by Maria Porges
Ned Kahn’s Seed Vortex is so massive that it confounds our sense of scale. Its slowly rotating steel disc, covered with 100 pounds of shifting, siding mustard seeds, dominates the mini-retrospective of Kahn’s work presently on view at the Bedford Gallery. The shushing whisper of the seeds and their constantly shifting patterns is enchanting enough to justify a visit, but six other smaller sculptures ringing the Bedford’s idiosyncratic circular gallery build on the experience and further Kahn’s intention to get viewers to think about the forces of nature.
The complexities of weather, the unpredictable movement of water and air and the all-enveloping nature of environmental conditions preoccupy other artists besides Kahn. Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Modern (2003), Andy Goldsworthy’s manipulation of natural phenomena, and James Turrell’s evocations of astral light come to mind. What distinguishes Kahn is that his background is in environmental science, a reversal of the more typical art-to-science trajectory.
Bay area residents are likely to be familiar with Kahn’s wizardry. An earlier iteration of Seed Vortex appeared at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in 2016, while his fog-spewing sculpture, Cloud Rings (1995), and two other pieces are on loan from di Rosa. A number of his works can also be seen at the Exploratorium, where he was once artist-in-residence. What the Bedford exhibition offers is a quieter, more aesthetic encounter, privileging the visual, kinetic and aural qualities of Kahn’s pieces over the theories they demonstrate. Still, like many science museum exhibits, several works here are interactive, not only inviting hands-on contact but actually requiring it for activation — a departure from the usual don’t-touch situation in public spaces.
A smaller version of Seed Vortex stands near the gallery entrance. Seizing its edge and rotating it sends a proportionally lighter load of mustard seeds spinning and sliding, shifting from top to bottom. The patterns are different from those created within the behemoth nearby, but they are equally mesmerizing. A strong push sends the seeds sliding so quickly that some bounce right out onto the gallery floor. Slow or fast, no pattern emerges. It is this eternal chaos and unpredictable change that preoccupies Kahn.
In Chaotic Pendulum (1985), Kahn even figured out how to upend the normally predictable behavior of a pendulum. In this piece, Kahn mounted four pendulums on a T-shaped structure and sealed it between sheets of plexiglass in a large metal oval. The whole thing can be rotated with a knob. Once in motion, the parts swing, but they do so independently of each other, their jerky movements more akin to those of a confused marionette than the decorous back and forth that pendulums usually exhibit. (When Kahn first showed this sculpture to other scientists, they found its unpredictability disturbing.)
The glowing orange column of Magma Chamber (undated) is a bit like a giant lava lamp. The motorized pulsing of air through backlit hollow panels filled with glass beads suggests the way molten rock pushes up through the earth’s crust. It is hard to believe that no liquids are actually involved, but Kahn has mastered the manipulation of the physics of the Granular State — the field of science that examines the way sand, powder, or — say — mustard seeds — behave.
Abyssal Storm (2003) may be the most beautiful of all of the objects here; it evokes everything from science fiction to fairytales both in form and content. In a neat piece of engineering, an elegant dark oval is suspended in a steel circle that revolves independently of the frame in which it is held, like a mirror or a giant, reflective jewel. This structure is reminiscent of an armillary sphere, an early astronomical device for measuring the movements of stars and planets.
Within the disc, glass beads and water swirl together in patterns meant to evoke storms that that rage across the ocean floor, shifting everything in their paths. There is no scientific certainty about what causes these storms, but they remain a source of fascination for Kahn. Light and dark move continuously within this reflective oval like a representation of primordial force, a reminder that science and alchemy only diverged a few centuries ago
If you have been putting off a visit to di Rosa, this show is a chance to experience Cloud Rings, a fantastic piece of artful engineering that is usually installed in the Gatehouse Gallery there. At the Bedford it is placed so that the rings of fog that it belches when compressed by visitors rise to the top of the gallery's towering ceiling. Not surprisingly, it's been a hit with school kids who have been coming in droves since this show began.
For adults, though, the final work in the gallery, Chain of Circumstance, (2017), is equally magical, in part because of its utter simplicity. It consists of what seems to be a plastic chainmail curtain blown into successive waves by a fan. Kahn’s longstanding fascination with the movement of air has led to a series of beautiful public art pieces all over the world that employ lightweight materials, like those seen in Turning Leaves, installed on Kaiser Oakland’s parking garage. Made of thousands of pieces of reflective aluminum that rustle in the breeze, it transforms an otherwise mundane structure. I’ve looked at it many times, marveling at its constant changing beauty. Chain of Circumstance is made of a lightweight alternative to metal chainmail developed by costume director Kayne Horsham for the Lord of the Rings films, and used by Kahn in public art projects since 2012. Here, it calls to mind the performative function of curtains in theaters, of which there are three in the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts, the complex that houses the Bedford Gallery.
As compelling as the smaller works are, the commanding presence of Seed Vortex dominates the show. It is difficult to imagine the feat of engineering required to install the massive disc and its substructure in the gallery. Even if you saw the earlier iteration of this astonishing piece at the CJM, where it was filled with a mixture of sand and glass beads and titled Negev Wheel, experiencing it here is worth the trip to Walnut Creek.
As the wheel spins, time slows, eternity beckons, and the dreadful political events of daily life fall away, even if only for a few minutes. Ars longa, vita brevis.
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Ned Kahn: “Seed Vortex” @ Bedford Gallery through March 25, 2018.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.