ujiko Nakaya has never understood fog to exist merely in the realms of scientific or climactic phenomena. Having created vast, site-specific fog sculptures since the late 1960s, the veteran artist – who turns 80 this year – frames low-lying moisture as a kind of conduit for communicating nature’s otherwise imperceptible ways.
“Scientifically, cloud and fog are the same,” says Nakaya, who will install one of her famed fog sculptures along a cliff face on Cockatoo Island as part of the 18th Biennale of Sydney. “But conceptually, there is a big difference,” she continues, describing fog as “an interactive media”, which “conjures dialogue with nature” and “reveals the innate”. Cloud, on the other hand, “has never left the realm of romanticism”.
Nakaya’s sculptures – created using high-pressure pumps and specifically designed fog nozzles, which produce vaporised water droplets around the same size as natural fog – aren’t so much visual works, but transient, experiential occurrences. Put simply, they work in conversation with the geographical, climactic and social conditions in which they’re set.
“Fog is physical and can totally immerse you,” she urges. “When fog obscures your view…invisible wind becomes visible. It transforms your everyday environment instantaneously into illusory time-space… When you are inside, it is no longer a visual experience but you use all your senses to grasp it.”
Nakaya’s sculptures date back to the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka. Having been introduced to New York organisation E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) in the mid 1960s via legendary artist Robert Rauschenberg, experimental dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham and avant-garde composers John Cage and David Tudor, she joined forces with the group and began researching the “reciprocity” of natural existence. Clouds began to fascinate her and became a muse for her painting practice. “In cloud, evaporation and condensation take place simultaneously. It sustains itself through constant change.”
When E.A.T. were commissioned to create the Pepsi Pavilion in 1968, she began investigating the possibility of creating an artificial cloud in a box as part of the exhibition. However, E.A.T. president Billy Kluver encouraged Nakaya to dramatically upscale her research, posing the seemingly ludicrous proposition of attempting to create a cloud to cover the pavilion dome.
It was a watershed for Nakaya, whose father, Ukichiro Nakaya, was credited with creating the first artificial snowflakes. “To make fog in a large quantity in the scale of conversing with nature was another thing completely,” she recalls. “It was a revelation… I didn't care anymore if it was art or not.”
She describes her work since as an endeavour to create the best “stage for nature to perform”. “Not to express my own ideas through the material but for the material – fog, nature – to express itself in its own terms.”
As such, Nakaya hopes that her works can extend beyond that sensory experience to help articulate what many choose to ignore. “Climate change on a global scale is more than obvious and acute,” she says. “People must become aware that so much is happening inside the air, which seems empty.
“The chasm will speak up.”
The 18th Biennale of Sydney runs from June 27 to September 16.