a cloud inside a space and what people project on it. This is best represented by an image. The physical aspect is important but the work in the end only exists as a photograph. The photo functions as a document of something that happened at a specific location and is now gone.” ‘Nimbus’ isn’t Smilde’s only experiment playing with weather phenomena. Another work witnesses the artist superimpose a rainbow-like spectrum over dark landscape images. “You could say that by boxing nature into a space you are deconstructing nature or trying to have control over it,” he says, adding, “but I’m more focused on the doomed potential of this idea. Eventually my clouds are determined to fail, but for a very brief moment I transport the image of a cloud inside an unnatural space, causing a shift in perception and creating new connections.”
And therein lies the crux of Smilde’s work: his recreation of weather conditions is not, as the work could be interpreted, an attempt to ‘play God’ but, in fact, an exercise in exposing the ultimate powerlessness of human beings and their ultimately ephemeral nature. “Everything is temporary,” Smilde asserts. “My work plays on very human concerns, rather than God-like ambitions.”