Art critic

The forecast called for fog. A strange day to choose, perhaps, to spend the day cycling through Boston in search of “fogscapes” and “fog sculptures.” But you know how it is: Sometimes the day chooses you.

I have lived in Boston for 10 years, and although my movements frequently intersect with the Emerald Necklace — a seven-mile chain of parks, ponds and waterways designed by Frederick Law Olmsted that connect Boston Common and Franklin Park — I have never walked, run or cycled its length.

It took Fujiko Nakaya to induce me to do it. Nakaya, 85, is known internationally for her outdoor artworks made from artificially created fog. Her father is the late Ukichiro Nakaya, who is credited with inventing the first artificial snowflakes. (He is known, too, for his lovely description of snow crystals as “letters sent from heaven.”) For her own art, Nakaya has chosen a medium more transient even than snow.

Five of her temporary fog sculptures were installed recently along the Emerald Necklace. “Fog x FLO” was commissioned by the Emerald Necklace Conservancy to mark its 20th anniversary and was organized by curator Jen Mergel.

Can something as evanescent as fog be described as sculpture?

If fireworks paint the night sky, and dance is drawing with the whole body, fog can surely be sculpture. Nakaya’s fog squirts out of nozzles, spills into the atmosphere and interacts with the air all around. It is intimately concerned with experience in three-dimensional space. That makes it inherently sculptural.


Children pass through “Fog x Hill,” a fog sculpture by artist Fujiko Nakaya at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. (Melissa Ostrow)

But who cares about definitions.

Much more important is timing. In all but one of Nakaya’s Boston installations, each release of fog appears on the half-hour and lasts just minutes. My first experience of her works in Boston came on a Sunday last month, after a visit to the artist Joel Janowitz in his studio. Janowitz captures surf, spray and fog with tremendous, hard-won technical skill in his beautiful monotypes, paintings and watercolors, but he seemed to bear Nakaya no ill will for her more literal approach. In fact, he’s a fan and urged me to see her work.

So my family and I drove from his studio to a spot on the Fenway, between the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. From the car, still some way off, we saw a cloud of vapor emerging from the muddy fens. Surging through an amber light, I raced to the spot and pulled over. We all spilled out of the car, tumbling down a small declivity covered in goose poop. But, alas, it was too late. The fog had disappeared. No trace remained.

Is this where Banksy got his idea for self-shredding art? It was hard not to feel cheated.

Nakaya was born in 1933 in Sapporo, Japan. In the 1950s, she studied and worked in the United States and Europe, before returning to Japan. A collaboration with artists from Experiments in Art and Technology in the late 1960s led to a celebrated installation at Expo ’70 in Osaka. A dome, designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, was shrouded in a Nakaya fog sculpture, to unforgettable effect. Subsequent Nakaya fog sculptures have been installed at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra; the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain; the Philip Johnson-designed Glass House in New Canaan, Conn.; and prominent locations in Paris, Tokyo and San Francisco.


Artist Fujiko Nakaya tests a fog sculpture in Franklin Park. (Melissa Ostrow)

Two weeks after our frustrated attempt to see Nakaya’s work, I got on my bike and rode through lifting fog across the Charles River. With minutes to spare this time, I let my bike fall to the ground and sauntered over to the same spot on the banks of the Muddy River. Geese and ducks clucked about with their usual village intensity. The clock on my phone clicked over to 1 p.m.

I heard a telltale hissing — fog in production! — just as an ambulance siren started up on the Fenway. Some children nearby were shouting. A baby wailed. This was not restful.

But as the bank of fog grew, the hubbub receded. My view of the water and trees began to blur and was gradually blotted out entirely. I thought of James McNeill Whistler’s nocturne across the road in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — a picture purportedly of the Thames at Battersea Reach in the night fog, but teetering on the brink of abstraction. And sure enough, within a few moments, I couldn’t see a thing.

There were people around, but they were rendered entirely invisible. I worried momentarily about my bike, which I’d left unlocked on the grass. But then as the fog thickened, I felt suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, completely alone.

It lasted less than a minute. But it was the beginning of an entrancing afternoon.

Fog changes your perceptions. You may drive or trek into mountains, for instance, expecting magnificent views, vast scale, sublime vistas. But then you arrive and everything is damp, blurred, befogged. Visibility is reduced to a few feet. Your brain knows — or thinks it knows — what’s around you. But you can’t see it. Fear kicks in — especially if you’re still on the move. You don’t know what will emerge from the soup. Your respect for the unseen world is redoubled. Instead of grandeur and immensity, a new feeling for the mysteries of intimacy takes hold.

Contemporary artists such as Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell have played with the shifts in perception and experience produced by fog and mist. But they have tended to work indoors, controlling the environment into which the mist is released. Nakaya, for the most part, releases her fog into the unfenced air.

Back on my bike, breasting the air, freshly euphoric, I rode south. The Riverway around me was shaded and bosky. Heavy stone bridges connected opposite banks or bridle paths with walkways. Olmsted loved bridges.

Nakaya sees her fog sculptures, too, as in a dynamic dialogue with nature. They are “molded in real time from moment to moment by the meteorological conditions of atmosphere.”

And, I would add, by civic life. I arrived at Leverett Pond with 20 minutes to go before another Nakaya fog sculpture was set to be released. I sat on a bench. This is nice, I thought, this waiting for art to happen. A severe-looking old woman with eyebrows painted purple cruised by on a motorized wheelchair. Seconds later, a delivery man holding a speaker blaring rap music buzzed by on a motorized bike. Impatient, I got back on my bicycle and did a lap around the pond.


Fujiko Nakaya’s “Fog x Island,” a fog sculpture at Leverett Pond. (Melissa Ostrow)

I found a different spot on the other side and waited some more. The skies were gray. The trees were reflected in the pond, their leaves a melting, shivering mosaic of green and yellow. A retired English teacher returning to see the fog for a second time started up a conversation as we waited. Then the hissing began.

Fog flooded the zone, bridging the gap between two small islands near the water’s far edge. A goose swam across the pond, leaving a dark line in its wake as if to underline the performance. The fog bank grew taller, like accumulating wealth, then broke up into twisting wraithlike ribbons as it was buffeted and caressed by currents.

“Reading the score written in the air,” Nakaya has said, “fog . . . performs its aerial dance live until the conditions change.” And change they do. I thought of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s description of nature’s flux — “cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows/ flaunt forth” — as I hopped back on my bike.

Before long I was in Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, watching a cloud rise through a copse of conifers before sweeping down into a curving grass amphitheater, surrounding the soft, pleated leaves of an unusually beautiful ginkgo tree. And 20 minutes later, I was in Franklin Park, not far from the zoo, climbing among the Roxbury puddingstone ruins of a building Olmsted designed.

Nakaya has erected a scaffolding where the building’s interior once was. Every few minutes, rows of nozzles on opposite sides of the scaffolding, at a height equivalent to the former roofline, squirt mist inward, creating what Nakaya describes as a “cloud dome.” But each time, the air currents move the cloud in radically different directions.

“I imagined the fog,” said Nakaya, “dancing on the site.”

Only as I walked back to my bike, ready for the long ride home, did I see that someone had left a pair of spectacles on a ledge of the ruins. The lenses were steamed up from Nakaya’s fog, like a bathroom mirror after a hot shower. If I’d put them on, the world would once again have been blotted out. I left them to their foggy fate.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that a dome installation at Expo ’70 in Osaka was designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. It was designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange.

Fog x FLO: Fujiko Nakaya on the Emerald Necklace Through Oct. 31. For map and details, visit emeraldnecklace.org/20th/visit.