What we can learn from Warhol's whimsical Silver Clouds

    Three-year-old Elsa Hoffman-Wiberg smiled at her reflection in a mirror-like rectangular balloon suspended in midair, then punched it. She took off as the balloon coasted away and chased it with a flurry of swats.

    “Watch out for the people though, Elsa,” said Susan Hoffman, her mother. “Be careful. Gentle.”

    Elsa Hoffman-Wiberg, daughter of The Seldoms co-founder Susan Hoffman, examines her reflection in a silver cloud. Photo by the author.

    Every cloud has a silver lining — and at the Loyola University Museum of Art, the clouds ARE silver lining. Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, on view through April 27, is a floating collection of helium-filled mylar sacks. These shiny, buoyant pillows, about half the size of a person, are intimately huggable, tossable, kickable and smackable. Usually, a metallic sheen signals density; we’re accustomed to metal objects sinking, or being the hard source of a stubbed toe. So the vision of metallic objects borne aloft comes as a pleasant, fascinating surprise, and the disparity between expectation and tactile reality combines with an unexpected sense of power: Just a tiny tap can send an ostensibly heavy item flying. The room — dimly lit and about the size of a large classroom — feels like an aquarium. Clouds travel in schools from corner to corner or nudge viewers like friendly fish, drifting lazily on air currents created by fans. They never travel the same path twice.

    Neither did members of The Seldoms Dance Company, which performed amid the clouds on Feb. 18 and 23. Key variables of the dance — who performs during which segments, what movements they execute, where they move around the room — were determined entirely by chance.

    Before the performance, Carrie Hanson, the Seldoms’ artistic director, distributed a few pink, plastic dice among the audience members. As they dropped the dice to the floor, she examined the roll, consulted an outline and called out directions to the dancers, who took notes.

    “It’s two, Cara and Nikki, and they do it up-left — oh, that was a three!” she corrected herself. “Sorry.”

    The dance began. Meterless music, featuring technological beeps and clicks as well as rainsticks and other noise that vaguely invokes nature, served as the movement’s loose backdrop rather than its frame. The dancers leaned to and fro among the clouds, lay down beneath them, or twirled and jabbed rapidly, sometimes hitting a cloud or two with the sound of a slapped trashbag. One dancer gathered clouds by their corners, clutching them in his fist like a balloon vendor. Another pinched a helium-filled party balloon between her fingers and gracefully strolled the perimeter. She paused in front of an audience member, inhaled a hit of helium and read from a card, her voice registering in alien fast-forward pitch: “Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.” This quote and others read by the helium-high dancers were taken from the manifesto of the obscure U.K.-based Cloud Appreciation Society, which reads like a poeticized interview with a kindergartener.

    A Seldoms dancer moves among the silver clouds as the audience looks on. Photo by the author.

    “There’s something that’s rather whimsical and playful about having those balloons floating around, so I thought it would match the whimsy of the installation by having the dancers suck on helium, which is inherently sort of a humorous thing,” Hanson said later.

    The Seldoms’ reliance on randomness drew upon the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham, who staged a similar chance dance at Silver Clouds in 1968 (with costumes notably designed by Warhol’s pop-art colleague Jasper Johns, of target-painting fame). He became obsessed with randomness as an art form during a close friendship with modern composer and fellow chance-enthusiast John Cage. In a 2003 performance, for instance, Cunningham determined whether Part A or Part B of a dance should be set to the music of Sigur Ros or Radiohead, both performing in the pit, by rolling dice before the show. Throughout his career he has experimented with random movements, random settings, random costumes, random lighting and random music.

    Is art still art if the artist relinquishes control over the end product? That’s up to the audience and the creator.

    “I think that there’s a real liberty in that,” Hanson said. “There’s a real release in not having to strain to figure out any sort of a more logical structure, and it’s really just experimental.”

    The element of randomness resulted in large differences between the Seldoms’ two performances, and it gave rise to an open, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants atmosphere for the dancers.

    “It’s fun, exciting, it’s spontaneous,” said Seldoms dancer Nikki Pinchott. “It’s like playing a game.” Sometimes she would be performing a certain dance phrase, she said, then discover that the dancer behind her happened to be executing the same movement. Dancers couldn’t plan exactly where they would be located at what time. “I almost crashed into Damon’s head with my foot,” she said.

    Silver Clouds deserves a visit even without the intriguing presence of a dance company. It’s like an elegantly conceived children’s play space. These clouds aren’t fragile — they’re replicas of the 1966 originals from the piece’s first installation at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York — so punch away.

    Is Silver Clouds supposed to be a purely aesthetic fantasy experience? It was not uncommon for a pop artist to create something with no deep meaning and then sit back and watch as critics and academics analyze and jargonize their heads off trying to find one. What’s the meaning of Warhol’s interpretations of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis? What’s the meaning of his Campbell’s soup and Coca-Cola studies? Works such as those are not so much metaphors as they are noteworthy mirrors reacting to American consumerism. We can’t drive along an American highway without gliding past product advertisements and smiling TV stars blown up on roadside billboards.

    Warhol’s iconic celebrity portraits and studies of commercial goods seem to say, “Here America, this is what you look like.” By setting afloat the reflective silver clouds, he has let us see the reflection for ourselves.


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