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Ned Kahn "Tornado," 1990

Ned Kahn was born in 1960 in Connecticut and is living and working since the early eighties in and around San Francisco. His academic background is a degree in environmental studies. Kahn worked for 14 years at the San Francisco Exploratorium (1982 - 1996), beginning as an apprentice in the machinist workshop where the exhibits are built and repaired. There he also met physicist Frank Oppenheimer1, the charismatic founder of the Exploratorium, who enjoyed ambiguous installations that blurred the boundary between art and science. Since these days Kahn is creating "environmental art," installations that visualise complex, natural processes. These installations are functional in that they can help us to understand these processes but they also have a very aesthetic side to them and can simply mesmerize and enchant.

Tornado is one of Kahn's earlier installations and involves a room-sized installation in which white vapor is emerging from a perforated plate in the floor (see image). This fog organises itself into a swirling motion and, while slowly extending towards the ceiling is taking up the unmistakable shape and appearance of a tornado. This object is interactive in that it is very volatile and sensitive to air currents caused by motion of the body or even vigorous exhaling. In an instant the ephemeral tornado shape then collapses, leaving nothing behind but the white cloud hovering above the floor. Which then slowly begins to rise again, starting the process all over.

Areas: transformation, nature, physical world processes, elementary process, play, scientific visualisation

Kahn's work usually involves a natural process that is being visualised by the motion of an elemental force. These forces be water, light, fire, wind present themselves in animated complexity such as waves, vortexes or turbulences. On one side they can be seen as scientific visualisations, for example making hidden or complex patterns in fluids visible - on the other hand they have an artistic side to them. Visitors also perceive the installations as visually captivating and aesthetically pleasing, being mesmerized by their swirling patterns or repetitive sounds.

Kahn: "I am fascinated with nature, and I draw a lot of my inspiration from nature. But I am interested in letting nature to express itself through my work. [...]I've created a frame, but it's the natural process that is doing the real sculpting. [...] I've set up a system, [...] I am asking a question of nature. [...T]here is a great potenial for surprises to occur and anything can happen."2

Kahn mentiones that the writer Robert Irwin has been an inspiration to him especially that he regarded making mistakes as important!

Kahn describes his work as generally being divided into two categories. First there were the (interactive) installations that capture a contained system of complexity (such as the tornado) in a confined space depending on intervention from outside, or, second, large installations that raise an awareness for (possibly indiscernible) natural processes around us (such as wind, light, water) and that Kahn himself describes as detectors as they move, change and respond to the environment. The theme underlying all his work is the transformation of certain patterns of behaviour embedded within nature, such as the spiral, chaotic motion, turbulence and complexity. He says that nature was disorderly and in his work he seeks for a balance between order and disorder. He also uses his artistic freedom to choose certain states of order over others, possibly more common ones, as these are more attractive to visitors - yet less scientifically acurate. A fact for which he is sometimes criticised by scientists.

Why are people so captivated and mesmerised by his work? His own theory of what intrigues people in his art is its balance between order and disorder, for example the way in which a flickering fire and moving water mesmerise us. He believes that it is this balance between order and disorder that captivates the eye of the observer. He comments that in his work he strives in his sculptures and environments to encourage people to practice the "art of observing" - he adds that in our fast paced culture with its business and media, peoples lives have become so busy that they forgot how to observe. (Kükelhaus and Hüther also write about this.) Kahn sees his work as counterpoints to this tendency. "Nature is an amazing thing, and we often in our lives are so busy that we forget about that. We forget that we are an intrinsic part of nature. I hope to sort of remind people how wonderful and beautiful and magical the physical world is."

Note to myself: The most significant aspect of his work is that, although it reminds very much of some of Hugo Kükelhaus'3 30 "Phenomena" tangible science exhibits presented at the International Exhibition in Montreal in 1967, there is a fundamental and crucial difference!
Kahn's work can be seen as primarily a visual experience with an intellectual note to them; also as a passive/hypnotic/mesmerising one - Kükelhaus' work is primarily a visceral, corporeal and sensual one. Where his work involves hands-on experiences of sound, pattern, and scientific visualisation, is always about the body, about the miraculous world of our "neglected" senses, about experiencing the body and encourages thinking through physically experience. Where Kükelhaus' work uses visualisation of complex patterns, it is for a better understanding of physical forces such as balance, motion and gravity etc. that people have experienced moments before themselves, while using an installation, on their own bodies.

Possibly worth another entry: Some quotes from Hugo Kükelhaus taken from the "Guidebook to The Freudenberg Experience Field."

[b..]"Guide to the Organ Experience Experiment Field"
by Hugo Kükelhaus
in which the visitor, during a tour through 35 stages, come playful to experience:

I. how
the eye sees, the ear hears, the nose smells, the skin senses, the fingers touch, the feet (under)stand, the hands (be)hold, the brain thinks, the lungs breath, the blood pulsates, the body vibrates, and

II. that
honoring the laws of our own nature enables us both to perceive and honor the same laws in the external phenomena of nature.

The whole enterprise is like total theatre in which each visitor is simultaneously
Author, Director, Actor and Audience} = Utopia

We can use the Bucky quote from here to close the loop: When we feel (and experience) and don't 'think' we were ourselves!


1. Frank Oppenheimer was a physicist involved in the Manhattan project and, during the McCarthy era, also lived for ten years as a cattle rancher in Colorado. He came into education somewhat by accident and discovered the need for a comprehensive science museum while travelling Europe. Transcript and audio of an interview with Oppenheimer at Caltech's oral history project: The Exploratoriums page for Frank Oppenheimer giving wonderful insights into the conceptual approach of installation/exhibition design, quotes, and the relationship between art and science:
2. Quotes from a PBS interview at
3. Hugo Kükelhaus was a German craftsman, philosopher, architect, pedagogue and artist. He developed an "Experience path of the senses" where children can explore balance, gravity, velocity with their own bodies. Additionally hands-on scientific visualisations allow an intellectual engagement with these forces, explaining how they work. This reminds of Ned Kahn's pieces - but conceptually its a different approach.


Ned Kahn site
A video clip of the tornado
An interview at the Chatbot Space and Science Center in Oakland.
An NPR interview from 2005:, with link to a short audio clip.
Steven Reed's and Roger Hall's detailed qualitative data analysis of visitors experience of Exploratorium's Tornado installation.
Hugo Kükelhaus on wikipedia:ükelhaus

last update: 9/7/02009 18:42

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