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Astronomy and Art Mingle at the Montshire

State of the Arts


Published January 28, 2009 at 6:29 a.m.


Who doesn’t like to play God every once in a while? It’s fun to imagine having the ability to control the winds and shape the planets, so a huff and a puff can create a giant sand dune, say, or an entire weather system. For better or worse, the closest you may come to that dream is the new exhibit at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich: “Planetary Landscapes: Sculpting the Solar System.”

The Montshire, which is located on 110 acres along the Connecticut River, is the apotheosis of the hands-on science museum; nearly every exhibit begs to be spun, pulled, tipped or twirled in some way. That makes the museum a perfect place for kids of all ages. Since nothing is off limits here, parents need worry only about keeping up with their children as they bounce like ping-pong balls from one display to the next.

“Planetary Landscapes” fits perfectly, as it contains about a dozen rugged, sculpture-like exhibits that artfully reproduce natural phenomena, some requiring the help of the museum-goer. Take “Turbulence,” for example: It consists of a Plexiglas orb about 2 feet in diameter filled with an orange liquid that demonstrates turbulence patterns. Spin it quickly, and the pearlescent liquid stays streamlined and orderly; stop the orb abruptly or change its direction, and the liquid reacts like a raging sea, then settles. The lesson? These are the forces at work in an atmospheric storm on Jupiter.

A few steps away is the “Sea of Clouds” exhibit, which evokes the cloud tops of Neptune and Venus, or the fogs of Earth and Mars. The sculpture is shaped like a giant saucer with a plume of fog emanating from its center. Left undisturbed, the fog rises, then falls and fills the depression of the saucer. Run your hand through the fog or blow on it, and you see the resulting convection patterns and whirling vortices. This exhibit, along with a comet imitator that uses dry ice, a conveyor belt and blue water, keeps even fidgety kids focused for a while.

That’s how the creator of most of these artworks, Ned Kahn, defines success. “Something that’s good keeps people’s attention for a long time,” says the 48-year-old artist, contacted by phone at his studio in Sebastopole, California. It’s not that he wants people ogling his creations just to feed his ego; rather, he wants to spur curiosity and deep thinking about natural systems. “If you can get someone intrigued on a sensory level,” Kahn explains, “it may motivate them to look further into the science behind it.”

In fact, that’s the process Kahn follows when he works on prototype sculptures. He doesn’t start with a natural phenomenon and then try to copy it in a creative way. Rather, he says, “I basically mess around until I find something that intrigues me.” He pages through catalogues of industrial materials, orders samples such as sand or glass, and then runs air or water through the material to see how it reacts.

Only after he makes something does he ask a scientist to explain which natural process it best resembles. So Kahn is not trying to model natural phenomena; rather, his sculptures are phenomena unto themselves, with properties analogous to those seen in the natural phenomena of Earth and other planets.

Kahn started sculpting as a young child. Being the son of a doctor and a painter meant that he “always had a foot in the art world and a foot in the science world,” he explains. As a young man he wandered into the Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer had a keen interest in the intersection of art and science and even began an artist-in-residence program at the Exploratorium to foster that type of work.

Kahn later landed a spot in that program and completed 35 pieces inspired by fluid motion, turbulence and complex systems. After he started his own studio, his work became part of a permanent exhibition at Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center. The exhibit at the Montshire is a traveling version of that one.

Claremont, New Hampshire, residents Pam Numme and her two children — Alison, 7, and Anna, 3 — are happy that the Montshire picked up this exhibit for a few months. Numme homeschools her children and says these vivid presentations are easy for Alison and Anna to remember during lessons. Alison likes “Comets” the best — it’s fun to watch the conveyor belt deliver chunks of dry ice to the surface of the water and then to see the ice melt and shoot off in different directions.

The splatter of ice and water resembles a Jackson Pollock piece — one of Kahn’s main influences, as it turns out. Kahn appreciates how Pollock let nature, in the form of the paint’s hydrodynamics and surface tension, get between him and the canvas.

If Kahn’s work weren’t so strongly linked to nature, it might evoke comparisons to new-age abstract expressionism. As it is, “Planetary Landscapes” is both aesthetically pleasing and educational — and appeals to adults and children alike.

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