A simple set of steel, interlocking bars that rotate wildly with the turn of a knob may be artist and MacArthur Genius Ned Kahn’s best-known work of art. His iconic exhibit titled Chaotic Pendulum at San Francisco’s Exploratorium has inspired countless people to stand mesmerized by the unpredictability of this modest sculpture that evokes the wonder underlying works of both science and art. Although Americans may be most familiar with Kahn’s human-scaled works at the Exploratorium and other museums, over the course of his career the artist has expanded his visualizations of natural processes to an international set of building facades, immersive vortexes, massive fountains and other public works that continue to pursue the boundaries of perception. Along with Seattle artists and designers Lead Pencil Studio, Kahn was selected to create a new work that integrates the forthcoming electrical power substation at the intersection of Denny Way and Stewart Street with the surrounding Cascade neighborhood in Downtown, Seattle. I recently caught up with Ned to consider his past works in the region and find out more about the new project.
I found it interesting that Lead Pencil Studio and you both have a history of being artists-in-residence at the Exploratorium—LPS in 2007 and you from 1982–95. Especially given the length of your stay and your apprenticeship with founder Frank Oppenheimer, how did that experience impact your practice?
Frank Oppenheimer and the Exploratorium were both major influences. I became intrigued by the creation of artworks that were similar to scientific experiments. I called them “Questions of Nature.” Most of my early works related to visualizing turbulence in a variety of mediums: water, fog, air, fire. While creating these works inside the museum, I frequently had the thought: What would this be like at an architectural scale?
How do you determine which natural elements will become the mediums for a site-specific piece?
I usually begin by investigating the energy moving through the site and considering how I can tap into or reveal its flow patterns. With some projects, the air currents or the passage of light resonated most; others were more suited for moving water and fog. Sometimes nothing interesting occurs within the location, and I have to create an artwork that introduces its own energy. Is there a natural process that is particularly difficult to capture? For years I wanted to work with fire, but nobody in the US would ever let me finish the sentence. Finally, a museum in Switzerland let me do a fire vortex, and we proved to everyone that it could be done safely. Now, I have a number of fire pieces around the world, although still none in the US. I also tried to create an ice vortex, but global warming seems to be working against me on this one.
Shortly after your residency at the Exploratorium ended, you created a piece titled Encircled Stream at the Seattle Center Founder’s Court, based on Washington’s geological history of flooding. Was it liberating at that point in your career to be working outside rather than inside a museum?
Pursuing the idea of working at an architectural scale led me to start applying for public art projects and ultimately collaborating with architects, landscape architects and engineers to visualize turbulence at the scale of buildings. Public art projects like the Encircled Stream forced me into new ground, suddenly having to deal with the realities of the design and construction of public spaces.
Your other project in this area is Glacial Façade in Issaquah, an installation that covers the side of a park-and-ride garage, arguably one of the less inspiring architectural features of an urban environment. What engages you when creating something sited for a more banal, man-made structure, given your work’s emphasis on natural processes and imagery?
Although the essence of my artwork is rooted in natural process and phenomena, the works themselves are often constructed out of very unnatural materials: metal, plastics, glass. Parking garages and blank façades of buildings present opportunities to bring some semblance of nature into the more lifeless pieces of urban fabric in our cities. Often in projects, by the time the architects get around to designing the parking garage, they are spent and happy to drop it in my lap. Compared to most architectural challenges, parking structure façades are simple; they just need to breathe and visually mitigate the cars inside. These façades have the potential to open a window into nature and create a visual oasis for people to reconnect with the natural world.
You recently discussed an interest in creating more work that executes a specific function within its site. Can we expect a functional aspect as part of your project for the Denny Substation?
Much of my current work involves systems for gathering or saving energy. I recently installed a large, rain-gathering vortex and a 1,000-foot long by 200-foot tall cable net structure that functions as a sun shade for a new hotel in Singapore. In San Francisco, I also recently completed a wind-powered lighting system for a high-rise building and am currently working on a water feature that will be powered by passing buses in a new transit center. I am intrigued with the task of creating an artwork that will somehow be useful for the Denny Substation. I have been pestering the engineers at the power company with all kinds of questions about what really goes on at the substation on a physical level. We will see what comes of it!