"If you've been mesmerized by some device that is spinning or vibrating or whirling, odds are good it was created by Ned Kahn"
In interviews, it's good to get the big questions out of theway 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 isa vortex. Vortexes recur in so many forms in nature. They're almostuniversal." In interviews, it's good to get the big questions outof the way early. So when I visited Ned Kahn, the first thing Iasked was, "What's with the tornadoes?"
Ned Kahn is a Northern California artist with tightly coiledhair and a low, slightly jokey voice. Kahn creates what are usuallycalled kinetic sculptures. If you've visited San Francisco'sExploratorium or Oakland, California's Chabot Space & ScienceCenter and been mesmerized by some device that is spinning orvibrating or whirling, odds are good Kahn created it.
Kahn, who last year earned one of the MacArthur Foundation'scoveted so-called genius grants, is a busy man. When I visited himin his studio in Sonoma County, California, he was working on 14proj-ects, ranging from an installation for the new MosheSafdie-designed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearmsheadquarters in Washington, D.C., to a re-imagining of San Diego'swaterfront.
This is heady stuff for someone who, as Kahn said, "had adifferent major every semester in college." But as it turned out,the time spent wandering through science and architecture servedhim well. After graduation, he moved to San Francisco anddiscovered the Exploratorium. "I walked in and said, 'This has allthe things I'm interested in.' I kept pestering them. Finally oneof the old machinists made me his apprentice."
Kahn went on to work with the Exploratorium's founder, physicistFrank Oppenheimer. "I would ask him all these questions. 'What isgravity? What is light?'" The experience made Kahn realize that theworlds 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 loverocks. 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 willdisplay Kahn's wind-activated water-and-light sculpture, in which areflecting pool and a series of mirrors and water pumps willcreate, in his words, "a digitized waterfall." At the HuntingtonLibrary, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino,California, the new Helen & Peter Bing Children's Garden at theHuntington will hold a whirlpool, a fog grotto, and a mist gardenfrom which a rainbow emerges.
Working at the cusp between manmade and natural has itschallenges. When Kahn designed a 70-foot-tall fog vortex for aGerman museum, not even chaos-theory-savvy physicists could assurehim it would work. It did. But not all of his sculptures endure. Inthe 1990s, he created a beautiful work, Wavespout (Breathing Sea), that sat at the end of theVentura, California, city pier. I used to visit it often: Listeningto it was like hearing a trumpet summoning the ocean's soul. Threeyears after Wavespout was installed, a winter storm smashed thepier, destroying the sculpture.
The wreckage drifted onto a beach 20 miles away. "The insurancecompany flew me down to look at it," Kahn said. "Everyone wasexpecting me to cry. But it was so beautiful. Pieces of wood hadetched it; the ocean had stripped off the patina. It was like aJapanese woodcut."
We walked out of Kahn's studio, past a rotating drum filled withtiny glass beads suspended in liquid, demonstrating fluid mechanicswith a silken, almost seductive grace. Then past another work inwhich ball bearings rattling through a forest of nails sounded likeBach 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 thatin my work too. But once the piece is up, something else does thesculpting of it. Something other than me."
INFO: The Helen & Peter Bing Children's Garden at the Huntingtonopens June 19 (closed Mon; $13; 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA;626/405-2100). The Emerald Glen Park installation opens in earlyJuly (Tassajara Rd. at Gleason Dr., Dublin, CA; 925/833-6645).