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Capturing the Ephemeral: Berndnaut Smilde’s Surrealist Photographs of Indoor Clouds
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Capturing the Ephemeral: Berndnaut Smilde’s Surrealist Photographs of Indoor Clouds

Picture of Petra Power
Updated: 12 December 2015

Berndnaut Smilde is a Netherlands-based photographer who is making tidal waves in the art world with his Surrealist photographs of luminous weather clouds placed in unorthodox situations. Petra Power takes a look at this emerging contemporary artist in the midst of his ever growing art career.

Clouds in particular have always had strong metaphysical connections. Depending on the context, clouds can symbolise many things, from signs of ominousness and misfortune, to something that can captivate one’s imagination. Smilde uses a smoke machine to produce these symbolic billowing clouds; once the dense mist is released the humidity is reduced in the room to allow the smoke to take shape and be captured on camera. The process is incredibly tedious and often comes with some technical difficulty – the room has to be cold and damp enough for the moisture to stick to the smoke, and then it has to be photographed during a brief time frame before the cloud dissipates.

‘Nimbus’ is a project that explores the presence of clouds, existing in-between reality, state, image and deconstruction. The clouds are placed in various ‘unconventional’ transitional spaces, abandoned or vacant rooms, engaging with corridors, elevators and numerous staircases. Primarily concerned with the concept of ephemerality, the crux of these works is to document ‘happenings’. The mass of smoke is pictured during its very brief moment of existence before disappearing into a short-lived haze. The works draw on inspiration from the concept of time, permanence and temporality, and how these three concepts are constantly in tension with one another. The situation of duality, inside and outside, furthermore asks questions pertaining to the notion of the in-between, uncanny and surreal. Relating to Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny, the notion of the strange cannot exist without the non-strange. Familiarity in this case is positioned in the spaces that Smilde injects the clouds, and the depiction of the unnatural is articulated through placing the clouds out of its ordinary context.

Smilde’s work is essentially theatrical; hovering clouds of luminous vapour float through rooms and hallways of buildings, everything is considered to create the desired result, including space and lighting. The visual impact between transience and the physicality of space is demonstrated in Nimbus Green Room (2013), which is one of Smilde’s seminal works. Again questioning the functionality of materials and its presence in an architectural context, this work delicately balances smoke, moisture and light. In his most recent work Smilde has begun to work with aerogol, also known as ‘frozen smoke’. The material is made from 99.8% air and is photographed hovered over miniature models of buildings.

Smilde has presented his works in a number of major galleries including London’s Ronchini Gallery. Titled ‘The Uncanny’ this exhibition took place between January and February 2013 and featured works alongside Adeline de Monseignat. The showing also included a number of works which drew on the relationship with artists and their materials. Smilde has also exhibited at ‘Out of Focus’, Saatchi Gallery, London (2012). In addition, his works are part of major art collections such as the Smithsonian, Saatchi and Bonnefantenmuseum, to name a few. With such an impressive resume and recognition in the art world as a growing contemporary artist, Smilde is set to continue to stimulate public interest through his work. Akin to the Surrealists, he will continue to develop this compelling practice which lends itself to the evocation of beauty, uncertainty and duality through the exploration of material and architectural space.

Berndnaut Smilde is currently represented by Ronchini Gallery, London. An exhibition of new work will take place in April 2014.

By Petra Power

The Culture Trip showcases the best of art, culture and travel for every country in the world. Have a look at our Netherlands or Europe sections to find out more or become involved.