Art of Interference
Season 1: Water | Episode 2: Fog
[ML: Maren Loveland | TH: Tori Hoover| LK: Lutz Koepnick | FN: Fujiko Nakaya | ER: Emma Reimers | ST: Sarah Theurer | AL: Andrea Lissoni | RB: Ralf Bennartz | JG: Jennifer Gutman]
The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
– Carl Sandburg
Tori Hoover: From Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, this is Art of Interference, a podcast about creative responses to climate change. In each episode, we talk with artists and experts who work at the intersection of nature, technology, and science today. Today’s episode is cohosted by Maren Loveland and Lutz Koepnick.
ML: What, exactly, is so intriguing about fog? Why is it a consistent subject of art, poetry, film, and scholarship? In today’s episode, we attempt to answer some questions about fog by examining the fascinating and ethereal fog sculptures of Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya and what they tell us about our world of climate change.
Nakaya’s sculptures, which she began in 1970, use fog creation technology to construct atmospheric art that flows between landscape, architecture, and humans. Fog is to Nakaya what clay is to a sculptor—she shapes and molds fog to create particular forms. These fog sculptures are reliant on an intricate system of nozzles that release choreographed fogs into the air, creating a slowly building cloud that envelops the space and everyone in it—but only for a few minutes, when the fog eventually subsides. Nakaya’s artistic interest in fog lies, in part, in its ephemeral, transformative, and unpredictable properties. Even when fog’s presence seems to obscure what we see and feel, Nakaya’s sculptures demonstrate how fog can reveal things, make them clearer than they were before or even create new ways of seeing and feeling.
In an interview held in 2014, Nakaya explained,
Fujiko Nakaya (2014 Interview): The landscape is very static if you just see it visually, but, it’s full of, of stories, information, all these things become visible in fog as a medium. It’s relaly
ML: The basic idea behind Nakaya’s sculptures hasn’t changed much over time. In each location, however, they establish very different, site-specific environments. They continually reveal new things about the sites they’re designed around, bringing unique insight to the landscape.
FN (2018 Interview): I’m making a cumulus cloud here.
ML: In each location, however, they establish individual, site-specific environments. In each location, however, they continually reveal new things about the sites they’re designed around, bringing unique insight to the landscape.
FN (2014 interview): But I don’t really, you know, create some form or movement or whatever. It’s all in the air.
ML: This past year, the Munich-based art museum Haus der Kunst presented the first ever comprehensive survey exhibition of Nakaya’s work—including two new fog sculptures, Munich Fog Wave and Munich Fog Fall.
Lutz Koepnick: We both Maren and I actually saw this exhibit this past summer in Munich, didn’t we?
ML: Yeah – we just missed each other by a couple of weeks.
LK: It’s a museum with a really troubled history. Haus der Kunst was built by the Nazis between 1933 and 1937 as a showcase for what they considered true German, Aryan art. The background audio you hear right now is actually from the original opening of Haus der Kunst. It took a long time—and a number of renovation projects—for Germans to figure out what to do with this building. Okwui Enwezor served as its artistic director from 2011 to 2018, a really important turning point for the museum; and Andrea Lissoni has taken over in 2021, continuing the effort to transform the building without erasing its problematic past. It is and remains, however, a really heavy building in all respects.
ML: And then, in contrast to that heaviness, I was really struck by the environment around the museum. There’s that little bit of the Eisbach River where they’ve created an artificial wave for surfers. The museum is the backdrop for this really unique gathering space, this tiny Southern California plopped down in Munich.
LK: I think both of us, when we were there, just stopped and watched those surfers for a long time, and all these people of all ages that just jumped into the current one after the other, with so much joy and exhilaration.
ML: I definitely did. It was really mesmerizing, and kind of a magical sight, when you think about it, this wave in the middle of a European river. And it’s the difference between the atmosphere of the exhibit and the river outside; between the Eisbachwave and Nakaya’s exhibit, you’re moving from one kind of rolling swell to another very different one.
LK: Yeah, by contrast to all that activity outside, my impression of the exhibit was that it seems as though it’s meant to be a very contemplative space—even before the fog rolls in. In spite of the building’s heaviness, things felt light once you entered it.
ML: It has a really calming effect: there is this spectacular pond that you see right when you enter the space. The lighting feels bright and open, the wind just seems to breeze through the entire building. And the music in the exhibit is so calming, too. Sometimes it feels more like a sanctuary than a museum. It has really meditative properties, didn’t you think so?
LK: For sure.
ML: The installation produces fog every thirty minutes for about ten minutes, but in between the fog, the water is still and tranquil. As fog begins to fill the main exhibition room, so too do other museum patrons—the room becoming simultaneously crowded with both humans and fog.
LK: I really liked how people explored the fog. First, they stopped, lowered their voices, then they very carefully entered and walked through fog, soaked it up with their bodies, became soaked up by the fog, kept moving without wanting to bump into other people. Or trying to avoid actually falling into the pond.
ML: Being able to experience fog in this way distinctly changed my understanding of it. It became something that could be completely free and formless yet necessitated control and design.
LK: After seeing the show last summer, I actually had the opportunity to speak with one of the two curators of the exhibit, Sarah Theurer.
Sarah Theurer: Hi, my name is Sarah Theurer. I am the co-curator, together with Andrea Lissoni of the exhibition Nebel Leben, by Fujiko Nakaya, which was the first retrospective of the Japanese artist outside of Japan. And we’ve been hosting her fog sculptures, videos, and early paintings, at Haus der Kunst in Munich from April to end of July this year.
LK: I was very glad to catch her, because she has a very busy schedule. I was really interested to ask her about the challenges of working with Nakaya’s sculptures in the Haus der Kunst. Water is typically a curator’s nightmare in a gallery setting, so in our conversation I asked her about the challenges of installing Nakaya’s fog sculptures in Haus der Kunst.
ST: Yeah, the beginning, everyone said it’s impossible. But we were lucky because Haus der Kunst is quite an old building and our ventilation system is not fully automatic. So we have different climate zones, in the building. And, it means that we can kind of close off certain parts, certain galleries, so if we are sucking out the humidity from one area, it won’t automatically be pumped into a different part of the house. This made it actually feasible for us to have, or to house the fog sculptures inside. Yeah, it was a very special moment when we used the big hose to fill the pond that we installed.
ML: I was particularly struck by how people interacted with the fog and responded to it, relaxing on the edges of the exhibit, joyfully jumping and dancing through the fog, seeking a much-needed relief from Munich’s heat wave, and finding peace in the calming effects of Nakaya’s sculptures.
Andrea Lissoni: When a fog sculpture appears, from everywhere, even if you don’t see them, children arrive.
ML: The co-curator of the Nakaya exhibit, Andrea Lissoni in a promotional video for the museum.
AL: This is marvelous and also somehow magic. They get all together and they have completely unexpected, insane reactions, free of any form of convention, inhabiting the space and making it alive.
LK: Yeah, and, as I mentioned earlier, the fog also affected the way people interacted with each other: bringing a hush to their conversations, changing the way they moved through the exhibit. From a curator’s perspective, this has everything to do with the way the exhibit was designed.
ST: Because the fog sculptures appear and disappear to certain times the whole exhibition has a sort of time code that it adheres to. So, visitors would like lingering the space and wait for the fog to appear, which gives this very ritualistic moment to it. Right? And your experience of the time while you’re in the exhibition changes or is dictated by the fog sculptures and by the appearance of the fog.
ML: Fog helps us better understand our environments by making the familiar strange, mystical even. The sculpture draws people back again and again, since the experience of it is different each time.
ST: In a way, the fog makes the museum much more of a public space for once, because you have this very intimate moment, the building seems transparent. And it’s interesting to use that word in relation to the fog because it’s technically doing the opposite.
ML: Though you might be able to look at pictures of her sculptures, nothing quite compares to the immersive experience of being surrounded by Nakaya’s fogs.
ST: It does change your perspective, right? It does, like, activate somehow all your senses and gives a different kind of transparency that doesn’t have to do with vision at all.
They alter and blur our senses even as they sharpen our awareness of the present.
ST: So there’s a, a collectivity in it because you, with many people in the space and you are all sort of you’re, you’re breathing and your movement, everything changes the shape of the sculpture. So you’re also part of this joined experience. And I think this is something people actually really long for. Right? Especially after this dire time of COVID and lockdowns and so on.
ER: Hold on. I for one haven’t seen the Fog exhibit in person, and Googling images of the work, it seems much more sinister than you’re all describing it.
TH: Like something out of a science fiction movie, right? Fog rolling along the ground. This reference is very “millennial” of me, but it reminds me of the poisonous gas cloud in the second Hunger Games movie.
ER: Oh my god, totally!
TH: Photographs of Nakaya’s work have a starkly different emotional tone than the peaceful tranquility that Maren and Lutz are describing.
ER: Instead of joy and playfulness and the relief of being immersed in the cool room on a hot summer day, we at first were reminded of the violence of weaponized air.
TH: Given the history of the building that is now Haus der Kunst as a monumental piece of Nazi architecture, and Nayaka’s own experience as a high schooler in Tokyo when the US dropped atomic bombs in her Japanese homeland, it’s hard not to associate images of fog-filled rooms with a history of gas warfare.
ER: Yeah. “This exhibit looks ominous. Change my mind.”
LK: Well then, allow me. Nakaya’s Fog sculptures are a true case of “you had to be there” – even more so than with usual installation art, because the actual experience of the fog differs so greatly from how it seems in photographs or videos.
ML: It’s also about the personal experience of the exhibit, how you specifically interact with it and how it makes you feel. It reminds me of a thought from art critic, Claire Bishop:
(Jen Gutman:) “Installation art differs from traditional media in that it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space. Rather than imagining the viewer as a pair of disembodied eyes that survey the work from a distance, installation art presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, smell and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision. This insistence on the literal presence of the viewer is arguably the key characteristic of installation art.”
LK: Nakaya’s fog sculptures exemplify this idea. Whatever you sense when you’re there really has very little to do with whatever you all saw in those pictures.
ML: Nakaya explained —
FN (2018): They start imagining: they have to access their own experience from, you knowl, childhood because you don’t know what this is. And I like people doing that: children, adults—adults especially.
ML: I can’t stress enough just how incredibly moving it was to experience Munich Fog Wave first-hand.
LK: Yeah. The fog quite literally heightened your sense of presence. It made you rethink or re-sense your entire relation what’s around you, and this—strangely—by clouding your perception, enfolding us in something that many might experience at first as blinding or ominous.
TH: So like those restaurants where you eat in the dark, where the taste of the food is actually enhanced by the suspension of your other senses?
ML: I mean, yeah, pretty much! Except in this case, the sense that is suspended is our sense of time. It makes us more aware of our surrounding environment. The art becomes about being in the present moment, being immersed in the fog, everything else just fades away.
ML: So, we’ve been talking a lot about fog. But what exactly is it? Fog is strange. Fog is difficult to track, measure, and calculate. Because of its fickle nature, fog, as it turns out, is very under-researched. It’s basically just a cloud on the ground. But that isn’t really a satisfying definition, is it?
LK: In a recent New York Times article, John Branch writes about the illusiveness of fog and how important it is for the Bay Area’s temperate climate. Fog creates micro, even nanoclimates in San Francisco. Some people love it as it cools the city even in the summer, others hate it as it creates lots of hazards for container ships that navigate into the bay.
ML: You have rarely seen a film about San Franciso without the mystery of fog. But it provides much needed water to the skyscraping redwoods. And with our warming climate, some are worried about fog receding, disappearing, and potentially disrupting the local ecological balance of San Francisco. But others are inspired by fog’s ephemeral and unpredictable existence, even attempting to capture it in order to battle drought. Branch writes:
(ER):“For something so seemingly transient and capricious, California’s coastal fog is the result of sprawling atmospheric and oceanic phenomena, a delicate balance of powerful forces. What millions experience on land has its origins far out at sea.”
ML: To find out more about the nature of fog, I talked with atmospheric scientist Ralf Bennartz of Vanderbilt’s Earth & Environmental Sciences department.
Ralf Bennartz: Fog is very similar to a cloud that is just sitting on the surface. So ,a cloud what you’ll be flying through with an airplane when you’re landing or starting if you look outside of your airplane window, it looks like fog, right? When you’re flying through a cloud and it actually is physically very similar. Fog is and clouds as well are gazillions of tiny. Droplets of liquid water that are suspended in the air. And each of these droplets has the size of about a hundredth of millimeter. And all these droplets combined, they then act to impair your distance vision, right? Everything is gonna get blurry because
LK: As Ralf explains, fog fundamentally affects our ability to see.
RB: All these droplets, they what we call scatter radiation. So they make it impossible for light to penetrate through. So in terms of basic physics, it really is a collection of tiny liquid droplet that stick around.
LK: In this way, it quite literally changes the way we perceive the world.
ML: And this is precisely what Nakaya’s work does as well. In changing how we view the ever-changing world, her elusive fog sculptures may teach us something about living on a planet forever affected by climate change.
FK (2018 interview): It’s autonomous. In the process I really came to the conclusion that nature really wants to balance out even the wind.
LK: Yeah, fog can teach us a lot about our own ephemerality—that is, understanding our temporary space in the world compared to broader cycles in human and earth’s history. Here’s Sarah Theurer again, the curator of the show at Haus der Kunst:
ST: I think it’s super important to acknowledge that these fog sculptures, they obviously didn’t appear from a vacuum, but they — they’re the result of political events, of certain historic perceptions, of our environment. So really you could see how, early environmental awareness is coming together with these political events, like also weather warfare, the Vietnam war, and arts, reorienting more towards ephemeral materials and processes rather than sculptures or objects.
ML: Nakaya’s fog sculptures converse with history, science, nature, and art to convey a sense of the beauty of impermanence, and in doing so, reconnect us with life’s cycles and make us rethink our place as humans in a larger planetary order. Nakaya put it like this:
FN (2018 interview): It’s a western concept of solid and eternal and – but in the Buddhist thinking, it’s always that nature responds to you according to its rules.
LK: Visually, fog is deeply cinematic. Though fog and cinema might seem to be disparate topics, Nakaya’s work reveals how similar they really are.
ML: Andrea Lissoni again:
AL: When entering the main room, you are already welcomed by this movement of something that comes towards you.
LK: Fog’s movement is one of the main reasons why fog has a particularly cinematic quality about it.
AL: It starts as a sort of explosion, like literally her early painting, something that grows up, takes the form of a soft wave and then falls down again and the wave sneaks towards the front, in this kind of cinematic way.
LK: Fog has long been an interest for documentary, fiction, and other kinds of filmmakers. Because of its mysterious, unpredictable qualities, it remains a pervading symbol of the film noir genre.
ML: Can you imagine even one film noir where criminals and femme fatales aren’t surrounded by fog? From narrative films like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, to documentaries about smog and pollution, fog is often not just a special effect, but a key character in the story.
LK: I am also reminded of Anthony McCall’s work Line Describing a Cone. It’s an experimental project associated with what people in the 1970s called Expanded Cinema. McCall projects a beam of light into a dark room full of a fog-like haze and allows people to interact with the light and atmosphere, creating visual sculptures and shadows. It’s a cinema without a screen or narrative. Pure play of light, and of us engaging with its immaterial shapes, with the volumes his projector draws into the air.
ML: Or maybe even the sound and video installation of Cloud Music, by Robert Watts, David Behrman, and Bob Diamond. Cloud Music presents a camera aimed at the sky and technology that reads the image as musical notation, creating music from the clouds.
LK: Beautiful project, isn’t it? The sound in Nakaya’s exhibit was written by film score composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto’s work is truly breathtaking in its variety and scope; notably, the composer has written music for films like The Revenant, The Last Emperor, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The music Sakamoto made for Nakaya’s exhibit isn’t just a regular soundtrack. Instead, the sounds of the exhibit change depending on the environment, much like the fog itself. Sarah Theurer explains how the soundscape of the exhibit actually works.
ST: They installed cameras that would track the movement of the fog, which in turn would then modulate the sound. It was a sound installation of six channels that were, depending on the movement of the fog and also depending on the crowds and the space modulate. The sounds that would be louder on one side or more intense or more darker. And it was always quite different, actually. And it was a beautiful to experience that definitely added a very different mood to the fog sculpture….And it’s way more than a soundtrack.
LK: Even the sounds of fog, then, seem to mimic its form.
TH: Ok so, not to interfere, but….
TH: Okay, yeah I’m interfering.
TH: This first season of “Art of Interference” features artists whose work, like Fujiko Nagaya’s, deals with water. Water in all different states and shapes: dew, fog, ice, rain and snow; the water that flows in rivers, makes up oceans, and washes over dams we have built to contain it; the waves and tides that ripple through bodies of water.
ER: Future seasons will expand our conversations to artists who work with air, with fire, and with the earth: artists whose projects, like these, primarily embrace these elements as artistic mediums instead of simply trying to represent what climate change does to these elements in, let’s say, the medium of painting or poetry.
TH: I think it was the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles who around 450 BCE first proposed to break down the material ingredients of the world into four elements we know and love: water, air, earth, and fire.
ER: Aristoteles later added Aether as a fifth, but in many later accounts this fifth element—meant to be untouchable by any of the other four—often became somehow wrapped into the element of air.
TH: Maybe that’s why they always say it’s out in the Aether, right?
TH: And Empedocles also proposed that two forces he called Love and Strife would always be at work to mix and separate the four elements, creating a dynamic field of eternal transformations. But honestly he is probably better known for the fact that, out of despair about the sad state of his times, he allegedly ended his life by leaping into Mount Aetna, to demonstrate the vibrant and poetic dynamic of elemental change as others believed.
ER: Oof. Okay, wow.
ER: Don’t do that.
TH: But modern scientists have little patience with these old theories of the elements. Introduced in 1869 by the Russian scientist Dimitri Mendeleev, the periodic table today includes 118 elements as the basic physical building blocks of our planet.
ER: Nuclear physicists, on the other hand, might point to neutrons and protons, quarks and leptons, and all the forces that they’re a part of as the most principal stuff matter is made off. Categories such as water, fire, and air are much too big and too fuzzy for them to classify anything.
TH: And so, you might be asking: why would we hold on to the classical theory of the elements?
ER: Well, first off, because water and fire and the like are part of the human experience. They correspond with us and our experience in ways quarks don’t. Right? We taste water, we see fire—and hopefully don’t touch it. We’re surrounded by air. It’s all really tangible to us.
TH: Right, and second, from the perspective of art and media criticism, the classical elements in some way resemble what we call artistic media or even media of communications. Elements: they are media, right? They propagate sound or light or heat; and media provide the basic elements for communicating or expressing something. They offer the material infrastructure of connecting us with the world; they provide essential building blocks of what life on this planet is really all about.
ER: Yeah, so water, air, fire, or earth might lack some specificity for modern scientists to categorize things, but they are quite essential to how we navigate and perceive the world. Our team here at Art of Interference is following the cardinal directions laid out by Empedocles – and that includes the love and strife that exists between these elements.
TH: But rest assured, at least for now, we’re not gonna lead you to the edge of a volcano and ask you to jump in.
ML: I saw Nakaya’s fog sculptures pretty early into my Munich trip. But even after my husband, Alex, and I left the exhibit, as we navigated the city and made our way through various tourist destinations, I kept thinking about her work: about how, through blurring our sight – and thus our perception more generally – the sculptures brought a rare sense of clarity and beauty to the museum experience.
It wasn’t until we returned to our Airbnb that night, as we were reflecting on our day with our host Andreas (and his cat, Henry) that we learned about the history of the Haus der Kunst. Whereas Lutz had gone into the museum knowing that it had originally been used to showcase Nazi art, Alex and I were now reconsidering the experience in retrospect. Though our time at the Haus der Kunst had felt so lighthearted, now Nakaya’s work took on new meaning, especially as I reflected on her life.
Born in 1933, Nakaya witnessed the bombings of Japan as a teenager, watched the devastation of the Vietnam War, and has seen the rampant acceleration of climate change. Just as much as Nakaya’s work transforms landscapes into scenes of beauty, this transformative effect offers some haunting comments about what scientists today call geoengineering: its promises, its pitfalls—something we will explore in future episodes in greater detail.
The fog sculptures then, in the context of her life and the museum’s history, reminded me of the scholar Peter Sloterdijk’s assertion that the twentieth century “will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body, but the enemy’s environment.” There’s something really poignant about holding that in tandem with the beauty of the physical experience, the charm and wonder that infuses the space.
When I think of Nakaya’s fog sculptures, now, I think of these two realities: the joy and peace of the fog on that summer day in Munich, and its accompanying histories of violence. Maybe more than anything, Nakaya’s art helps me to be able to hold these opposing truths together, and understand more about the landscapes I live in.
Nakaya’s work is not inherently peaceful, but it’s not inherently violent, either—rather, it attempts to reveal things about the environment that weren’t clear before, changing our way of seeing for a short time to gain a more complete perspective once the fog has cleared, our vision has returned, and we come back to the world with new eyes.
It’s fitting, then, that I saw the piece where I did. I think about how joyful the Haus der Kunst felt, and I feel hopeful about the idea of recuperative transformation, even of reincarnation. The museum provides a model for how we might go about transforming historical burdens without denying them.
This, too, is a model for thinking about climate change. If we think of the planet as a building we’re all inhabiting, as a space with difficult and often dissonant histories, we can find ways to transform that building into a place where we can again encounter joy and experience sensory enlightenment.
TH: Art of Interference is produced at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. It has been made possible with the generous support of the “Climate Studies Fund” of the College of Arts & Science. Thank you to our interlocutor, Sarah Theurer for her time and insight. And to Haus der Kunst and Andrea Lissoni for their original videos and interviews, and WBUR Boston and the Glass House Connecticut for the original interviews with Fujiko Nakaya. Since the recording of this episode, the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, has passed away. We send condolences to his loved ones and are extra grateful for the opportunity to engage with and reflect on his life’s work.
Next time on Art of Interference: It’s been 13 years since the historic Nashville flood. Portables floated down the interstate and neighbors kayaked groceries over to each other. And it might be time to get your own kayak, because flooding is the most widespread weather emergency in the world. Join us as we discuss High Waterline, a series by artist Eve Mosher, and examine how floods affect the places we live.