Essay on clouds, or about those who distinguished cloud from cloud.

“To make myself understood and to diminish the distance between us, I called out: “I am an evening cloud too.” They stopped still, evidently taking a good look at me. Then they stretched towards me their fine, transparent, rosy wings. That is how evening clouds greet each other. They had recognized me.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke [1899]—translating into words a cloudy day.

The first thing you read when opening the pages of the book Essay on the modifications of clouds, is a poem written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe where he describes different classifications of clouds—from Cumulus to Nimbus, through Cirrus, and Stratus—as an homage to the author of the book, Luke Howard. This seemingly simple gesture of mixing up poetry and science becomes stronger as you flip the pages and start getting in deep into his research about “the principles of their production, suspension and destruction.” Howard’s intention to create a classification system for this meteorological phenomena is more than a scientific essay; it is a wonderful cabinet de curiosités where science flirts with poetry, and takes the reader through a travel that goes from popular knowledge including facts about how the shape and density of clouds can affect the state of a person’s mind and body; to a detailed description of what ‘The Rain Cloud’ is, or even gives detailed data about the life span of the different kind of clouds.

The nomenclature that Luke Howard suggested in the early 19th Century has been universally adopted and the one still used in the current times, simply updated by scientific research guided by curiosity and a careful observation of nature; the same care described by Goethe about Howard’s observations,

“To find yourself in the infinite,
You must distinguish and then combine;
Therefore my winged song thanks
The man who distinguished cloud from cloud.”

Watercolour from ‘On the modifications of clouds’ by Luke Howard.

Maybe because clouds draw unfathomable dreamscapes around us, or just because they are somehow ephemeral and untouchable, we just felt the impulse to make this brief post with a few projects inspired by them, while following the same narrative as in Howard’s book: a poem first; engravings, researches, and photographic projects following:

“Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”

—from William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’


‘The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji’ by Masanao Abe.

In the book The Movement of Clouds around Mount Fuji, it is explained that in the late 1920s, the Japanese physicist Masanao Abe built an observatory with a view of Mount Fuji. From it, over the course of fifteen years, he recorded the clouds that surrounded the mountain. He was interested in the scientific question of how the air currents around Fuji could be visualized by means of film and photography. A century later after Luke Howard’s book, technology in the early 20th Century allowed Abe to do a cinematic research of cloud’s movements which was a step further from the beautiful watercolours that accompany Howard’s research, albeit they both share the same enigmatic and melancholic aesthetic result.

Here, the relationship between Mount Fuji and the clouds speaks by itself and can be inspiration from many other practices beyond physics and science. The way the clouds surround it, it’s like a dance; projecting shadows of undefined shapes, darkening the snowy landscape, or just flying above the mount in the most joyful way, as it can be seen in the almost cartographic drawings accompanying each photo in this book.

Cloud Cage by Chema Madoz.

Have you ever lay down in the grass looking up the sky, trying to find forms in the clouds? Have you ever feel the impulse of raise your hand and try to touch a cloud? Or even more, tried to catch it? Photographer Chema Madoz transforms this vivid and almost childish illusion into a unique moment, when he attempt to portrait the unachievable, the inscrutable, with his piece ‘Cloud Cage,’ which perhaps not by coincidence, recall fragments of another poem:

“As a bird —an immense bird and sound—
Holly Name flew out of my chest.
And ahead the mist mysterious crowds,
And the empty cage behind me rests.”

—from Osip Mandelstam’s ‘I Could Not Among The Misty Clouds.’

‘Nimbus,’ by Berndnaut Smilde.

In the same way as Madoz, photographer Berndnaut Smilde has taken inspiration from clouds to create his photographic work Nimbus, where the ephemerality and lightness of clouds is confronted with the roughness of the built environment. He defines this work as “a transitory moment of presence” when the cloud occupies the space only for a few seconds before they fall apart again.

Howard describes the transformations of clouds as based [some times] in curious and capricious divisions and subdivisions and, in Nimbus, this provocative encounter with architecture—a practice which as opossed to the formation of clouds, is identified as solid, planned and projected—just opens many questions about the many significances of concepts like time, endurance, and permanence.

Centre des 7 ports jumelés, Osaka. Lacaton & Vassal.

From Smilde’s clouds inhabiting architecture to architecture created by clouds, we want to finish with this project that our friend Tiago Borges shared with us. It’s the Centre des 7 ports jumelés, an unbuilt project proposed by Lacaton & Vassal for Osaka, in which they use propose to ‘build’ an artificial cloud at the height of the surrounding tower blocks, symbolizing the exchanges between countries.

That clouds has the marvellously capacity to be transformed, it’s a fact. They can become rain, dew, an aqueous atmosphere, a piece of shade, an enigmatic photography, an architecture project, or a melancholic poem. As they float in the skies above, they speak about otherworldly realities. So this is just a small homage to all this poets, scientists, artist, architects who have taken part on transforming those cloudy dreams into something comprehensible to all of us.

‘The Cloud,’ Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820.


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