“This made me think: Where does an environmental sculpture begin, and where does it end? If my tornado was being affected by the air currents in the building, which were being affected by the wind outside the building, there never was a real border between the sculpture and the whole atmosphere of the Earth.”
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Ned Kahn lives and works in Graton, a small town about 50 miles north of San Francisco. His studio is filled with motors, pipes, metalworking machinery and prototypes for kinetic sculptures. It looks like a salvage yard for spaceship parts.
His early works modeled on a Lilliputian scale the gigantic, always interactive forces of nature. Air columns filled with microscopic beads created patterns of ever-changing sand dunes; spinning glass orbs filled with a clever mix of colored liquid soaps appeared to contain the atmospheric storms seething across Neptune or Jupiter.
As he received more public art commissions, his works grew larger. New “tornadoes,” commissioned by science museums in the United States and Europe, added several stories in height. Whirlpools and blowholes were installed near city piers; the bare walls of buildings were surfaced with thousands of tiny hinged aluminum panels, animated by the ever-shifting patterns of the wind. In 2003 Kahn’s environmental art was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded him a “genius” grant. Far from making him feel self-important, the honor has given him a droll perspective on the art world.
“It’s much easier to generate ideas than come up with something that really works,” Kahn observes, spinning a fluid-filled sphere called Turbulent Orb. “One of the dangerous things about becoming a MacArthur Fellow is that people start to take even your half-baked ideas seriously. It makes me nervous … because a lot of my ideas are bad!”
But a large percentage of his ideas are brilliant. Recently unveiled projects include the 20-foot diameter Avalanche at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and the astounding Rain Oculus: a 70-foot-wide whirlpool at the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore (designed with architect Moshe Safdie). The huge whirlpool—which can circulate 6,000 gallons of water per minute—functions as a kinetic sculpture, a skylight (and waterfall) for the shopping arcade below, and part of the building’s rain-collecting system.
“I love working with Ned,” says Safdie. “His installations not only harness the forces of nature, but—more relevantly—teach us about them. Since my architecture is about working in harmony with nature, this is a perfect fit. I think we both come out feeling enriched, and that our own work is profoundly complemented by the other’s.”
Avalanche, meanwhile, is a movable wheel filled with a mixture of irregular garnet sand and tiny, spherical glass beads. Flowing together, they evoke the dynamics of moving soil, sand and snow. For this project Kahn consulted with University of Chicago physicist Sidney Nagel, who studies the behavior of water droplets, granular matter and other “disordered systems.”
“The enormous wheel is mesmerizing, as small avalanches build up and interact with one another,” Nagel observes. “Ned has the intuition and insight to see how something that starts out small and simple can take on layers of texture when it is enlarged. He captures the playfulness of the scientist in the lab—on our best days!—and translates the excitement of discovery so that it can be enjoyed by all.”