TornadoA few weeks back I saw a presentation by artist Ned Kahn. Ned’s a genius — literally. He got one of the coveted MacArthur genius awards to pursue his ideas. He made a lot of the exhibits at the Exploratorium many years ago. Most things having to do with granular flow are his:

Soap Film Painting A large flat soap film shows interference patterns

Aeolian landscape A fan whips fine sand into patterns and dunes as you watch. A change of the fan changes the pattern of the landscape.

Tornado Fine water mist is circulated by air currents and drawn into a spiralling, wispy tornado 10 feet tall.

The Exploratorium sells exhibits to other museums and the tornado is pretty popular. He’s not the only one, but Ned also extended this to create a fire tornado, a real thing of beauty. Watch a video of the fire tornado on his website. He had to go to Europe to do it, where the willing curator told him, “we have a lower density of lawers per capita here than in the US.”

He also worked on an installation to create a temporary building, many stories high, which created a water vapor tornado in its central atrium, many hundreds of feet tall. Amazing!

Lately he’s been working on a variety of installations on buildings. What I was struck by was how his work focusses particularly on reflecting something unseen, or making the invisible visible.

For instance, many of his exhibits visualize the wind. See his wind exhibits on his website. In one, small lightly hinged panels cover a building wall. The movement of the wind over them makes them move and flutter, and the whole building facade moves in waves, so you can see large-scale undulations in the air currents that are not felt.

Or, on a beach, an array of small mirrors pointed towards the surf reflects the movement of the waves, the change from light froth to dark sand, and the overal movement of the water, in a surprisingly delightful fashion.

In a BART (transit) station in San Francisco, the wind from the departing trains flutters an array of shiny panels, making the wind currents visible.

What I liked about these is that he wasn’t creating something new from nothing. He took what was there in nature and made it visible, and beautiful. He works with patterns, but not regular ones that we understand well. He chooses primarily the flow of fluids to create his works — and the laws of fluid mechanics are intricate and its behavior often chaotic and unpredictable. Fluid flow is also something we rarely get a chance to see. Air is invisible, and it’s hard to see the motion of water.

You can see pictures of much of his work at Ned Kahn’s website. I won’t copy any of his images here — but please take a look!