The nature of art

"If you've been mesmerized by some device that is spinning or vibrating or whirling, odds are good it was created by Ned Kahn"
Peter Fish

In interviews, it's good to get the big questions out of the way early. So when I visited Ned Kahn, the first thing I asked was, "What's with the tornadoes?"

"Tornadoes," Kahn said, "have dogged me for years. A tornado is a vortex. Vortexes recur in so many forms in nature. They're almost universal." In interviews, it's good to get the big questions out of the way early. So when I visited Ned Kahn, the first thing I asked was, "What's with the tornadoes?"

Ned Kahn is a Northern California artist with tightly coiled hair and a low, slightly jokey voice. Kahn creates what are usually called kinetic sculptures. If you've visited San Francisco's Exploratorium or Oakland, California's Chabot Space & Science Center and been mesmerized by some device that is spinning or vibrating or whirling, odds are good Kahn created it.

Kahn, who last year earned one of the MacArthur Foundation's coveted so-called genius grants, is a busy man. When I visited him in his studio in Sonoma County, California, he was working on 14 proj-ects, ranging from an installation for the new Moshe Safdie-designed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms headquarters in Washington, D.C., to a re-imagining of San Diego's waterfront.

This is heady stuff for someone who, as Kahn said, "had a different major every semester in college." But as it turned out, the time spent wandering through science and architecture served him well. After graduation, he moved to San Francisco and discovered the Exploratorium. "I walked in and said, 'This has all the things I'm interested in.' I kept pestering them. Finally one of the old machinists made me his apprentice."

Kahn went on to work with the Exploratorium's founder, physicist Frank Oppenheimer. "I would ask him all these questions. 'What is gravity? What is light?'" The experience made Kahn realize that the worlds of science and art are closer than people generally think. "Often when you ask scientists, 'How did you get into your field?', you find out it was an aesthetic experience. Geologists just love rocks. It's the sensory connection that gets them started."

This summer, two new Kahn projects open for viewing. In Dublin, California, 35 miles east of San Francisco, Emerald Glen Park will display Kahn's wind-activated water-and-light sculpture, in which a reflecting pool and a series of mirrors and water pumps will create, in his words, "a digitized waterfall." At the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, the new Helen & Peter Bing Children's Garden at the Huntington will hold a whirlpool, a fog grotto, and a mist garden from which a rainbow emerges.

Working at the cusp between manmade and natural has its challenges. When Kahn designed a 70-foot-tall fog vortex for a German museum, not even chaos-theory-savvy physicists could assure him it would work. It did. But not all of his sculptures endure. In the 1990s, he created a beautiful work, Wavespout (Breathing Sea), that sat at the end of the Ventura, California, city pier. I used to visit it often: Listening to it was like hearing a trumpet summoning the ocean's soul. Three years after Wavespout was installed, a winter storm smashed the pier, destroying the sculpture.

The wreckage drifted onto a beach 20 miles away. "The insurance company flew me down to look at it," Kahn said. "Everyone was expecting me to cry. But it was so beautiful. Pieces of wood had etched it; the ocean had stripped off the patina. It was like a Japanese woodcut."

We walked out of Kahn's studio, past a rotating drum filled with tiny glass beads suspended in liquid, demonstrating fluid mechanics with a silken, almost seductive grace. Then past another work in which ball bearings rattling through a forest of nails sounded like Bach playing a pachinko machine.

"Most of the art world is all ego," Kahn said. "Most art says, 'Look at me. Look how skillful I am.' And there is a little of that in my work too. But once the piece is up, something else does the sculpting of it. Something other than me."

INFO: The Helen & Peter Bing Children's Garden at the Huntington opens June 19 (closed Mon; $13; 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA; 626/405-2100). The Emerald Glen Park installation opens in early July (Tassajara Rd. at Gleason Dr., Dublin, CA; 925/833-6645).