As part of the BMW Tate Live Exhibition: Ten Days Six Nights, Fujiko Nakaya transformed the Tate Modern with an immersive sculpture of dense fog through which visitors could move around. This spellbinding experience and piece of performance art not only shifted the museum’s usual boundaries, it also demonstrated the power and beauty of nature. For decades this has been the focus of the Japanese artist’s work. She was inspired by her father, whose research as a scientist investigated weather phenomena.
- Robert Grunenberg
- Tate Modern
In a famous anecdote, the writer Oscar Wilde observed that there were two things of which London had an overabundance: fogs and serious people. Whether the fogs produced the serious people or it was the serious people that led to the fogs, Wilde couldn’t say. The Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya is of a different mind. She believes that something positive can come out of London’s infamous pea soup if even more fog is added. And that’s precisely what the 83-year-old artist did in London in late March: as part of the BMW Tate Live Exhibition: Ten Days Six Nights, she created a compelling fog sculpture on the South Terrace of Tate Modern. Nakaya is renowned for her performative sculptures made from artificial fog, which she has previously shown at such well-known venues as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. “I’m trying to change the bad image of London fog, or smog, as it came to be known after the Industrial Revolution,” she says. “English poets wrote beautiful poems about clouds and changes in atmosphere in the Romantic and Classical periods. Now I’m trying to create a third generation of London fog, an ‘ecological fog’ for people to enjoy,” says Nakaya, who traveled to England for the one-off performance.
“I’m interested in the changing state of atmosphere, where vapor is condensing and evaporating simultaneously, fog droplets are being born, or becoming visible, and dying, or becoming invisible at the same time.”
Snowflakes are hieroglyphs that fall from the sky
Fujiko Nakaya is the daughter of Japanese scientist Ukichiro Nakaya, who earned critical acclaim for his scientific work on glaciation and photographs of snow crystals. Like her father, Nakaya developed a lifelong interest in everyday weather phenomena – in particular, the study of clouds, fog and ice. But in contrast to the technical focus of her father’s research, Nakaya adopted a more artistic approach from an early age. “When I was 11, I knitted a sweater by recycling an old one and adding new yarn. My parents always thought I had an artistic streak.” The prophecy was fulfilled when Nakaya’s family left Japan for the U.S. in the 1950s. Nakaya was accepted to study art at Northwestern University in Evanston, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1957. She says her greatest mentor during these years of apprenticeship was her father.
In his most important publication, Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial, published in 1954, Ukichiro Nakaya described snowflakes poetically as hieroglyphs that fall from the sky. Being able to read, understand and interpret them developed into a common interest that bound Nakaya to her father. As a student in the 1950s and ’60s, she initially focused on the decaying process of living things and how this gives rise to new life. After graduating from Evanston, Nakaya spent two years studying fine art at the Sorbonne in Paris. She painted withered flowers, microbes, multiplying cells and landscapes in the process of erosion. She called these pictures the Decomposing Series. The interplay of the elements drew her attention to cloud formations: how they build and disperse in the natural environment, creating a unique spectacle of shadow and light. When Nakaya returned to Japan in the late 1960s, she abandoned the canvas and began to experiment with creating clouds and fog landscapes in real spaces.
An encounter with pop art legend Robert Rauschenberg
Nakaya’s first fog sculpture was created in collaboration with the artist collective Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T.), an organization set up to promote exchange between engineers and artists. One of the co-founders of E.A.T. was the American artist Robert Rauschenberg, whom Nakaya came to know in Tokyo in 1964 while he was on tour in Japan with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. At the time, Cunningham had just won the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale. Nakaya recalls the first time she met Rauschenberg: “The hall in which Merce’s company performed was ancient, and the wooden floor was full of splinters. The dancers would finish rehearsals with their feet bleeding. The organizers didn’t have the money to pay for a linoleum floor. Every evening after the performance, Robert would run on stage with pliers and tweezers to pull nails and splinters from the floor. I used to help him. We became good friends.”
Nakaya then collaborated with the E.A.T. collective on the design of the Pepsi Pavilion for Expo ’70 in Osaka, the first-ever world exhibition to be held in Asia. A watershed moment for the Japanese avant-garde, it was a platform to showcase their work for an international audience. Nakaya chose to shroud the futuristic pavilion and its geodesic dome in fog – a technical challenge she overcame with the help of the American atmospheric physicist Thomas Mee. Together the pair developed a system comprised of 2,500 specially designed jets that atomized over 10,500 gallons of water per hour, causing the pavilion to disappear in a white mist.
“I’m interested in the changing state of the atmosphere, when vapor is condensing and evaporating simultaneously, fog droplets are being born, or becoming visible, and dying, or becoming invisible at the same time.” The fog clears, but it doesn’t disappear – it just transitions into another physical state. Ultimately, Nakaya finds her greatest inspiration in the forces of nature. “I’m driven by the feeling of being absorbed in nature,” she says.
Since Expo ’70, Nakaya has created her many fog landscapes in a wide variety of forms – in gardens, geysers and along waterways. One of her best-known works is the installation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Alongside the canal in front of Frank Gehry’s renowned edifice, Nakaya installed 1,000 jets to create a blanket of fog that enveloped the forecourt of the museum and enshrouded Louise Bourgeois’ immense spider sculpture in a ghostly veil. The fog installation was gifted to the museum by Robert Rauschenberg, who was the first person to buy one of Nakaya’s fog sculptures.
Is there another project you would really like to do? “I’d love to go back to Greenland. I’m never happier than at the ice caps, surrounded by infinite snow fields in perfect whiteness,” says the artist, who received the prestigious Japan Media Arts Festival award for her intermedia works in 2008.
As part of the BMW Tate Live Exhibition: Ten Days Six Nights in London, Nakaya showed how it was possible to extend the museum’s boundaries into its urban environment. In so doing, she engendered a perception of art far removed from the classic displays of objects in white galleries. Her sphere-like fog installations are created in the moment and through the interplay with observers, who are able to immerse themselves and move around within the sculptures. An alternative “soft architecture” is how Catherine Wood, Senior Curator, International Art (Performance) at Tate Modern, describes Nakaya’s work. “What fascinates Nakaya are the organic processes of decay, of disappearance and changes in weather. At the same time, she works with some of the most complex technologies of the 21st century,” explains Wood, underscoring the uniqueness of the fog sculptures. And what does Nakaya have to say about her body of work, in hindsight? “If I were to meet myself again as a 20-year-old, my younger self would say to me: you occupy a place in the pantheon of contemporary artists, so aren’t you happy about that? And I would reply: yes, I’m grateful for my good fortune, but a little dedication never did anyone any harm either.”