The sky was still clear blue when Fujiko Nakaya’s London Fog (2017) started to suffuse Tate Modern’s South Terrace and renowned choreographer Min Tanaka began to dance, marking the first evening of Tate Modern and BMW’s collaborative live exhibition, “Ten Days Six Nights.” By the time the flux of fog and flowing movements had ceased, the crepuscule had passed from blue to lilac and settled into the zaffre of a cold London spring night.
The sky was not directly a part of either Nakaya’s sculpture or Tanaka’s activation of it, and yet its atmospheric effect spoke to the philosophies of both the artists and the event to which they were contributing.
The 10-day program consciously eschewed the white cube aesthetic and static objects of the contemporary gallery in favor of more dynamic environments. It mostly took place directly below the South Terrace in the “Tanks”: three subterranean performance spaces converted in 2012 from the former fuel reservoirs of Bankside Power Station, from which Tate Modern itself was converted in 2000.
In these raw, industrial spaces, artists and visitors alike were encouraged to engage with art and its surroundings in new ways. Site-specific installations by contributors including Carlos Casas, Phill Niblock and Lorenzo Senni were offered not as objects, but environments to be explored, while Mumbai-based collaborative studio CAMP provided a series of installations, accompanied by a video lecture, which adapted electrical and imaging systems to propose novel socio-technological frameworks.
The aboveground works likewise offered alternatives to gallery presentation. Nakaya has been working with her current medium since 1970. Her development—in collaboration with engineer Thomas Mee—of an artificial fog made only with water was the first of its kind; however, she was not the first pioneer of precipitation in the family. Her father, famous glaciologist Ukichiro Nakaya, created the first artificial snowflake.
While the white cube is a hard, hollow space designed to negate external context and reduce the visitor to their gaze, Nakaya’s fog sculptures do the opposite. Rather than a closed space contained in white walls, they are white volumes floating freely in the world; instead of negating context, they react to it, catching light and mutating in the slightest breeze; they subordinate the passive eye to the active body, inviting the latter to traverse a soft architecture that sometimes obscures vision altogether.
As its name suggests, London Fog was also an engagement with the city itself, suggesting in its purity an ecologically novel interpretation of a phenomenon historically associated with the infamous “pea-souper” that plagued the capital for centuries and caused innumerable deaths.
Tanaka shares these environmental concerns. Following his activities with Butoh—a visceral form of modern Japanese dance—in the 1980s, he experimented for over a decade with Shintai Kisho (“Body Weather”), a philosophy of movement with a special emphasis on the body as a force of nature, responsive to the stimuli around it.
His dance reflected both the nature of the program and Nakaya’s sculpture. Backed by bright white lights and a minimal score, it echoed the idea that the codification and repetition of movements in dance represent collusion with power structures and the constraints they enforce—a stance that once put Michel Foucault among Tanaka’s admirers.
Tanaka’s body moved like a complementary phenomenon both to and within Nakaya’s fog, swelling and receding in harmony with the forces around it. The gestures at times evoked playfulness, at times anguish, but also as one might read such feelings into a blade of grass in a breeze, evocative yet light. When he did stand firm it was to powerful effect: In the spirit of the program whose first day the performance marked, one stand-out moment drew power not from negating context, but allowing it to coalesce into something mutable and complex: undulations of backlit fog rolling over him, its deposited moisture shining beneath his feet, Tanaka raised his arms to where the Shard—Western Europe’s tallest building—stood in relative insignificance to the vast, evolving dusk.
As in the poetry and painting of the Romantics who so often praised the beauty of fog, the effect was sublime.
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