Following the Mists and Mysteries of Fog Art

Earlier this month, Fujiko Nakaya brought visitors to an unfinished museum and the woods in Oslo, immersing them in a mysterious fog.

Fujiko Nakaya’s “a•form” at Oslo’s new National Museum (photo by Nina Horisaki-Christens)

OSLO — Earlier this month, Oslo’s new National Museum, which is still under construction, opened its doors for a few days. With no exterior finishings or interior walls yet completed, the museum was damp and cavernous. Standing beneath its giant atrium, one could feel the drizzle of the overcast sky.

A mist spilled over the edges of the atrium walls and slowly drifted toward the water that had gathered on its floor. Climbing up a ramp that zig-zagged along the atrium’s right-hand side, the way was partially obscured by the drifting mists. The ramp led to a rooftop where the mists shifted according to the winds, echoing the color and form of low-hanging clouds above the harbor visible from the roof, behind the fog.

Fujiko Nakaya’s “a•form” at Oslo’s new National Museum (photo by Nina Horisaki-Christens)

This installation, a component of a performance titled “a•form,” was one of a series of events across Oslo by artist and member of the former collective Experiments in Art and Technology, Fujiko Nakaya. Nakaya has presented fog sculptures at major institutions around the world since Osaka’s world’s fair Expo 70, but it is rare to see several of her works in the same location more or less simultaneously. But over the course of one weekend, through the collaboration of six local organizations, we were able to visit two of her mesmerizing installations and a performance, among other events, in person, discovering how Nakaya puts technology to use to both create and respond to uncertainty.

Fujiko Nakaya’s “a•form” at Oslo’s new National Museum (photo by Junya Yamamine)

Back on the roof, a nearby clocktower stroke eight o’clock and the mist began to build, quickly piling up to obscure the view and blend with the sky. A separate fog bank enveloped onlookers as a series of extended synthesized notes resonated, building and waning in overlapping waves. As the fog dissipated, a dancer’s form emerged. Wearing a yukata, he slowly made his way forward, moving in and out of fog. As the last rays of the sun disappeared, a glow arose within the fog. Cranes started to shift overhead and their downward-facing lights illuminated the atrium and audience by degrees, the slow-moving shadows seeming more like partial eclipses than performance lighting.

Fujiko Nakaya’s “a•form” at Oslo’s new National Museum (photo by Junya Yamamine)

In another one of Nakaya’s installations, “Pathfinder,” a few wisps of mist made their way across a gravel path through the woods of Ekebergparken Sculpture Park. They were so faint it was difficult to be sure whether they were really there, but in approaching the site, you could see a stream of mists flowing over the mounded banks and wafting through the vegetation on either side. Following the fog to its source, you found banks of solenoid nozzles arrayed irregularly, half-hidden by the thick fog they intermittently pump out. In spite of the lack of wind, the fog slid across the ground quickly and unpredictably, and you could be plunged, suddenly, into near blindness in the fog’s thickness.

But why bring fog to Norway, a country already known for fog?

A clue lies in the name of the rooftop performance, “a•form.” Without denying the possibility of form, the name refuses to specify any type of form, gesturing toward the contingent nature of the performance. In a•form, Nakaya responded in real-time to the decisions of her collaborators, namely musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, dancer Min Tanaka, lighting designer Shiro Takatani, and the crane operators recruited from the construction crew currently building the National Museum building. At the same time, Nakaya also responded to the surrounding environment: wind, temperature, air pressure, and humidity all affected the formation, density, and movement of the fog, against which Nakaya adjusted the timing and pressure of the nozzle banks remotely. It is precisely this contingency that made the performance dynamic, holding the audience in its thrall. In spite of the dramatic setting of the rooftop and the harbor behind, the performance never felt theatrical or rehearsed. Instead, it was able to both blend into and emerge from the Nordic backdrop, presenting that environment anew.

Fujiko Nakaya, “Pathfinder” (photo by Nina Horisaki-Christens)

This idea of contingency has its roots in the work of the artist’s father, Ukichiro Nakaya (1900-1962), whose photographs of snowflakes are on view at Oslo Kunstforening, which helped organize Fujiko Nakaya’s weekend of events across Oslo. Ukichiro’s photographs, much like those of Wilson Bentley, focus on the morphology of flakes. But whereas Bentley looked for perfection, Ukichiro looked for diversity — flakes that are asymmetrical, those that attached to other flakes to form complex three-dimensional forms, and those that never fully form flakes per se. He called snowflakes “letters sent from heaven” because he looked at their forms as records of the conditions they had undergone in formation. Ukichiro regarded approaches like Bentley’s — that selectively observed only the most aesthetically pleasing of flakes — as antithetical to science. For him, contingency was the fate of science since it could only study the world around it if it opened its observations to the full range of nature’s creations, not just those parts that humans found aesthetically pleasing.

Fujiko Nakaya, “Pathfinder” (photo by Nina Horisaki-Christens)

Fujiko Nakaya’s work is also a product of the social and political climate of the post-World War II Japanese and American art scenes. As a member of collectives such as the New York-based Experiments in Art and Technology and the Tokyo-based Video Hiroba, and as founder and director of Video Gallery SCAN, she consistently avoided easy definitions of authorship. As in “a•form,” her works have often been developed collaboratively and rely on observation, communication, and improvisation. Her attraction to video, for instance, was due in part to the idea that, unlike the unidirectional flow of television, it held the possibility of creating feedback systems. She applied these ideas to projects like “Friends of Minamata Victims” (1972), her documentary of the protests outside of the Chisso Corporation, a Minamata-based chemical company that was dumping industrial waste into the water. She set up a television monitor so that the protestors could see themselves on screen, observing what their movement looked like from the outside, providing the protestors with encouragement and tools to understand themselves.

As in Ukichiro’s scientific research, Fujiko puts technology to work not to change nature, but to help reveal it and its vicissitudes. This is perhaps most visible in the way Nakaya’s “Pathway” gives way to its environment. Aware of the stillness and malleability of the air circulation in the sloping forest, Nakaya allowed the valley to shape and give life to the artwork. As such, she uses technology only in as much as it helps to amplify the topography, unveiling fog’s ability to articulate structure rather than merely conceal.

Fujiko Nakaya’s performances “a•form” took place at the Oslo National Museum (Nye Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo, Norway) on September 9. “Pathfinder” took place at the Ekebergparken Sculpture Park (Oslo, Norway) September 10–17.

Ukichiro Nakaya: Letters Sent from Heaven continues at Oslo Kunstforening (Rådhusgata 19, Oslo, Norway) through September 24. 

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