Walking on the Clouds – two proposals for a dialogue between earth and sky


“The sky is a tomb or a cave, as well as a map, a clock or a book”

John Durham Peters, “The Marvelous Clouds”, 2015


Cosmological reflexivity, which begins with pre-Socratic philosophers, places man, for the first time, in an investigative relationship with the world, giving a fundamental role to natural elements (water, air, indefinable matter). This attitude of apprehension — a word that in Latin includes the word prehendere, which means taking in, laying hold of — defines historically the birth of a criticism upon the world that precedes criticism about man as a subject. In this process of interpreting the world, environment and its essential causes had always had a fundamental role — climate, landscape morphology, natural disasters.
In the beginning of the third millennium, our cultural environment constantly persuades us about the technological possibilities to control Nature, mitigating the signs of our ephemerality and fragility; in this context, it is through artworks and philosophy that this condition is mainly reflected, in very different ways: more or less politically, more or less philosophicaly, but through very assertive and recurrent terms.
The exhibition now at display has its starting point in the contemplation of two Jan van Goyen’s (1596-1656) paintings, which belong to Fundação Medeiros e Almeida Collection, “Good Weather” and “Bad Weather”— which are dominated, respectively, by white clouds and dark clouds.  Artists Manuel Valente Alves and Carla Cabanas develop their projects interrogating the cosmological relationship of human subject with environment, as well as the way earth and skies constitute themselves as fundamental media for human self-understanding. In those paintings, the different clouds that are inscribed, respectively, in ‘good weather’ and ‘bad weather’, reflect their essential semiotic function on human life; omnipresent in the human horizon, clouds carry the particularity, as abstract forms, of being apt to stimulate projections and over-interpretation.
The first cloud’s morphologic classification, by Luke Howard in 1805, reveals how the sky shows itself as a mediator and how natural phenomena (clouds, hurricanes, earthquakes, storms) turn to be, at the same time, scientific naturalism subjects as well as pretext to metaphysics.

From Goethe to Wordsworth, many were the writers, painters, poets and moviemakers that took clouds as a metaphor or as projective screen. If a cloud can be invested as a terrific image, as the mushroom cloud of atomic bomb, taken in 1945, or the clouds from apocalyptic Hollywood movies as a threat, they can also appear as a ludic image (as often in children’s books and cartoons), an animated figure with which we can talk and that make us company. In the short movie by Woody Allen entitled “Oedipus Wreck”, which is included in the  “New York Stories” – with two others by Francis Ford Copolla and Martin Scorcese (1989) — the main character’s mother appears in the sky inside a big cloud, as an stubborn parental figure that follows his son (Woody Allen) and infantilizes him, and who doesn’t return home until he shows to have grown emotionally. Being under a dark cloud points to the projective ability of clouds to display psychological and emotional feelings or even political events. In other contexts, clouds appear as a repairing sleep or as a feeling of lightness, close to an unconscious desire of full happiness. Walking on the clouds, a popular expression that means out of touch with reality, or daydreaming, can also mean a sort of time suspension, speculative mood, and contemplation. In the last decades of twentieth century, the cloud was often used as a digital web allegory, pointing to a certain ‘dematerialization’ of disseminated information, which should mean, concomitantly, an hyper-penetration of this information in every corner of daily life. This allegoric vision of the ‘digital cloud’ also recalls nineteenth century theories where frequently physical energy (electric, magnetic) will intermingle with psychic energy (telepathic forces, clairvoyance, etc.).
It would be endless the archeology of most forms and occurrences with which clouds had entered in cultural imaginary, all them underlining the way clouds constitute themselves as a privileged media: ecological sign, encrypted text, cultural threat, all them seem to give clouds, or the idea of cloud, a crucial role in environmental hermeneutics.

In the work of the artists presented here this role is fundamental. Manuel Valente Alves, in his work “Far in the Sky” presents an set of two video projections and a photograph, where he creates a dialogue between the perception of the horizon and the opposition between the view from above and the low point of view; Carla Cabanas’s project, entitled “Clouds Game”, consists in 6 collodium photographic plaques of clouds, whose perception changes depending on the viewer point of view, underlining the simultaneous character, abstract and potentially figurative that clouds offer to the human gaze.
In the photograph of Manuel Valente Alves, the opposition between the ground — the sand, but also dog’s low point of view — and the sky recalls the urgency of thinking human environmental space as an alienated space, dominated by orthogonal and perspective designed since Renaissance. This point of view is here questioned, not in the sense a return to some kind of medieval mysticism, but to underline human drive to omnipotence, to forget human essence, far from the power drive that leads him over the centuries.  The distant sky on one of the screenings, stocked inside the gallery space, turns to be a dramatic place that reflects the life below: clouds of all types, a plane that crosses the sky, the occasional brightness of the sky where nothing seems to happen, everything is a pretext for a reflection on ephemerality and time duration.
In the work of Carla Cabanas, on the other hand, the clouds polymorphism, as well as the fact that their apprehension varies upon the subject’s point of view, questions the instability of our perception; at the same time these images underline the abstract appearance of clouds concomitantly with its intense figurative potential as they appear to the human subject.
The emphasis put in this destabilization is something that was overworked in baroque painting: in the clouds there has no linear perspective to look for, everything is equally distributed in the same space. This perceptive destabilization, technically possible here by the use of wet collodium with backlights, absorbs the viewer in an interpretative game, but also in a disquieting process about his or her place as a subject. In the twenties of last century, Alfred Stieglitz has photographed a series of clouds entitled ‘Equivalents’, exploring their symbolic potential (equivalents, as Rosalind Krauss pointed out, is in itself a symbolist term), but also recalling attention to the framing act, to the importance of the photographic gesture of cropping reality. Carla Cabanas’ clouds also suggest the game between the apparent abstraction and the latent, or subjective, figuration underlining the haziness that every photograph hides behind its supposed exactitude and realism. In a very specific way this images question the subject self-assurance as in the very process of contemplation one must think over the way he understands and apprehends the world.
It is the poetic character of clouds, for its apparent abstract form as for its transitivity inscribed silently in human ecology that is convoked by the two artists.

Margarida Medeiros