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Ned Kahn's Rain Oculus is a 70-foot-wide whirlpool at the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore. The huge whirlpool can circulate 6,000 gallons of water per minute and funtions as a kinetic sculpture, skylight and waterfall. (Courtesy of Ned Kahn)

Ned Kahn: The Limits of the Knowable

By channeling the elements of wind and water, the environmental sculptor’s designs inspire awe and curiosity in museum visitors

Last June, sculptor Ned Kahn’s 17-year-old son approached him with a box.

“I got you a traditional Father’s Day gift,” Ben Kahn warned his Dad. “But it’s not a traditional Father’s Day gift.“

Inside was a tie—made of polished, perforated aluminum. The gift was especially significant because Ben had fashioned it in the workshop of San Francisco’s Exploratorium: the legendary hands-on science museum where Ned had served as artist-in-residence for 14 years.

Even so, the tie seemed incongruous; a more appropriate gift might have been a silk-lined hard hat. Though Kahn appears pensive and soft-spoken, this large-scale environmental artist has won international acclaim by building tornadoes, orchestrating the wind and channeling ocean tides into explosive blowholes.

Kahn, a youthful 51, has a narrow face and dark eyes that often focus in the distance. He majored in botany and environmental science at the University of Connecticut, then worked at the Exploratorium from 1982 until 1996. Physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the museum’s brilliant and eccentric founder (and the younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer), became his mentor.

“Finally, I had someone I could ask all the questions that had been puzzling me for years. Like, ‘What’s actually flowing through a wire when you turn on the light?’ Frank loved questions like that,” recalls Kahn. “He would lead me through all the electricity exhibits in the museum, explaining them in detail. Then he’d end this long explanation by saying, ‘Basically, we don’t know what flows through a wire!’

“It was an awakening. It made me realize that what we do know of the world is based on our view through very small windows. The whole idea of limits—the limits of what’s really knowable—has been woven through everything I’ve done.”

Kahn’s interactive Tornado—an eight-foot-high fog twister that visitors can literally walk through without being carried away to Oz—is still one of the Exploratorium’s signature attractions. It’s a good example of what Kahn means when he refers to his pieces as “turbulent landscapes.” For nearly 30 years, he has been fascinated by the dynamic interplay of natural forces that operate, often invisibly, around us.

“I spent a year trying to make that first tornado sculpture work,” Kahn confesses with barely concealed amusement. “Sometimes I’d be there late at night. I’d aim the fans and the fog machine, and get it all fine-tuned. The thing would be working perfectly! Then I’d come back the next morning, and it wouldn’t work at all. I was going crazy.

“After months of this, I realized that it was all about the air currents in that old, drafty Exploratorium building. Which doors were open, or where the sun was heating the roof, affected everything. It slowly dawned on me, how intertwined the sculpture was with the building’s entire air system.

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