At first glance, many of environmental artist Ned Kahn’s large-scale, wind-inspired installations appear to be gigantic digital displays programmed to show perfectly flowing abstract designs, ever-changing in subtle and unpredictable ways. Upon close inspection, these “displays” are anything but digital, comprised of a multitude of perfectly geometrical and identical pieces of metal or plastic meticulously mounted to a grid with enough wiggle room to respond to the gorgeous whimsy of one of Kahn’s favorite collaborators: the wind.
Take, for example, one of his smaller pieces, the 25’×110′ Chain of Ether (above), installed on a building façade in San Diego. Precisely 3,960 squares of 9″×9″ flowing aluminum “fabric” hang neatly on rods, actuating the invisible patterns of the wind.
As if recognizing that the wind demands larger and larger canvases, Kahn’s Articulated Cloud (pictured above) encases the entire building at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum in translucent plastic squares hung on an aluminum frame. Depending on the weather, the building appears to be engulfed in a digital cloud.
Scaling up, Kahn’s piece entitled Turbulent Line (pictured below) cloaks over 16,400 square feet of a parking garage at the airport in Brisbane, Australia. The 250,000 rigid hinged aluminum panels create virtual pixels for the wind to play with and program daily.
After earning his degree in environmental studies in the ‘80s, Kahn went on to be an apprentice to physicist Frank Oppenheimer, founder of San Francisco’s The Exploratorium museum, and spent 15 years as an artist in residence there, a perfect environment to hone the ability to seamlessly blend science, art, and engineering. After three decades of developing his signature style, his work has been featured in natural history museums and art museums alike, and he’s won grants from the National Endowment of the Arts as well as the National Science Foundation.
Though his works are globally acclaimed, he’s always credited his invisible collaborators: “Most sculptures are a celebration of the skill of the artist. You look at any art magazine, and the table of contents is all names. You look in a science magazine, and the table of contents is all phenomena. In the art world, it’s all about the artist’s cleverness or their mastery of certain media. In the things that I make, even though I’ve created the physical structure, it’s really not me that’s doing the sculpting. It’s something other than me, something beyond me, something larger than me.”