Berndnaut Smilde – Head in the clouds

Could a cloud appear in a museum? Inside a room? We say it can. The artist Berndnaut Smilde, from the Netherlands, makes this magic happen since 2012. In his work, wonder and fugacity come together and bring the sky right in front of us, where we can almost touch it. Would you?


Nimbus Kootwijk, 2020. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk


Tell me about your artistic and educational background.

Initially I wanted to study architecture. But soon I realized I wanted something more practical rather than technical.
Perhaps I’m a bit impatient and wanted to build right away. So, I applied for an art school and then I decided to become an artist. I started with painting architecture mostly and these slowly evolved into sculptures and installations. After my BA, I attended a master on sculpture where I experimented a lot with materials, spatial interferences, but also videomaking.

Nimbus De.Groen, 2017. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk


How do you create your clouds? How did you first come up with the idea?

The Nimbus works started in reaction to a miniature exhibition space called Probe. This was a model exhibition space at about a quarter of a real size space where you could make anything happen. This triggered the idea: would it be possible to exhibit a cloud?

I wanted to create an image of disappointment where you could walk into an empty museum hall and there would be just a cloud hovering in corner of the room. With water and smoke, I managed to recreate a cloud for only a few seconds and documented it. And so, my first Nimbus work started. From then, I began working in real size spaces. That was 8 years ago.
A work always starts with the location: usually, I hear about a place or I run into one online. I specifically like spaces with a sense of materiality, unusual architectural structures and features as tiles, colors and craftsmanship or spaces that have traces of a former use.
Mostly, it takes a couple of days to create a work and I always collaborate with a professional photographer to shoot the cloud. When I arrive, I take a fair amount of time to find the setting I want, elements that should be in the frame or the light that I want to capture.
Then, I usually test for a day with different setups and light situations to see how the smoke reacts in that particular space and finally make the required adjustments.

When I find the right setting, we start shooting. Between a cloud and the other, we need to clear the space from smoke and start again. Every cloud and light situation are unique. We shoot tens of clouds and in the end select only one. The photo becomes the actual artwork.

Nimbus Katoenveem, 2018. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk


I love the process of decontextualization you undertake, especially with everyday objects. Do you think art for you is a way to escape the ordinary or to celebrate it?

Celebrate definitely, I work with everyday objects and by simply moving them around in a different context, you create new meanings. It’s like moving furniture around in a room. I like the ‘in-between’ state where you cannot really grasp what is going on. Clouds are associated with luck but are also threatening when you encounter them in an unnatural situation. A rainbow stands for perfection and promise, but what if it presents itself upside down? Do you then question these values again?

Nimbus Diocleziano Aula V, 2018. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk


In the concept of the Nimbus series, the poetic of the ephemeral coexists with the need for photographic evidence. Do you think this kind of duality can sometimes be controversial?

I like that the clouds aren’t durable and fall apart the moment they grow. The work is captured in a photograph which functions as the document of something that really took place in a specific location and is now gone. An art historian described it very nicely: through the photograph we are re-living the moment in our minds again making the cloud even more important in its absence then its presence.

Nimbus de Toekomst 2, 2019. Photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk


Are there any upcoming projects/exhibitions you are involved in? Any small hint?

I have a solo show coming up in Museum gegenstandsfreier Kunst in Germany in March. In May a second solo show at Ronchini Gallery in London.
There is a VR project that my work is featured in that is going to be released this year. And I’m participating in the world EXPO 2020 Dubai in October this year that was postponed due to Covid 19. See you there!


All images courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery


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