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28 May 21

Looking skywards: the endless capability of clouds

Listen to the audio recording by author Dr Vincent Alessi.

Whatever form clouds take, literally or metaphorically, we can find meaning in them and project meaning onto them. Works in the NGV Triennial 2020, including Refik Anadol, Cecilie Bendixen, Jim Shaw, and historical works from the Collection depicting clouds, explore our enduring fascination with dreaming and visualising other worlds and states of being, both real and imagined. 

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 2, 376–382)

From time immemorial humans have turned their head skywards and wondered at the magisterial nature of clouds, projecting onto them anthropomorphic readings. Like Hamlet and Polonius we see animals, faces, mountains and, for the truly imaginative, superheroes and technological structures. They are constantly in movement, sometimes fleeting, always morphing and endlessly enchanting. They are soft, comforting but also bearers of bad tidings. They are science visually manifested – cirrus, nimbostratus, cumulus. While we know how they are formed and what their role is in the ecosystem, we think of and relate to clouds in more poetic and imaginative ways. Whether it is lazing on lush grass peering up at the sky or staring out of a plane at the roof of the sky below us, our minds are filled with possibilities. Clouds are the windows to the other. Imagined worlds, far-off galaxies, religious, spiritual and creator beings and the afterlife, home to our ancestors and dearly departed. Our experience of them remains constant throughout our lives. Regardless of age, when we stare at clouds we are forever youthful, that child that looked up in wonder for the first time letting their imagination roam free remains with us.

For artists clouds have been this and more: a never-ending source of influence, inspiration and a conceptual launch pad.

Clouds have always appeared in visual culture to speak of the religious and spiritual world. Dating more than 4,000 years old, Wanjina images on rock represent ancestors of the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Woonambal peoples of Northwest and Central Kimberley. The curved shape of cumulus storm clouds is echoed by the rounded head of the Wanjina, a creation spirit associated with rain and seasonal regeneration. In more recent times Western artists have depicted clouds as platforms and vehicles to heaven and the afterlife. Raphael, in his Sistine Madonna, 1512 (Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden), depicts a cloud-borne Mary and Christ child levitating to heaven. In van Gogh’s The Starry Night, 1889 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), a swirling mass of clouds makes its way across the early morning sky: celestial transportation to the afterlife.

For other artists, such as John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner, clouds are a glorious subject requiring deep study and accurate depiction. Both made series which are encyclopaedic in their breadth and scientific in their pursuit of truthful representation. Constable referred to his focused study of clouds as ‘skying’, a term which speaks to both the location of his subject and the requirement to look up and study deeply. Clouds he wrote, are ‘the chief organ of sentiment’ and ‘the sky is the source of light in Nature, and governs everything’. 1Letter from John Constable to John Fisher, 23 October 1821. Reproduced in Charles Robert Leslie R.A., The Life and Letters of John Constable, R.A, Chapman and Hall, London, 1896), p. 104. It was a sentiment shared by Turner, whose studies of clouds began as a child at Hampstead Heath and manifested in his latter works, such as the NGV’s Falls of Schaffhausen (Val d’Aosta), c. 1845, as an atmospheric storm where clouds, sky and earth become one.

From the mid twentieth century clouds have come to represent modernity. Andy Warhol’s seductive Silver Clouds of 1966 hinted at his fascination with fashion, cinema and the new. ‘Silver was the future’ he wrote, ‘it was spacey’ referencing the silver suits worn by American astronauts. 2 Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties, Harcourt Books, Orlando, 1980, p. 83. Clouds during this period were also associated with the threat of nuclear war, the image of the mushroom cloud part of the popular imagination during the Cold War period. More recently, the threat of nuclear war has subsided and the image of a menacing and devasting cloud has been replaced by the idea of an ethereal and invisible techno logical space, designed to store our data.

The idea of clouds, in all of its manifestations, continues to influence and shape the work of contemporary artists, including Refik Anadol, Cecilie Bendixen and Jim Shaw, all represented in the NGV Triennial 2020. Three very different artists whose practices range from painting, sculpture to high-tech AI-inspired image-making, they relate to the history of clouds in the visual arts and more importantly the endless capability of them to speak poetically about our world and imagination.

Cecilie Bendixen’s works have often been compared to poetry 3 Tom Simonite, ‘Reality recomputed’, in Triennial NGV 2020, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p. 61. . Cloud Formations, 2020, generously supported by the Neilson Foundation, consists of a large, hand-stitched white canopy that moves in space, catching the breeze and light as viewers move around the gallery. Aesthetically linked to the vastness and whiteness of skyward clouds, the work asks us to look closely and intimately and to consider its transitory and ephemeral nature. Dreamlike in its seductive beauty, its shifting light and shadows trigger our imagination just as if we were lying in a sun-drenched field describing the clouded sky.

Humanity’s capacity for imagination has always driven Refik Anadol’s work. Embracing technology he asks us to consider our relationship with AI, super- computers and our endless accumulation and storage of data so that we might imagine something else, as Anadol states, ‘[to] remember better, dream better, learn better and imagine better’. 4 Tony Oursler and Jim Shaw, ‘In from the Cloud’, in Triennial NGV 2020, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p. 193. Quantum memories, 2020, his monumental 10 by 10 metre LED work in the Triennial is sup-ported by the Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, Barry Janes and Paul Cross and NEC.

It draws on the millions of images of landscapes held in the digital cloud, transforming them by use of quantum computing to create newly imagined landscapes. Like artists before him, Anadol opens up a portal to other universes, allowing us to dwell on alternate worlds and reimagining our own, both historically and into the future.

Looking back and reflecting on the second half of the twentieth century is a central element of Jim Shaw’s Capitol viscera appliances mural, 2011. Epic and immersive in scale, the painting depicts the United States Capitol Building dwarfed by the violence of a mushroom cloud. Shaw has described growing up under the peril of nuclear war as ‘the biggest omnipresent threat’5 of his youth, a feeling shared the world over by those who lived through the cold war era. Like Anadol, Shaw’s work speaks to the modern world and the endless possibilities of technology – its benefits and its destructive capacity. This painting, like many murals around the world, is political. It asks us to consider the nature of capitalism, consumerism and the pursuit of power in our name and, while it is almost a decade old, Capitol viscera appliances mural, is of utmost relevance today as we question the strength of our political systems and institutions.

In their Triennial works Bendixen, Anadol and Shaw invite us to contemplate the world in which we live and also imaginary ones, both terrestrial and celestial. All three artists have created epic artworks that, like the sky above, dwarf us in scale. Their works allow us to engage with the ever-present child within looking up at the moving clouds and seeing other places and other things. Stay still, look closely and celebrate the joy of imagination.

This piece was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 26 Jan–Feb 2021.



Letter from John Constable to John Fisher, 23 October 1821. Reproduced in Charles Robert Leslie R.A., The Life and Letters of John Constable, R.A, Chapman and Hall, London, 1896), p. 104.


Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties, Harcourt Books, Orlando, 1980, p. 83.


Tom Simonite, ‘Reality recomputed’, in Triennial NGV 2020, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p. 61.


Tony Oursler and Jim Shaw, ‘In from the Cloud’, in Triennial NGV 2020, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p. 193.