Clouds: Objects, Metaphor, Phenomena

This post was contributed by Rebecca Royle, who is starting Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing in September. 

The space in between the troposphere and the infinite density of human
comprehension is where science and God fuse. I think humanities and sciences
are mutual companions and they certainly happily existed together last Monday at
Clouds: Objects, Metaphor, Phenomena. There was something quite magical and
ephemeral about the evening as it passed from daylight to dusk and I had to ride
on the eventide’s warm sultry breeze to catch my train.

Richard Hamblyn, accomplished environmental writer and historian and Birkbeck’s own lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities opened up the proceedings with a gentle, easy and earnest welcome. What fascinated me most about his lecture was the phenomenon of the Brocken Spectre. The Brocken Spectre is often seen by mountain climbers when they reach a high ridge and look into fog or mist. They stare at the vision of a spectral figure in front of them in the mist and into the glare of a corona radiating from its head. Striking fear and foreboding for centuries, this deception can be traced back in literature and art to the 18th Century. It is ourselves we see of course, the sun centred directly behind us at the antisolar point. The point that struck me is that it is impossible to see the same spectre. It is the individual’s vision alone.

This leap in perception made me think of the art of Josef Albers and his series Homage to the Square. His nested squares explore our chromatic reactions and the internal deception of colour. I stood in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a group of people and discussed the possibility that we were seeing completely different things. I was suddenly acutely aware of being in a body in the room talking with the people, leaving the piece slightly more
alienated and uncertain of my footing.

Descartes – “And so something that I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact
grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.”

Vladimir Jankovic a historian of atmospheric sciences (PhD University of Notre Dame) took us on a jovial and rich panorama breaking apart our reasoning of the many clouds around us including that to which I am saving this document. He questioned our perceptions of beauty as we viewed Romantic artworks such as the Wanderer above the
Sea of Fog followed by a slide that could’ve been a Constable yet the next, revealed the source of the cloud: a power station in the foreground. Or the “lovely bouncy fluffy
clouds” that were actually acid foam.

So the question that Jankovic posed was, can we know beauty if we do not understand it? For example Jankovic explained a cumulonimbus cloud holds the same power as the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’. It suddenly seems more impressive, no? He spoke of Aristotle’s ‘Four Causes’ governing that we are unable to understand a thing until we know it’s final cause. We now even know how to make a cloud! The Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde creates clouds indoors.

The final cause makes me a little uncomfortable. I know nothing of the final cause of many a thing. Am I then unable to see their beauty? No. I see it everywhere, yet I seek to learn, so the desire is there for the definitive.

Esther Leslie, Professor in Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, concluded the evening with
a dialogue befitting the Beat Generation which is unfortunately now out there in
the ether. It was like a one-way channel beyond my retention outside of the
moment. I was utterly dissolved as I listened and watched a freeform slide show of
clouds in all their beauty as well as their destruction, speaking of dreams against
the dark clouds bulging from the Twin Towers. I was very nearly moved to tears.


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