Having your head in the clouds can be a delightful and ethereal experience. I’m referring to Andy Warhol’s “Silver Clouds” exhibition at Rosslyn’s Artisphere. Upon walking into Artisphere’s Terrace Gallery and turning past the titular wall viewers enter a spacious white room filled with large metallic balloons illuminated by bright lights. Visitors are encouraged to gently tap the balloons and guide their movement as the float on the air currents made by interspersed fans on the floor of the room.
Originally exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966, Warhol’s “Silver Clouds” was initially a collaboration with engineer Billy Klüver in creating a piece that intersected art with science. Initially Warhol asked Klüver for assistance in finding a material that he could create floating light bulbs with. Though Klüver’s team was unable to create the floating bulbs he presented Warhol with Scotchpak, a metalized and heat-sealed film made by 3M.
Warhol then folded the Scotchpak film and said, “Let’s make clouds.” Inside the clouds’ polyester metallic film is oxygen and helium that help them to float and maintain a bouncy quality. Warhol intended for the viewers to become immersed in the environment and become part the piece and affect the clouds’ movement as the clouds affect the viewer’s senses. The viewer engages with the work rather than being briefly contemplative in a usual gallery setting. “Silver Cloud” has objective and representational qualities that allow viewers to easily identify with it, making the work accessible to new audiences that would not typically be interested in art. The work’s use of industrial material present the irony of a commodity made with specific purpose appropriated for playful taps and grasps by viewers. The piece subverts the conventional gallery space from the neutral and antiseptic white cube into a playful and interactive area. The interaction dissolves the expectations of a gallery setting and an artwork making the piece accessible and fun.
My experience with “Silver Clouds” was an awakening in the importance of participatory art. After my initial fascination with the beauty of the metallic pillows floating around 1,850 cubic feet space of the terrace I became preoccupied with documenting the sight by recording video on my phone. I was then reminded by my friend who accompanied me to the exhibit to put down my phone and actually touch the clouds rather than stand on the outside of the whimsical storm of pillows. After tucking away my phone and participating in creating new patterns of movement with other viewers I was reminded of how important it is to engage with a work and not exclusively observe or appreciate its aesthetic qualities.
“Silver Clouds” is an experience that imprints itself in your memory through the senses. Keeping a cloud afloat using your fingertips, seeing your reflection in the glowing metallic film and hearing the echo of all the chatter and rustle create the joyful atmosphere that makes this show extraordinary. Observing strangers revert into curious children from the simple pleasure of playing with balloon-like clouds is worth the visit alone.