If you've been to an art museum, you were probably warned on your way through the door: "Just look. Don't touch!" Putting so much as a finger on a framed canvas is a no-no. But kids and adults who walk into an exhibit of Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" hear a different message.
"Go ahead and touch the clouds – push them around," Erika Myers-Bromwell told a young visitor to the New Harmony (Ind.) Gallery of Contemporary Art one day last November. Ms. Myers-Bromwell is assistant director of the museum, and she had also assured me that it was OK to touch the silver, cloud-shaped balloons. I could even bounce them off the walls if I liked. And the "clouds" could touch me, too, I learned, as I ducked out of the way of one floating toward me.
Andy Warhol, a "pop" artist of the 20th century, thought up the original Silver Clouds display as a kinetic (moving) art form in the 1960s. Billy Klüver, a Swedish electronics engineer, helped Warhol with the design. In those days, the clouds were made of "Scotchpak," a metallized plastic film used in food packaging. Today, the balloons are made of Mylar, another type of metallic plastic. The first exhibit of Silver Clouds appeared in New York City at the Leo Castelli Gallery, which is famous for showcasing contemporary art.
When preservationist Jane Owen saw Silver Clouds at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) at Saint Louis University in January 2006, she was captivated. She immediately decided to bring the exhibit to her hometown. With the help of the Rev. Terry Dempsey at MOCRA, she did just that. The exhibit is in New Harmony through the end of January.
Silver Clouds is unlike most museum displays mainly because you can touch the art and push it around. You can see yourself in the clouds' reflective surfaces. And you're even invited to lie down on the floor for a different point of view! So I did. I watched the clouds drift overhead the way I've done on a hillside under real clouds. When one of the silver clouds passed by close enough, I gave it a gentle nudge and watched it quietly drift away.
Still, there are rules of exhibit behavior: "Be gentle," a sign says. The clouds are "sturdy but not indestructible." No kicking, running, roughhousing, or pillow fights. And watch where you step – there might be someone looking up at the clouds from the gallery floor.
The day I visited, the clouds became agitated when one young visitor ignored these warnings for a few rambunctious moments. But the balloons responded almost playfully to those who interacted with them more peacefully. They changed from moment to moment, shifting with air currents generated by fans and visitors' movements. They seemed alive in other ways as well. "They'll come right up to you to check you out," said Father Dempsey, who was there the same day I was.
Several clouds swirled up to nudge and brush up against us as if to prove his point. Sometimes they seemed to be chasing one another or dancing together. They clustered and separated, and, now and then, seemed to be dozing.
When I stood among the clouds talking with Ms. Owen, the preservationist, several quietly gathered around us as if they were curiously listening in. If they had ears, they would have heard us saying how beautiful they were.
The clouds have been known to escape gallery spaces that have only light curtains for doors. In fact, a few of them probed about the beaded entryway to the New Harmony gallery. Then they seemed to change their minds, drifting back toward the center of the room where friendly hands buoyed them upward.
Silver Clouds is "a wonderful show to introduce children to art," said Father Dempsey. He recalls the delighted smile of one boy who entered the exhibit at MOCRA – the first museum the boy had ever been to. He visited with his father and grandfather. When Grandpa saw his grandson's happy face, he sent Dad running back to the car for a camera.
Older kids, who have probably visited museums before, are no less enchanted. Ms. Myers-Bromwell talked quite a bit about artist Andy Warhol with a group of five high school boys. These same teenagers came by three times in the exhibit's first week!
In fact, Silver Clouds appeals to the child in anyone. Take it from a grown-up who stretched out on a museum floor, smiling and bouncing clouds off her fingertips.