Why you should care
It’s a provocative fog installation in a city famous for its fog.
As you stand upon an inconspicuous-looking footbridge, a hissing sound erupts below and layers of mist begin to rise slowly. Swirls of fog rise from underneath the wooden walkway, water droplets drifting upward and eastward toward the San Francisco Bay. Within moments, you’re wrapped in a mysterious thickening curtain — you can barely see beyond your nose. It’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a city.
Precisely six minutes later the fog dissipates as suddenly as it appeared. Some 800 jets quiet, and the sounds of the city — whizzing cars and barking dogs — return. Once again you stand upon an ordinary walkway. But in those fleeting moments, it felt like time and place shifted by a force of nature. This is the “Fog Bridge,” a free outdoor exhibit installed in 2013, that activates four times a day between piers 15 and 17 at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a nonprofit organization and public learning laboratory exploring the world through science, art and human perception.
For nearly half a century, Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya has been using this unusual medium to create fog sculptures around the world, from Tokyo to Paris to Boston. But this immersive art form holds special meaning in San Francisco, a city where locals both bemoan and revere the swirling fog that so often shrouds the Golden Gate Bridge and steeps the city in a pervasive chill, thanks to the southward-moving California Current. San Francisco’s fog even has a personality named Karl (with its own dedicated Instagram following and snarky Twitter account). In the essay “Learning to Love the Fog,” Marina McDougall writes that Nakaya was initially somewhat hesitant to create an exhibit in San Francisco due to the “local competition.”
Nakaya first developed the technology enabling the nozzles to split water molecules in the late 1960s with the group Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which paired artists with scientists and engineers to promote collaborative projects, explains Kirstin Bach, program manager of the Center for Art and Inquiry at the Exploratorium. Nakaya launched her inaugural fog sculpture during the Osaka Expo in 1970. A fascination with nature clearly runs in the family: Nakaya’s physicist father, Ukichiro Nakaya, was a pioneer in glaciology and constructed the world’s first artificial snowflake in 1936.
The fog installations, which encourage people to experience a heightened sense of weather forces, are each nuanced to reflect site-specific microclimates, McDougall writes. While most city exhibits use municipal water to fuel their respective exhibits, San Francisco’s “Fog Bridge” uses desalinated bay water — another amplification of existing natural forces. This free outdoor exhibit, which is permanent, is separate from the Exploratorium’s paid indoor space, open to any passerby wandering on the Embarcadero.
What sets this exhibit apart? “Many artworks end up being placed somewhere because it’s convenient,” Bach says. But Nakaya’s choice of this site on the bay includes the landscape itself as part of the art form. And that landscape is constantly shape-shifting. “Given San Francisco’s changeable weather conditions, the experience of ‘Fog Bridge’ varies dramatically day by day, even hour by hour,” McDougall writes.
More than 40 years later, Nakaya’s fog artwork is as relevant as it once was in the 1970s, Bach says. “Fog Bridge” continues to draw in the curious each day — from children eager to run through the mist to those fascinated by the forces of wind and water at work. And while the physical experience of being wrapped inside the fog is ephemeral, the pure and simple human wonder that comes from interacting with the art remains enduring.