Fujiko Nakaya, Fog x FLO, Jamaica Pond, 2018 (courtesy of The Emerald Necklace Conservancy; photo by Melissa Ostrow)
There is a game all children play. You lie on your back and point out shapes in the sky. On a good day you can see ships with full sails, huge birds and whales swimming past. I remember doing this with my brother, but as we got older the capacity for imagining the world as something directly within our grasp grew increasingly anxious. These days I think about clouds merely as a constant factor of everyday life, when in fact, they’re site-specific. If you take a moment, you discover that it matters whether you are looking up from the wetlands of Northern Holland or from the arid expanses that are the Colorado plains.
Scientifically, clouds fall roughly into three categories: depending on their proximity to the earth they might present either as a fog, a haze or towering rain clouds. The latter feature widely in art history, particularly in the famous landscape paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, in which vast vaults of clouds drift over cheerless Dutch trading towns. They offer a very distinct sense of spatial pressure; of feeling overwhelmed by the monumental dominance of nature. These ‘cloud paintings’ by the Dutch Masters were imbued with romantic abandon and are still lodged in our contemporary imagination as evidence of a different, pre-digital human condition, in which humans were but a fleck under the sprawling skies.
Drawing on that same symbolism, the contemporary Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde echoes the Dutch Masters with his baroque cloud sculptures, the Nimbus series. Following in the footsteps of artists such as James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson, Smilde’s artistic practice takes inspiration from natural phenomena. Since 2012, Smilde has been making clouds hover in the most unexpected of places, from abandoned buildings to the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Nimbus has been lauded as a contemporary return to the romanticism of the pre-digital era, yet its effective immediacy is, arguably, based in a more critical attitude to the contemporary moment, evident in Smilde’s ability to straddle the anxious tension between control and responsibility in a world dominated by a different kind of cloud: the Internet.
Contemporary clouds, or, turning real things into logical objects
I thought of Smilde when I read Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud in which Hu, a former network engineer, draws parallels between the visual and metaphysical aspects of the traditional cloud (as a symbol of unmediated embodiment) versus ‘The Cloud’ (as a figure of contemporary digital life). One day, Hu is sent to Palo Alto to attend to a system failure at a major underground internet network convergence. Imagine an unassuming house, and inside it an assembly of wires: this is the Internet. In a moment of lucid naivety, Hu holds a cable to his eye. He jokes that he “expected to see Japan” yet found only LED light, and, incidentally, narrowly escaped burning through his retina. The story exemplifies an important, yet conflicting, characteristic of the Cloud: it is defined by both proximity and distance. In other words: it cannot be seen by looking directly at it, yet we know it exists and engage with it every day. Digital worlds are alive all around us, at any time. We only become aware of their existence when they touch upon ours, in moments of contact: through social media and WhatsApp, or a sudden Amber Alert. Scratch the surface of our society and you find other forms of connection: global networks like the digitized postal system and marine or aviation traffic control. Hu argues that the fluffy, amorphous nimbus cloud’s elusive yet omnipresent symbolism was the perfect vehicle to ‘give a shape’ to contemporary digital presences that are “unspecifiable or unpredictable.” In other words: the natural cloud’s un-graspable and faraway nature lent itself perfectly to understanding other ‘un-graspable’ concepts, particularly those that concern abstract systems of knowledge. The Cloud is “the premier example of what computer scientists term virtualization — a technique for turning real things into logical objects.” The postal system breaks down into ones and zero’s. A personal exchange on WhatsApp is very much impersonal by virtue of its terms and conditions, as it is actually owned by Facebook. Nobody can see Japan from Palo Alto, but we can connect to it. Our experience of the everyday has become lined with a degree of ever-present abstraction, leading to increased feelings of anxiety and incomprehension.
I have a friend who works at a major tech company and has been struggling with burn-out. She calls to tell me that she has been holed up in her apartment for days now, as the government has called a state of emergency due to wildfires in the area. You can smell it, even inside, she says. The smoke has saturated the air, even in the cities, even in her bedroom. We talk a little about air pollution. We talk about politics. We talk about the environment. I think about her apartment. I have been there only once: it is on the top floor of a new building. There is a lot of glass. It is very high and bright. We leaned in together, our hands against the window, our breath forming moist patches. It was like floating mid-air.
There is something about hearing her breathe between sentences, the air that is be-ing passed between us — even though she is miles away on a different shore. The line wavers, cracks and hisses. It sounds like she’s covered in something, but as if something is breaking too.
I write these words down after we hang up.
What happens when the virtual is once again made real? Smilde’s first Nimbus was conceived and meant to exist online, before it ‘got out’ into the real world. His clouds are meant for, tailored to, and even originate from, the virtual space of internet. His very first Nimbus was a pho-tographic registration of a tiny cloud, evoked in a scale model of a classical museum space and featured in an off-space internet gallery.” (Paula van den Bosch, “Nature’s Trespassing”: ) Like the computer cloud, Smilde has given a recognizable shape to something invisible yet omnipresent (the atmosphere) in order to draw upon certain feelings and responses. Like Apple’s iCloud icon, he uses natural (and historical) references in order to organize the abstract into the real, by means of technological mediation. By re-imagining the cloud as a digital sculpture online, followed by a real-time intervention into the make-up of the air through technological means, Smilde creates a full-circle loop between nature and digital knowledge systems, and back to experiencing ‘nature’ again. His cloud sculptures have an air of the illegitimate; we feel privy to a fleeting moment of realist magic. The effect is that of nostalgia for something that isn’t actually there; a natural phenomenon, or a different, romanticized world, the ‘simpler’ life of the personal and global past.
Tara Donovan’s Haze
Another category of cloud is the haze: a very fine smoke or vapour in the air. When describing the earth’s pollution we often call upon the image of a yellow or brown film that penetrates the air: a haze perceivable in the distance, but never up close. More tangible, in a material sense, than Nimbus is Tara Donovan’s Haze (2003), a site-specific sculptural installation made up entirely of plastic drinking straws. From afar, their yellowish sheen seems to quiver like moving mist. In a review I wrote of the work a while back I described the work as “a whispering mass, the eco-poetical twin to Bernaut Smilde’s elusive Nimbus 2, but much more permanent […].”
Both works use the cloud’s shapelessness and faraway nature to signal something about our presence as a multitude, as well as our individual powerlessness in the face of global systems of power. Haze gestures towards the effects of humanity on the natural environment; something that may feel like an abstract issue for many, yet has very real, physical effects. In terms of visual language and affective impact the work operates along similar directives: the nebulous body is effective not only because of its direct symbolic relation to environmentalism, but because of its almost-presence: semi-visible, half-present, both matter and form, it hovers in the air like something on the cusp of our awareness. Symbolically, the cloud is a perfect carrier for “something that constantly fluctuates and is impossible to know” : the amorphous unknown that can be felt, but not touched, explained and contained. If you were to try to touch the work it would unravel and lose its shape, crashing to the ground again as a thousand straws.
I read an article in “The Guardian” about the dangers of micro-plastics to mussels. Due to the increased levels of microscopic plastic particles in the sea, the soil and the air, many organisms are experiencing a host of unimaginable difficulties. One of them is losing grip. With every crashing wave, more mussels become detached and carried out to open water.
Later I meet an artist friend who is also a mother. We talk about her life the past two years. She has been battling through divorce and, after that, an affair. That is all done now, but she is experiencing problems navigating the world as a single person, and parent. She is upset. She says she doesn’t know how to do this alone.
What does it mean to lose grip on the world? We are derailed all the time. We let go of dreams, jobs, and relationships on a daily basis. There is a real sense of being afloat when thinking about contemporary politics, about the environmental is-sues that are flaring up, the challenges of dating online and Instagram bullying. There is a bobbing sensation in the throat which travels to the stomach, where it gives off a constant nauseating feeling.
We try and grab hold of something. We try not to get washed out to into the open.
Fujiko Nakaya and the promise of presence
Both Smilde and Donovan’s cloud sculptures exist–in an institutional sense–as private, precarious experiences. Nimbus dissipates within minutes, leaving only a photographic registration best suited for display in a gallery environment. Haze needs the support of museum’s walls in order to stand upright, or at least has done so in the past. These works are tailored to a specific audience that is out to have an experience and goes looking for it. In contrast, Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures embody the omnipresent, affective qualities of the cloud to its fullest extent, blurring our conception of a “traditional” art object by blending it with its surroundings and making participants out of viewers or passers-by. Her clouds do not live high up in the sky: they crawl across the ground, rising up around buildings, trees and people. Exhibited in the open air, Nakaya’s fogs roam freely through forests, sprawling across parks and enveloping buildings, all the while quantifying its affective dimensions. Her sculptures are thick — able to engulf the human body in an acutely intimate experience in the public domain — an experience which is profoundly lonely. In 2017, Nakaya was commissioned as part of the BMW Tate Live Exhibition: Ten Days Six Nights to produce an “immersive” fog sculpture on the Southbank. It was extended by popular demand. Devoured by fog, participants became “immersed,” both alone and at one with the work. At its most basic level, the work enforced a state of isolation, while being a part of an unidentified, amorphous mass.
Hu argues that the Cloud, in fact, “indexes a reemergence of sovereign power within the realm of data” — granted appearance through our own “cultural fantasies about security and participation.” In other words, we invest the Cloud with sovereign-like, omnipresent abilities that are meant to keep us secure by relinquishing control and responsibility. We put ourselves, literally, below it; below that which we cannot comprehend, separate from it and yet governed by it. Our worlds are increasingly constructed along lines of logical thinking; moulded, directed and executed systems that are ever-more perfect and smooth, and ever-more abstract. The corporeal and symbolic ambiguity of the cloud is so powerful exactly because of this contradiction: it promises presence, connection, control, yet it can only exist as just that: a never-ending promise. The return to the cloud as a physical manifestation in contemporary art can arguably be seen as an urgent reminder of our own position within those systems of sovereign power: they expose the anxiety that underwrites our lives as digital citizens.
Rose van Mierlo is an interdisciplinary art writer and curator interested in post-1970 visual art, with a focus on feminist art practice. Cross-stitching critical theory with close visual analysis and lyric voice, her writing takes risks when it comes to form, genre and methodologies. After graduating from AKV/St. Joost Art College with a prize winning collection of short stories, she was appointed as a critical writing fellow at art institute Lokaal 01 (Belgium, 2010), and a postgraduate fellow at DNA/GEMAK in the Netherlands in 2011. Since then, her essays, reviews and short stories have appeared internationally, including in thisistomorrow, nY, KWTK, Sluice__, and Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine. She holds an MA degree in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, University of London (United Kingdom, 2015) and is a co-director of the SquareWorks:Lab creative fellowship. Find her at rosannavanmierlo.com and @rozeroosje on Instagram.