The Art of Science: Fujiko Nakaya Creates an Atmosphere

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Foggy Forest, Tokyo, 1992
photo : Shigeo Ogawa

Fujiko Nakaya is the world’s foremost sculptor of fog. And in the sense that it is not really possible to sculpt fog, you could say she has been doing the impossible for over 40 years.

Nakaya began her career in Japan as a painter. But, frustrated with the limitations of painting and inspired by her father, a scientist who is credited with making the first artificial snowflakes, she essentially invented her own medium.  Working with engineers, she developed a system to create and disperse water vapor through pipes to create fog. For her first fog sculpture, she covered the entire Pepsi pavilion at Osaka’s Expo ’70 in fog. Since then, using the same technology, she has created more than 50 fog sculptures in environments ranging from art galleries to bridges to forests.

Using water vapor as a sculptural element is at once simple and profound.  It transfigures the environment, making the familiar seem strange and dreamlike, and then disappears without a trace, absorbed back into the air. The artist says that in ancient Japan, fog was seen as “the breathing of the atmosphere.”

Intriguingly, Nakaya’s latest fog sculpture is set to debut at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a city famous for fog. Her work will be installed along a pedestrian bridge in the sure-to-be-spectacular new Exploratorium space which will open on April 15 on the Embarcadero waterfront.   As Nakaya explained to ArtNews, “On calm days, fog will bundle on the bridge and gently flow along the canal onto the ocean,” she says. “With a strong wind, it will hoist upward into the sky like a dragon. On humid days, it floats over the water and lingers in tufts. Its ever-changing form is the probe, in real time, of its immediate environment.”

If you can’t make it to San Francisco, here’s a video of Nakaya’s installation Cloud Forest, from 2010.

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