A few weeks ago we were on the Southbank, in the strange seventies combination of concrete and jutting angles, steps and levels that make the Centre. It was busy with families at a food festival, the sound of music and talking. Away, we were in a quiet corner, a hidden space of ‘The Sunset Pavilion’ by Dan Graham: a terrace of odd compass points and soft all-weather pitch floor. On a wall, words from the artist say that “In England John Constable and John Martin are perhaps my favourite artists – clouds are important. So the pavilion faces the clouds…it is about making people horizontal, not vertical. I want people to lie down.” I love this thought of an instillation being nothing to do with what is traditional architecture: bound to the earth by timber and frame and regulation. His art is about the sky.
I remember as a child we had an ugly fireplace made of fake grey tiles with two painted panels either side – one was a Constable painting with a hayfield, pastoral trees and huge billowing English clouds. It was sentimental and saccharine and I remember sobbing uncontrollably the day my parents pulled out the old fireplace. Even now when I see that painting I remember begging for some reason to keep the painted tile.
But clouds feel important – to me they signal the moment of taking time to look properly at the world around. Between buildings, the sky becomes strips and glimpses that held within the lines of manmade work. On a beach or in a field they are open, elevated, unbound.
One of my favourite children’s books encapsulates this: “lie down and look at the sky. It’s such a small thing to do, but it makes such a difference. The sky is so huge it’s absolutely astounding. You only notice when you’re flat on your back. Strolling along streets or glancing in windows, you only get to see the thinnest rim of it. On your back, you can see it all: the vast upturned bowl that stretches miles and miles in peaceful blue, or it hangs right over you in dark, bruisy clouds, threatening to spill. I think that everyone should stretch out quietly for a while every single day of their lives, look up at the whole sky, and be astonished.” (Goggle Eyes, Anne Fine).
To me the clouds mean Grandpa Les. Lying on his bed as a little girl, in the back bedroom with the floral spread and that huge window over the paddock, I recall that he would point out the cloud formations. He was a navigator during the war and knew the stratosphere, pressure, heights: the clouds like towering turrets or puffed billows that signalled maritime rain. Cirrus fibrates like a mare’s tale, wispy with fibres and trailing through the thin air.