This story appears in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Berndnaut Smilde creates fluffy clouds in locations where nature never would place them. The Dutch artist’s sculptures last five seconds—10 seconds tops—before they disappear.
Smilde’s ongoing project, called “Nimbus,” explores the visual effects of clouds. A church or museum interior looks different behind a cloud, and an everyday cloud is peculiar in a castle or a canyon. Each scene is made more intense by lasting only moments.
The ingredients for Smilde’s clouds: just smoke and water vapor. He requires a cold and damp space with no air circulation, lest the clouds never form or fall straight to the ground. He mists an area with a spray bottle to put water vapor into the air. Then he turns on fog machines that spout tiny particles, and the vapor condenses around them.
Smilde runs around the forming cloud, coaxing it into a shape about 10 feet across and six feet tall. Then he steps back long enough for a photographer to snap several images. Once the air clears, he’ll start over, repeating the process dozens of times until he’s happy with the results. Later, he’ll retouch the photos to remove his tools.
The artist regularly fields invitations to create clouds on command, like a tropospheric party trick. Often he declines. He says he only attempts new images when the setting offers him something fresh as an artist. To him, the crucial takeaway is not the wonder of a fabricated cloud but its transience—that it exists for a moment and then is gone forever.
Each creation is “about being at the right place at the right time,” Smilde says. “If you’re seeing a photo, you already missed it.”