How Indoor Clouds Work

"Until Askeaton has streetview" 2009
Image courtesy Berndnaut Smilde and Ronchini Gallery

Berndnaut Smilde, an Amsterdam artist, has been making indoor clouds since 2010. They only last for a moment -- he preserves them in photographs -- which means that the artistic effort rests entirely in preparation for the event. While the pictures we see give the impression of a captive cloud, something you could perhaps buy tickets to see, it's an illusion: The photos are actually built up over the formation of several different clouds in a given space.

While that may sound disappointing at first, it's actually right in line with Smilde's artistic ideals, as he is very interested in the way images are seen and used. For example, one of his biggest (non-cloud) pieces is a near-life-size picture of a barn -- he installed the photo outside Askeaton, in West County Limerick, Ireland -- and it perfectly encapsulates the artistic reasoning behind the clouds that have now become his biggest hit.


The artist discovered that if you look up Askeaton on Google Street Maps, you'll be directed to a town called Askeaton in the U.S. He photographed the barn in North America and then installed the photo, life-size, outside the Irish city. The concept is that Google's photographing trucks might pick it up, putting the same building's image in both virtual locations. When viewed online, the same building would exist in both places, since you're only ever looking at an image.

The Inspiration for the Indoor Cloud

"Nimbus" 2010
Image courtesy Berndnaut Smilde and Ronchini Gallery

Smilde's clouds are engineered through a painstaking process, building up just the right mixture of moisture and dust to create the environment over hours, so that the ephemeral clouds can be documented through photographs. His first installation, "Nimbus," was set in a simple, bright blue room that evoked a summer sky, with a red floor that underlined the surreal moment. The reference to Magritte's puffy-cloud blue paintings should be obvious, but it's the process that makes it interesting; such a great deal of work goes into creating momentary art which, through documentation, becomes no more or less real than Magritte's paintings -- or the classic Dutch landscapes which also provided inspiration.

Again, you have here the idea of a painted image being brought out of a painting in a museum, only to be installed and photographed in the same museum space as a more interactive level of the art ... which is then restricted back to a simple image once the cloud fades. It's a democratization of the idea of "art" as something to be preserved, into simply equal imagery behind which lies serious effort and craftsmanship, using tools those classic Dutch artists could never imagine. In a way, it's the same train of thought that leads to street artists like Banksy or pop artists like Warhol, although perhaps in the opposite direction.


But Smilde's interest in cloud imagery goes beyond the simple surrealism of that first installation: He is also interested in the more threatening, or portentous symbolism of the cloud as a cartoonish symbol of bad luck. For "Nimbus II," he used a cathedral space and even more evocative and dramatic lighting to create images that bring a negative power to the clever cuteness of the original "Nimbus." The cloud in "Nimbus II" seems almost trapped.

Creating Indoor Clouds

"Nimbus Cukurcuma Hamam II" 2012
Image courtesy Berndnaut Smilde and Ronchini Gallery

In both "Nimbus" installations and 2012's "Cumulus," the science remained the same. The air in the space had to be kept just cool enough that water vapor (produced by, essentially, a fog machine) couldn't fully condense into rain, but warm enough that it would condense around dust particles in the air (just like naturally occurring clouds). Then too, the space had to be dry enough that the ambient moisture didn't condense the vapor, but moist enough that the vapor wouldn't diffuse out and fill the room (after all, that's what fog machines are built to do).

Artistically, the emphasis is on the lighting and the environment of the installation to create perfect photographs, but the artist must rigorously monitor these temperature and moisture conditions while the art is being made. Each successive cloud, once it falls apart, adds to the total moisture of the room, so there's also a limited amount of time available for each installation to be photographed.


What's true for the art pieces, then, is equally true for the layman: Indoor clouds are not meant to last, so your dreams of having a pet cloud are not yet reachable. However, a German design firm is working on a concept for an indoor cloud lamp which uses an Internet connection to predict and mimic weather right in your living room. Using liquid hydrogen, lamps and a high-suction vacuum system, the Nebula lamp reproduces conditions -- from warm yellow sunlight to stormy "rainclouds" -- in a way Berndnaut Smilde would probably approve. A hanging cloud, although created by slightly different means, reproduces and brings the signifiers of weather inside, making art of the everyday.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Indoor Clouds Work

Contemporary art isn't really my bag a lot of the time -- although I think everybody loves a good, inventive large-scale installation -- but I remember first reading about this set of pieces on a materials blog I enjoy. The Magritte references immediately caught my eye, but eventually Smilde's ideas -- about the transition in scale from "impossibly large" to "in the room," as well as his ideas about preserving the clouds through photography, and his larger context about information in the modern age, informed the visual with even more interesting artistic meaning.

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More Great Links

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