A few years ago, Bay Area environmental artist Ned Kahn had his DNA tested to find out more about his ancestry.
Although he had classic Jewish bloodlines (Russian on his mom’s side, German on his dad’s), he learned that he also had Mongol, Sardinian and Tatar relatives in his family tree.
Eventually, this personal biological journey found expression in “Negev Wheel,” an ambitious new kinetic sculpture at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The exhibit runs through Jan. 8, 2017.
The wheel is a motor-driven steel disk, 20 feet across and filling an entire room, that contains a 1,000-pound mixture of glass beads and sand from Israel’s Negev Desert. As the huge wheel turns, it sifts and sorts the mixture, continually making patterns one might see on seashores, mountains and dunes.
“If you look at the individual sand particles [in the Negev], they come from all over: North Africa, Asia and Europe,” Kahn recently told a group of docents as the installation was being assembled. “The wind has carried the sand for eons. Everywhere you go on Earth, things and beings are truly an amalgam.”
Genealogy is only one of the fields of science that inspires Kahn, whom Renny Pritikin, chief curator at the CJM, called the greatest contemporary creator of public art works.
A native of Connecticut who now lives in Sebastopol, Kahn began achieving fame from the exhibits he helped design and build for the Exploratorium in San Francisco during a 12-year stint that began in the 1980s. His early displays played with fog, as its ever-changing, almost intangible surfaces fascinated him.
“Fog appears, then vanishes — an idea that intrigues me,” he said.
If there is a philosophical underpinning to his concepts, it would be Buddhism, as Kahn is active at the San Francisco Zen Center. But his portfolio includes works in the categories of fog, water, fire and light, and wind and sand.
He likes to take the visible (and invisible) properties of natural phenomena and explore them through kinetic sculpture. For example, in 2003 he created an outdoor piece in Oregon called “Wind Fence,” panels of hundreds of movable flaps that create visible patterns when the wind blows through. “Tipping Wall” in Singapore, completed in 2011, features 10,000 hinged metal channels that fill with water and tip either left or right, spilling water below to create a complex and unpredictable dance of water.
At the Skirball Museum and Cultural Center in Los Angeles, he created a piece in 2008 in collaboration with Moishe Safdie, an Israeli architect, urban designer and theorist. Titled “Rainbow Arbor,” it’s a 100-foot-long, 12-foot-tall tilted wall with mist sprayers along its top edge; when hit by sunlight, the mist refracts into a series of intense rainbows.
His work also can be seen at Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale, the Denver International Airport and at the Technorama museum in Switzerland … and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2011, for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, he completed an iteration of “Negev Wheel” titled “Avalanche.”
“The piece at the CJM is much more elegantly designed, and, of course, context is everything,” he said. “The other piece was for a science museum that emphasized the technical aspects of the piece, and did not approach meaning. The sand was not from the Negev, so that poetic element was not present.”
That “Negev Wheel” references the great Israeli desert is of major significance, Elana Stein Hain of the Shalom Hartman Institute notes in the program guide to the exhibit. “Genesis begins with chaos that is made into order,” Stein Hain points out. “The world is a never-ending cycle of chaos followed by order falling into chaos, repeating forever.”
The slow rotation and tilt of the wheel causes the sands and glass beads to flow like tidal waters, presenting a mesmerizing manifestation of natural forces.
“I’ve never been an artist with an agenda,” Kahn said, noting that he has not visited Israel. “My desire is to make something intriguing that people can ponder deeply or just appreciate on a sensory level.”
Lori Starr, the executive director of the CJM, called the wheel “a stunning, immersive and thought-provoking experience” that “prompts deep reflection on the everchanging nature of the world around us.”
Alongside the large sculpture, which is propelled by a motor, will be a smaller, hand-crank wheel sculpture designed for public interaction; people can reach in and touch the sand as it flows down.
In addition, the museum’s weekly Sunday drop-in art studio for kids and families will focus on sand art in August, and the Kahn-like mixing of art and science in September. Also in the planning stages are adult programs with Kahn exploring topics such as public art.
“Ned Kahn: Negev Wheel,” through Jan. 8, 2017, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. www.thecjm.org