Review: Builded Remnants –
Berndnaut Smilde –
The Goods Shed –
Reviewed by Phoebe Mulcahy
It is a testament to the shifting and often indefinable state of contemporary art today that an artist can build a career working with what essentially amounts to vapour and smoke. A ‘sculptor of clouds,’ Berndnaut Smilde has gained international acclaim both in and beyond the art world after first generating a successful cloud in 2012. He has been manufacturing and photographing these artificial clouds, known as the Nimbus series, ever since.
Beyond the obvious novelty value of witnessing a miniature cumulus cloud take shape indoors, Smilde’s works keenly challenge ideas of space, time and nature. Working between mediums—photography, sculpture and installation—and seeking to explore what lies between established dualities, such elusive and intangible phenomena as clouds and rainbows are fitting centrepieces in his practice.
Smilde’s clouds, which are generated by shooting smoke against water vapour, dissolve in just ten seconds and until recently, had only been produced in indoor settings. Oddly suspended in the ornate rooms and chambers of mansions, cathedrals and museums, Smilde’s inquiry into the boundaries between interior and exterior space, and the natural and artificial, achieve vivid expression.
Yet, as part of FORM’s International Residency Program last year, these synthetic clouds have for the first time been brought outdoors at two locations in Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region. Working with local photographer Bewley Shaylor, Smilde’s month-long residency also saw him create works at disused industrial sites in Perth, as well as in the state’s South-West, where he was able to use the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse to dazzling effect with an experimental work based on the colour spectrum.
As Smilde’s works are by their nature extremely short-lived and unrepeatable events, the resulting exhibition, at FORM’s The Goods Shed, is chiefly one of documentation, presenting just a handful of large-scale photographs by which these ‘moments of revelation’ have been recorded. The Nimbus clouds are shown at the East Perth Power Station and the Midland Railway Workshops in Perth; but it is their appearance in the Pilbara that is most striking. The clouds may now be outdoors, but you would never mistake them for those that naturally occur in the sky above. Hovering just a few metres from a waterhole in the gorges of Karijini National Park, the implanted cloud appears so uncanny as to be almost sinister, recalling the kinds of misgivings about the Australian landscape that have been immortalised in stories like Picnic At Hanging Rock. As with previous entries in the Nimbus series, the photographs’ intensely crisp and accurate resolution heightens the sense of intrigue and strangeness.
In inviting Berndnaut Smilde to create works in Western Australia, FORM particularly anticipated a series that would speak to the unique natural environments found in this part of the world, taking his critical awareness of Romantic landscapes as the point of departure. It’s clear that this has been more or less achieved, and the resulting works are as captivating as any Smilde has produced. Yet it is inevitably an outsider’s perspective, and it is hard to say whether the images ultimately add very much to our understanding or appreciation of these landscapes on a local level. Placed against the vast and clear-skied vistas of this state, it seems that much of what made these Nimbus clouds so striking as indoor phenomena has only evaporated in the open air.
Top photo: ‘Nimbus Roebourne’, Berndnaut Smilde, 2017. Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of the artist, Ronchini Gallery, and FORM.