In a recent episode of HBO’s “Succession,” Kendall Roy, the Roy family primogeniture, demands clouds for his upcoming investor presentation. As his increasingly exasperated stage crew makes clear, this is a near-impossible ask, and when Roy is finally presented with some artificial clouds—more smoke machine than nimbus—he disapprovingly responds, “That’s not the clouds at all!” This moment highlights the character’s creative impotency and abuse of power, but it is his desire for the unobtainable that speaks volume to his megalomania. Of course, clouds are possible to generate via manmade circumstances—aircraft, power generators—but it is their seemingly intangible quality that has been historically mined by artists.
Andy Warhol and Billy Klüver’s now-iconic “Silver Clouds,” Geoffrey “Cloudsmith” Hendricks’ lifelong works, and the closest to approximate Roy’s vision (and cited in the episode), Berndnaut Smilde’s “Nimbus” series of site-specific vapor clouds: All of these seem to comment, in very different ways, on the way that creativity can contend with the seemingly impossible and reconciling with the fact that we can approximate but never fully replace our given natural ecology.
The ephemeral and intangible quality of cloud-making is what binds Sonya Bogdanova’s solo exhibition, “A Dream We Dream Together is Reality,” at Ignition Project Space. The twenty mostly ceramic cloud sculptures appear more as materially contained vapors than the puffy glyphs we might imagine. Like their natural counterparts, these cloud forms evoke a pareidolia in the viewer. “JJ,” glazed in hues of purples and red, looks simultaneously craggy and throne-like, while the bulbous, cream-colored “there’s no such thing as a society” resembles a humanoid torso or a cobra. It’s a whimsical move on Bogdanova’s part, capturing, on a micro level, the joy of seeing things in clouds, which is to say, the perceiving of meaning in the random.
“I am become death” is the closest approximation of a cloud form we might recognize, retaining a white color and resembling a funnel or mushroom cloud, its slender cone-shape base holding up a larger, engorged upper mass. “I am become death” evoking such a form is a reminder of a cloud’s double position, a locus for dreaming but also destruction. Clouds are moody, fickle, and this duality is represented well by the exhibition display. While some cloud sculptures rest neatly on hung white shelves, others are splayed, seemingly haphazardly, across the gallery floor. The placement of one sculpture is made to look like it has knocked over the gallery coat hanger, while two others battle over a small table missing half its legs, one holding the table up, the other weighing it down. These clouds formally capture their natural counterpoints’ airiness, but materially they are hard and weighty, and this playful mode of display captures the dichotomy of lightness and heaviness.
Returning to cloud-making, there is a sense in this exhibition that Bogdanova is trying to work through what ubiquitous forms, with their propensity to both collectivize and individuate—see also, a sunset—might mean in our increasingly alienated contemporary moment. The titles of these works are often direct quotes, from Margaret Thatcher, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, among other controversial historical figures, and this decision speaks not only to the Janus-faced general character of clouds, but of art’s capacity to allow us escapism. How can we simultaneously be seduced by the craft and form of a sculpture that also has a title quoting Chicago cop-cum-convicted torturer, Jon Burge? Such a move on Bogdanova’s part seems like a reining-in of her own utopic sentiments, a dash of cynicism in an exhibition that otherwise encourages the benefits of having one’s head in the clouds. Perhaps this is part of the point: to get to a collective dream state requires assessing the legacy of those who actively worked to thwart such realizations. In this way clouds, for Bogdanova, become ellipses, a dot-dot-dot that guide us hesitantly or conditionally to another thought. It is rare that an artwork can arouse more than a beautiful cloud in us, and this is what Bogdanova’s exhibition desires, to give us a moment of respite before moving to the next challenge.
Sonya Bogdanova’s “A Dream We Dream Together Is Reality” at Ignition Projects, 3839 West Grand, on view through May 26.
Chris Reeves is a creative researcher and artist who received his PhD in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2021. In 2020 he co-edited his first book, “The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia” released on Soberscove Press.