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Black Cloud

Black Cloud Exhibit, Phoenix Art Museum 2017

Photo Credit: Tea Francesca Price | "Love is a hurricane wrapped inside of a chrysalis. And you are a girl walking into the storm." -Lang Leav

PHOENIX—A swirling grey sky doused visitors with rain as they hastened through the doors of the Phoenix Art Museum on Saturday, November 4. Inside, however, a different type of dark cloud was looming.

Like a hurricane of origami, 25,000 black paper moths and butterflies of varied sizes swarmed the museum’s Greenbaum Lobby and Morrell Promenade. It is the second time in four years that the Black Cloud exhibit by renowned Mexican artist, Carlos Amorales, has been featured. The current display, which will remain until November 2018, consists of insects made from thick, black construction paper covering the walls and ceiling. Cut by a laser into the shapes of 30 different species of moths and butterflies, there are six different sizes, the largest spanning no more than the width of a hand.

They are the same materials used in the 2013 display, but the layout is entirely different.

“We’re always trying to give our viewers a really engaging experience when they first walk through the doors,” said Dr. Vanessa K. Davidson, the Shawn and Joe Lampe Curator of Latin American Art at the Phoenix Art Museum. “We want them to feel welcome and to know that what they’re about to enter is kind of a laboratory for discovery and learning.”

On the quiet morning of its debut, the completed display left patrons of the museum with slacked jaws and craned necks. Lucky Cunningham, a museum worker with bubblegum pink hair and a bright smile, greeted passersby and offered information as they ventured into the dark exhibition.

“Amazing,” an elderly man said to Cunningham while his daughter snapped different angles of the scene with her iPhone. “What is this?”

“They’re mimicking the monarch butterfly’s migration,” Cunningham replied, her words sparking a dawning look of comprehension.

The exhibit was a hit in 2013, and Rachel Arrt, who saw it then for the first time, described people froze in a state of childlike wonder.

“It’s kind of an eerie peace,” she said. “Almost like visiting a grave, you know? It’s another life form, another phase of life. Even though they are dark and black, the shape is just so recognizable as a creature that we see as friendly.”

Arrt, who graduated in 2002 from Arizona State University with a degree in graphic design and a minor in interior design, said that her first thought went to the people putting the display up.

“When I first walked in, I was amazed by the quantity… just thinking of the physical aspect of installing them,” she said.

The large undertaking for the exhibit’s return was completely a group effort, especially with Amorales having to lead the installation remotely.

His home was one of 153,000 damaged in the September earthquakes that wreaked havoc in Mexico. Still dealing with the aftermath, Amorales was unable to be in Phoenix and instead put his studio director, Janet Martinez, in charge.

During the final two weeks of October, Martinez led a team of 40 community volunteers supported by additional museum staff members and outside contractors from the Scottsdale-based company, Art Solutions & Installations LLC. They worked diligently from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. everyday.

One team cut 50 lbs. of putty adhesive into square blocks, while another group balled them meticulously into different sizes. A third seating area of volunteers gently affixed the putty to the butterflies, all the while watched by curious museumgoers traipsing through the roped off corridor.

Once the insects were laid out in neat rows on poster-boards, Martinez directed teams going up on Sky Jack lifts of her intended design. Gently placing the butterflies on the walls and ceiling, she completed areas herself before tweaking sections volunteers worked on.

Unlike other exhibits, tacking the pieces was far more complex than simply hanging a photo, Davidson explained. Up close, an insect would be tilted left, another right, and everything would seem fine. Back on the ground, necessary adjustments could be spotted when looking at the full display, so someone would have to return to the ceiling.

The literal physical up and down of the installation was an all-consuming process but it was necessary for adhering to Amorales’ vision. He consulted with Martinez several times per day as she sent periodic updates, advising from the second floor of his work studio in Mexico where he is temporarily living.

“Janet has installed this piece in Toronto, Germany, Barcelona,” said Davidson. “This is how their procedure operates the majority of the time and she is an expert on the piece…even though it’s the same architecture, it looks completely different than the first go around. That’s what’s so compelling.”

While Black Cloud appeals to the masses, the artist attaches a deeper, personal meaning.

“Carlos was visiting his grandmother who was very ill,” said Davidson. “He was in bed one night and had a dream in which he saw this piece very clearly. She died a few months later, so he always associates it with her and he remembers her so fondly.”

Davidson said the work is shockingly beautiful, but also haunting and foreboding, carrying a dark side often detectable in Amorales’ creations—not just “Latin American art.”

Pointing out that Latin American art is really a myth due to there being no homogenous culture, Davidson said in a globalized world, the distinction of geography tends to fall away in contemporary works.

“But Carlos is a very singular artist,” she said. “He’s one of [Mexico’s] most important producers, but I think that I wouldn’t feel comfortable pigeonholing him in any one category. He’s a very multifaceted artist.”

Only the pattering rain outside disrupted the silence on the morning of the installation’s debut. Cunningham watched the elderly man and his daughter silently admiring the twisting shadow teeming around them. Both spun slowly on the spot, admiring how the insects seemed still and yet breathing as the air rustled their pliable wings.

Suddenly, a fluttering sound was heard as a small, dark object tumbled in somersaults from the ceiling.

“Are they supposed to come down?” the man asked, a panic stricken look on his face. He stepped back from the paper butterfly splayed on the floor, as if distancing himself from the scene of a crime.

“No,” said Cunningham, “But the adhesive is new, so sometimes that happens.” Darting forward, she gently cradled the piece between cupped palms as though it were alive.

“It’s okay,” she said, as a colleague whisked the fallen piece away in a locked box. “It’ll go back up! If you keep walking, they go all the way to the end—enjoy! This is not something you see everyday.”

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