The Tornadoman Cometh

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, August 1997
E Y E   C A N D Y

The Tornadoman Cometh

Much to the delight of twister-lovers, artist Ned Kahn takes his chaos on tour
By Anne Goodwin Sides

T O  T H E

"The warmer-climate community just hasn't found the colder climate that attractive. It's an area of America that has simply never attracted the Afro-American or the Hispanic."

— Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, on why the U.S. Forest Service should stop trying to recruit minorities for jobs in her district.

Zurich, city of punctilious bankers and precision timepieces, seldom embraces disorder. Yet this summer, its citizens are lining up by the thousands to view an exhibit that's essentially a study in chaos: "The Fire Tornado," a 20-foot pillar of flames that swirls around a dark room like a ghostly harbinger of apocalypse. It's the latest installation by San Francisco artist Ned Kahn, whose synthetic turbulence is now much in demand. The 37-year-old has built a career by mimicking nature's rococo, its vortices, ripples, and capricious currents. "I'm a tornado artist," he says. "My materials are flowing fog, flowing sand, flowing water."

This month, Kahn will put the finishing touches on "Turbulent Landscapes," an exhibition embarking on a national tour this fall. His pieces are science-fair projects on a Spielbergian scale, intricate constructs of aerators and magnets, pendulums and vibrating membranes. His shifting, bubbling "Rift Zone" imitates a volcanic glurpscape. "Tectonic Sandbox" recreates the convection forces of earthquakes.

But Kahn is best known for "Tornado," a towering vortex of atomized water that spectators can shape and alter. To produce his eerily realistic funnel, which debuted in San Francisco in June 1996, Kahn spent hours studying the grainy footage of storm chasers and hobnobbing with NOAA scientists and chaos theorists. "Tornadoes," he says, "are incredibly complex. Every one is different."

As an undergrad at the University of Connecticut, Kahn studied a mëlange of architecture, botany, and ecology. He started his career building scientific props, fiddling with soap bubbles and garden hoses, before moving on to his trademark pieces. He's now working on a proposal for a permanent twister at NOAA headquarters in Colorado and soon will start a series for New York's Hayden Planetarium.

Now that Kahn's reputation as the nation's leading (and only) tornado artist has been sealed, he has just one small wish. "Someday," he says, "I'd love to see a real one."

Illustration by Adam McCauley

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