How an Artist Puts Clouds and Rainbows in Unlikely Places

Artist Berndnaut Smilde creates clouds to photograph in odd places—here, in China’s Shanghai Himalayas Museum—using smoke and mist machines. (He retouches the images so the tools aren’t seen.)

Photograph by Nina Chen
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"Himalayas," Nimbus series. 2015.
Photograph by Nina Chen

Berndnaut Smilde makes clouds and rainbows from scratch.

The Dutch artist loved tinkering when he was a child, building and breaking apart endless Lego cities in efforts to make real-life objects match the mirages in his mind. In art school, he painted for a few years before he found himself drawn back into the tactile world of sculpture. One day, he wondered if he could sculpt a cloud.

Clouds are simultaneously very simple and infinitely complex. Each one is a mass of water droplets squeezed out of air that’s so drenched it can’t hold any more liquid. The water vapor then condenses around any little particle it encounters—maybe a mote of dust, a floating organic molecule, or a fleck of black carbon—to form the fluffy blobs or wispy tangles we see in the sky.

To create clouds on demand, Smilde did some homework and started experimenting in his studio. First, he wetted down the floor of his studio and sprayed a fine mist of water into the air to saturate it with vapor. He then bought in a smoke machine, like the ones used to make fog at a haunted house, which spit out tiny droplets of material on which the vapor could condense.

Soon he could puff a tiny cloud into a brief existence. He started to pose them in dramatic architectural environments, like a gothic church, a hammam in Turkey, or a tile-covered hallway in France. He’d rush to capture a photograph in the few seconds before the cloud disintegrated (and later retouch images to remove the cloud-making equipment from the picture).

Smilde says he likes to put pieces of the natural world in unexpected positions and let this juxtaposition elicit strange feelings from viewers.

“There are all these cultural references and ideas about weather phenomena like clouds” he says. “People, they make up stories about them and interpret them in all their own different ways.”

In 2015, Smilde found himself mulling a new project idea. He often played with a small prism he had lying around in his studio, turning it over and watching the way it split white light into a rainbow that painted the walls with color.

Maybe, he thought, he could make that rainbow bigger and put in somewhere that would make people see this popular natural phenomenon in a new way.

He knew that if wanted to make a giant rainbow, he’d have to make a giant prism. At the time, Smilde was an artist-in-residence at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in Colorado. He connected with Steve Tomczyk, a scientist who worked on solar physics at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Smilde tinkered and Tomczyk calculated, and before long they had designed the oversize prism, which they had manufactured by a local plastics company. They left it hollow and filled it with mineral oil, which has the same optical properties as the one-inch-thick plastic outer shell, so it breaks the light identically.

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Rainbow projected onto the side of the Klokgebouw in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, for the 2016 exhibition Weather or Not.

They tested the prism on a dark evening at a farm outside Boulder. Using an enormous floodlight—a “Batman light,” Smilde calls it—the prism successfully splashed a wide rainbow over the side of a barn about 330 feet away.

But what Smilde really wanted to do was split light onto an even wider canvass.

Eventually, he convinced the managers of the Point Leeuwin lighthouse in Australia to let him install his prism in front of its thousand-watt bulb. He fussed over the positioning all afternoon. Then, as dusk fell and the lightbulb started to burn, the rainbow appeared. Every seven and a half seconds, the beam swept past the prism, flashing the rainbow out onto the landscape.

Smilde wants to bring his clouds and prisms to many more places around the world, to push himself and others to look at a given vista in new ways.

“I’m not interested in trying to create something that lasts forever,” he says. The art he makes dissipates and disappears, so that each piece is rooted in a time and place. For him, that means there is always more art to create and a new place to go.