An Aesthetic of Turbulence: The Works of Ned Kahn
by David Mather
Steady, helmsman! steady. This is the sort of weather when brave hearts snap ashore, and keeled hulls split at sea.
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Kahn also re-creates dynamic wind currents – or turbulence, as he calls it – within controlled settings inside buildings.Tornado (1990) is a sleek, 12-foot-high structure containing a dancing airborne funnel of whirling fog. Air blowers inside the work’s upper and lower platforms create a strong updraft, while a fog generator introduces water vapour into the resulting vortical airflow. With no glass or other barriers between viewers and the vortex, the installation invites interaction with the resulting mini-twister. “If you gently run your hand through it, it will curve and recover”, Kahn explains. “But if you jump through it or wave your hands rapidly inside it, you completely disrupt the airflow, and it disappears. Sometimes it takes many minutes before the vortex can reorganise itself.”2 With elegant simplicity, Kahn’s Tornado illustrates the Butterfly Effect.
Like Kahn’s project, Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003) at the Tate Modern in London provoked immediate and intense responses. Eliasson simulated the setting sun inside the museum’s large Turbine Hall. The massive illusion consisted of diffuse yellow light reflecting on a mirrored ceiling.4 The realism of the installation and its iconic quality, especially in wintry London, created a sense of calming immersion. Conversely, Kahn’s giant tourbillion in Hanover conveyed a sense of awe and anxiety by confronting viewers with a turbulent natural system. By introducing weather into the exhibit spaces, Kahn and Eliasson surprised visitors in their comfortable surroundings. Also, in both projects the artists created persuasive illusions by cloaking their tools and materials; the technologies they use to create the artificial effects of unmediated nature are often hidden from sight or not apparent to the viewer.
Among the many other artists who examine natural complexities, the American light and space artist James Turrell and British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy depend to an extraordinary degree on environmental conditions. Both artists make works about perception of nature, often requiring the artists or the viewers to visit remote geographic locations. As an example, Turrell’s 30-year project Roden Crater is located outside a small town in Northern Arizona, along a dusty, circuitous road that is far from the highway or any human activity. Also, Goldsworthy’s numerous site-specific projects involve his trekking into the distant reaches of pristine environment. In contrast to Turrell, Goldsworthy and Eliasson, however, Kahn harnesses kinetic, natural forces within formal, exhibition settings, and his works come to resemble interactive science experiments.
Kahn’s technically sophisticated installations resemble the highly choreographed manner of an important work by collaborators Peter Fischli and David Weiss – the 16mm colour film The Way Things Go (1987). As a real-time chain reaction of experiments using gravity, chemistry, physics and pyrotechnics, The Way Things Go has been elaborately staged so that one experiment triggers another in a mind-boggling sequence that runs 30 minutes. The interaction of liquids, solids and gases produces a sequence centred on natural elements and their semi-random behaviours. The causal progression from one experiment to another is tenuous – seeming to break down, then elegantly and improbably resuming. Suspenseful despite its lack of story and characters, this film is, according to Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz, “their masterpiece, and one of the best films ever made by artists”. The Way Things Go relates to Kahn’s oeuvre through its depiction of natural turbulence, verging on chaos, that has both scientific and poetic value. Projects that operate like science experiments illustrate both empirical and symbolic significance.
Kahn’s interactive scientific projects leave little doubt about his command of meteorological processes. Through his immense technical ability, he demonstrates the versatility of turbulent systems, such as the vortices of wind and water. He employs diverse mechanical, pneumatic and electrical technologies to design, build and refine his installations. This is how he constructs dazzlingly complex but comprehensible images of nature that respond to viewers, conform to architectural structures, and reveal environmental conditions.
Ned Kahn presents projects both in scientific settings and in art contexts. By occupying these cultural arenas simultaneously, his work and his ideas are interpreted within separate discourses – as educational, scientific demonstrations or as aesthetic objects. Asked whether his work is more science or art, he replies, “…they’re definitely not scientific experiments, because they’re often much more uncontrolled and complicated… On the other hand, they’re not really artworks in the traditional sense… In the things that I make, even though I’ve created the physical structure, it’s really not me that’s doing the sculpting”6.
Kahn’s modesty aside, it is clear that his work straddles art and science contexts – his is a scientific aesthetic. His projects involve simulating turbulent systems, and he conducts laboratory experiments using natural elements, highly controlled conditions, and numerous technologies. Kahn’s projects can also be compared to those of a collaborative group of artists called Makrolab, which investigates meteorological concepts, among other research topics of scientific and aesthetic value.
Kahn’s works also provide insight into contemporary society. On the one hand, he has a strong commitment to making projects that respond to their environment and to individual viewers. On the other hand, he seeks out natural complexity, and he knows intimately how natural turbulence can develop in technological systems. His technologically intricate installations are premised on a desire to present natural systems to human viewers. These hybrid constructions, in effect, revise the assumed definitions of technological, natural, and social systems by showing their interdependence. As Swiss art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist says, “In our own lives, in our social environments, we see fluctuations and instability, many choices and limited predictability. Non-equilibrium physics has developed similar notions of ‘unstable systems’ and the dynamics of ‘unstable environments’.”8
Kahn brings unpredictability and turbulence into a social context, and uses scientific and aesthetic strategies to make natural complexity vivid, comprehensible, and beautiful. Art and science both encourage – if not demand – keen observation of the natural world. Artists and scientists alike use empirical methods in their research, to test hypotheses and, ultimately, to produce results. That these results often get swathed in disparate interpretations, depending on varied artistic or scientific contexts and on the perceived boundaries of institutional settings, such as an art museum, an educational science centre, or an engineering facility, does not undermine the validity of the observations. To quite the contrary, Kahn’s projects exemplify contemporary tendencies to defy institutional and disciplinary categories, to invite public participation, and to integrate scientific and artistic aims. His is an aesthetic of turbulence.
- For other references to gods and climate, see Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959, Orlando), pp. 120-22.
- Jeff Greenwald. “Forces of Nature”, New Scientist, 16 October 1999 (No. 2208).
- Texlon is an inflatable flouroplastic construction material by Foiltec; see www.foiltec.de/
- Olafur Eliasson, The Unilever Series, Tate Modern. See http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/eliasson/understanding.html
- Greenwald, op. cit.
- See http://makrolab.ljudmila.org/peljhan1.html
- Hans Ulrich Obrist. “Battery, Kraftwerk, and Laboratory (Alexander Dorner Revisited)”. In (ed.) Carin Kuoni, Words of Wisdom (Independent Curators International, 2001, New York), p. 128.