Sensing Fog

An artificial fog regularly envelops the bridge connecting piers 15 and 17 in the San Francisco harbor. Fujiko Nakaya, an artist known for her many fog sculptures, installed Fog Bridge #72494 in 2013, when it was launched with the reopening of the Exploratorium science museum. The fog is based on desalinated water from the San Francisco Bay, a technique Nakaya first developed with agricultural scientist Tom Mee in 1970. Whereas before their invention fog could only be produced chemically, which means that it would maybe look like fog but not feel like it, the system used in Nakaya’s works disperses water into billions of microscopic fog droplets.[1] As such, the installations are much like naturally occurring fog: a low hanging cloud that consists of airborne elements (mostly water, but also sea salt, dust, and other nutrients) called cloud condensation nuclei.

In my work, I am interested in how artworks like Nakaya’s Fog Bridge #72494 evoke a kind of ecological experience. By this I mean that I am curious about the ways in which art literally brings to our senses ecological interconnections that we tend to forget or ignore. If the environmental sciences make processes that exceed our individual experience legible through abstractions such as models and predictions, then perhaps the artworks I study do precisely the opposite. Instead of generating knowledge by moving away from our ordinary embodied perception, Nakaya’s work asks us to reconsider our sensory capacities. Aesthetic experiences can direct our attention to what we learn when we hear, smell, taste, see, and touch our environments.

Fog, in this case, can be perceived in at least two ways: as a fogbank hanging in the distance, or as a shroud surrounding those standing on the bridge. We use mostly our eyes when seeing fog roll in, while being shrouded by fog is both a visual and a haptic experience: sometimes, we might see nothing else but the fog surrounding us, while a cold and wet sensation results from fog dampening on our warm skin. While standing inside a fogbank, being touched by it, we experience fog as porous through this moisty contact. But when we look at fog rolling in, or at a cloud in the sky for that matter, these meteorologic formations seem less permeable and more like units that are separate from us.

But does contact with fog only happen when we experience its wetness? Nakaya’s Fog Bridge #72494 helps us reconsider the ways in which we can sense fog. Fog is not only comprised of water, but also of the air in which its drops are suspended. The bridge between the two piers is a windy place, so unlike Nakaya’s other installations where the fog is relatively immobile and mostly parts in response to the movements of human visitors, Fog Bridge #72494 is often blown away by the wind. If a visitor were to see the work from a distance, the wind that plays with Nakaya’s fog would be the same which blows into their faces or pushes their backs. Nakaya has once remarked that she appreciates the wind in San Francisco because it allows her to “converse with the wind more […]”[2] I like this notion of conversing with wind since the right attunement to wind can allow us to feel how both fog and humans are immersed in the same air, which is a kind of contact that we might not always experience as such.

A sketch of Fog Bridge #72494 by Fujiko Nakaya. Cropped image from Over the Water: Fujiko Nakaya, Exploratorium Catalog by Solstice Press.
[Image description: A charcoal drawing of an abstract bridge. From the top of the image a very large fogbank approaches, and an arrow pointing to a small fogbank left of the bridge says “Fog Bridge.” Another arrow points to “‘Fog Bridge’ asks Bay fog, ‘how may I serve you, master?'” and a third arrow, pointing at the large fogbank, says “Nature replies ‘…. no need. Let’s pretend I’m art, too’.” The drawing is signed: Fujiko Nakaya, 2013.]

And air moves even when the rough San Francisco winds calm down. Fog, as a meteorological phenomenon, is dependent on these hard to decern yet continuous movements. A fragment of the long poem “Fog” by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge helps explain how this works. The poem also addresses how complex of an aesthetic experience fog is:

Fog is a kind of grounded cloud composed like any cloud of tiny drops of water or of ice crystals, forming an ice fog.

Since water is 800 times denser than air, investigators were long puzzled as to why fog did not quickly disappear through fallout of water particles to the ground.

It turns out that the drops do fall, but in fog creating conditions, they are buoyed up by rising currents, or they are continually replaced by new drops condensing from water vapor in the air.

Their realism is enhanced by smoothing away or ignoring discontinuities in the fog, for images of what we really see when we travel. Beautiful, unrepeatable, fleeting impression can be framed only within the contradicting ambition of her consciousness to acquire impressions and retain her feeling, a way of repeating a dream.[3]

As the speaker of Berssenbrugge’s poem notes, the visual phenomenon of fog is created because dispersed waterdrops are suspended in a constant fall, since water is denser than air, but at the same time those drops are pushed upwards by aircurrents. According to the speaker, fog is thus a contradictory visual event in the sense that it is a “[b]eautiful, unrepeatable, fleeting impression” which the observer seeks to frame and to retain as “realism”: as in, “smoothing away or ignoring discontinuities in the fog” in order to become an impression as such. In other words, while we may tend to perceive fog, or a cloud, as a discrete unit, what we see is actually a continuously changing process of interacting air and water.

Fog shrouding the bridge and its users. Cropped image from: Over the Water: Fujiko Nakaya. Exploratorium Catalog by Solstice Press.
[Image description: A thick fogbank shrouds a bridge with people walking on it, making them barely visible. The lower part of the image shows greyish water, and the upper part a light blue sky.]

This reflection on the condition of visuality of fog evokes a poetic understanding of Nakaya’s fog sculptures. When creating fog installations, the artist is interested in the interaction of the water vapor with local organic and inorganic materials, structures, and atmospheric conditions, as the waterdrops are continuously replaced by new condensing drops. Fog, and wind as well actually, emerges out of atmospheric connections that are continuously fleeting and re-emerging. In Nakaya’s work, this condition is both technological, it is artistically engineered, and ecological. These ecological interconnections of fog are always contingent and specific to the location of Nakaya’s fog sculptures, and thereby the fog installations are a way of understanding these local ecosystems.

Fog Bridge #72494 may not teach us about the general meteorological process by which water evaporating over the Pacific, where the water of the San Francisco fog comes from, is moved onto land through high and low air pressures. But if we pay attention to the sensorial information the work conveys, it allows us to experience the ephemeral interactions and transitory interconnections, often rendered invisible in abstraction and forgotten in everyday experiences, that make this ambiguous phenomenon we call fog.[4]

[1] Some of my descriptions of Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures are based on Janine Randerson’s account of it on pages 32-35 of Weather as Medium (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

[2] “Fog Bridge #72494” by Fujiko Nakaya, exhibit video at 1:30-2:15, Exploratorium.

[3] Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, “Fog,” I Love Artists (2006), 38.

[4] This essay is a reworked version of a section of the chapter “The Atmosphere: Sensing Air, Wind, Fog and Clouds” from my master’s thesis Elemental Aesthetics: Sun, Wind, and Tides Beyond Green Energy. References to the many thinkers that inspired my engagement with the aesthetics of fog can be found in the original chapter.

*Cover image: Fog floating over water. Cropped image from: Over the Water: Fujiko Nakaya. Exploratorium Catalog by Solstice Press.

[*Cover image description: A fragment of fog hangs over green-tinted, glistening water.]