Every cloud has a silver lining

As our daily lives continue to be affected by a global pandemic and climate changes, it is clear how dependent we are on each other — intertwined as we all are through the air we breathe. But new vaccines, green finance, and climate technology bring new hope for 2021.

A couple of weeks ago, we welcomed the holiday season with Christmas carols about Santa, reindeers, and angels singing. Angels come in many forms and variations — like the iconic cherubs in the painting Sistine Madonna by Raphael. They have been featured in postcards, t-shirts, and wrapping paper. Maybe you can picture the two cherubs in the front contemplating? If you take the time to look closely at the sea of clouds behind them, countless faces emerge.

Raphael, Sistine Madonna, 1512. Photo: Flicker

Art historian and curator Inger M. L. Gudmundson brought these faces to my attention as we admired Raphael’s painting. The painting was a part of a historical timeline presentation at the Stavanger Art Museum exhibition, In the Clouds — which is now also available online. According to her, these faces have been the subject of many interpretations. Did they symbolize angels or unborn souls?

Regardless of what Raphael really had in mind when he painted the clouds, the picture has taken on a new meaning for me.

Clouds visualize the physical processes that happen in the atmosphere. Temperature conditions, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction give the clouds different shapes. The cloud classification system was launched by the British meteorologist Luke Howard in 1802. Cumulus, Cirrus, and Stratus are all different types of clouds, classified according to Latin names by genus, species, and varieties. For example, Altocumulus Lenticularis are clouds that form when air flows over mountain ridges and forms lee waves. These waves are usually invisible in the air, but when the temperature and moisture levels are right, lens-shaped clouds form. The clouds make the invisible wave above us visible.

The exhibition In the clouds showcases art from the 19th century and up to today, covering a period where both art and science saw significant transformation and development. Through the Industrial Revolution, we modernized our society. CO2 levels in the atmosphere began to rise. As painters captured nature with their paintbrushes, technologists also made scientific progress — inventing the steam engine, boats, the combustion engine, coal power plants, oil, gas, cars, and planes. But as we modernized our world — humans also began altering the actual contents of the air.

Now a new cloud is emerging in the sky — the digital cloud. It connects us in new ways. With a smartphone in our pocket, our movements can easily be traced, our needs and preferences logged. Our data is often stored and moves in time and space — it is like a modern version of the many faces hidden in the cloud seen in Raphaels’ painting.

From the exhibition In the Clouds, Stavanger Art Museum. Lilly Kalvig Østdahl in front of Berndaut Smildes cloud animation. Photo: Siri Kalvig

Plants breathe through photosynthesis, enabling animals and humans to breathe. We all depend on each other and the same air that circulates all living beings. The current pandemic highlights this in an urgent way, and climate change over centuries and decades. Emissions from the past affect us today, just as the emissions of today will affect future generations.

Thankfully, new hope is on the horizon for 2021. The shared solidarity, brave health workers, and vaccines will help us solve the pandemic. New laws for green finance combined with investor interest for sustainability will mobilize more capital towards climate technology.

When I look at the clouds, it is clear to me that we are all connected — through the digital cloud, and through air, time and space. The molecules Raphael breathed in thousands of years ago are still circulating in the air, and perhaps you are inhaling these at this very moment. The climate changes and the current pandemic demonstrates how we are all interconnected. Through the past, the present, and the future — and across national borders. I am reminded of this silver lining every time I look at the clouds.

Hope is on the horizon for 2021. Paying attention to clouds makes you more receptive and remind us of the important inter-connectivity we all share through the flow of air. Photo: Tore Thomassen, Sandestranda

Based on an article originally published in the Norwegian newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad on December 24th, 2020.

Related reading;

The book Silver Linings: Clouds in Art and Science is a very interesting anthology that examines clouds from perspectives that intersect both art and science.

In a recent TEDx talk, I offer my view on the importance of clouds in art, science, and everyday life throughout history — and explain how industrialization and technical advancement have spurred on climate change.

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