Monday, January 16, 2012

CultureLab - Touching the crocheted clouds

Kat Austen, CultureLab editor
(Image: Phase One Photography)

I have always wanted to walk in the clouds. Ever since I read about the cloud men who lived up in the sky forming hailstones and snow from the watery fluff, hurling them down at the Earth as the whim took them in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, I have wanted to feel what it’s like to get up close and personal with those deceptively solid-looking agglomerations of vapour.
Earlier this month I finally got to live my dream - in a basement in Paris. A strange place to find a cloud, you might think , but this was the basement of experimental sci-art gallery Le Laboratoire, and it wasn’t just any old cloud: it was a crocheted cumulus.
Lit from within and above, the swathes of crocheted white wool hang from the ceiling to just half a metre above the ground, casting familiar shadows on the gallery floor. The fluffy cashmilon wool chosen by the artist, Argentinean architect Ciro Najle, works well for cumulus clouds - the puffy ones that can precede thunder storms, and are precursors to the godfather of clouds, the cumulonimbus.
Though there are many types of cumulus cloud, they are all united by their fractal nature, which prompted Najle to turn to crochet to capture their complex, cauliflower-like topology. Najle says crochet is the perfect medium for representing fractal structures because its surfaces can be subdivided again and again by varying the length of neighbouring crochet lines. This can create the necessary curvature for cumulus clouds, in much the same way that crochet has been used to represent the hyperbolic surfaces of corals.
Najle got the inspiration for his woolly sculpture after spending three years collaborating with a multidisciplinary team to develop improved methods of fog collection - a means of capturing water in arid locations. Based in Chile’s Atacama desert, the team developed fog nets with complex, three-dimensional textile forms that would provide irrigation intended to transform the arid landscape for agricultural and research purposes. Known as the Machinic Laboratory or Mlab, the project was hosted at the Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria in Valparaiso, Chile.
(Image: Phase One Photography)
Translating this complexity into cloud art involved a serious amount of mathematics. The sculpture comprises crocheted squares, each of which has an individual pattern modelled by Najle, who generated 1664 different diagrams pinpointing the intersections of the woollen strands, the crochet knots that are key to its structure. It took a team of nearly 40 crochet craftswomen in Merlo, Buenos Aires, Argentina just over a week to make the panels, which were then sewn together into larger sections to form the glorious whole.
The choice of wool was paramount - video projections in the gallery illustrate Najle’s experiments to test the strength and tensile properties of the different yarns. In the end he chose cashmilon, a synthetic yarn that is similar to cashmere, but stronger and less likely to deform under the sheer weight of the crochet folds (although the exhibition’s curator told me that over the course of the three-month exhibition the panels did nevertheless perceptibly stretch).
Luckily for me, Cummulus was designed for interactivity. Not only can you touch it, you can walk through its intricate folds, even lie underneath it. The one thing it cannot capture is the extreme diffuse nature of a cloud’s surface - cashmilon doesn’t fade out on a molecular level in the same way that water vapour does - but that doesn’t detract from the experience, it actually makes it more intimate. The result is that you feel like you’re lying under a stripped-down cloud, one whose insides have been laid bare before you. I was on cloud nine.
Cummulus has been exhibited in Denver, Colorado and most recently at the Laboratoire gallery in Paris.

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