On the Emerald Necklace, these art exhibits reach out and touch you

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

There is a soft hissing, which is the sound of 860 nozzles releasing fine particles of water overhead.

The particles gather to gently devour your vision. They form a dense earthbound cloud that means no harm as it spreads out and envelops you. The mild smell and taste of metal fills the air; the water chills your skin; the hysterically giggling children no longer can see you just as you cannot see them.

Then just as quickly it moves on. You turn to see the cloud vanishing into a clearing of woods behind you. It’s as though you have experienced a kind of time-lapse photography that has touched all of the senses. In the span of a few seconds you are back where you always were, in Boston’s Franklin Park.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The nozzles have been arranged by Fujiko Nakaya, an 85-year-old artist from Japan who playfully sculpts her art with fog to separate you from your surroundings.

Nakaya has created a variety of cloud sculptures in five parks along the 1,100-acre Emerald Necklace. Her exhibition, Fog x FLO, which opened Aug. 11 and will run through Oct. 31, was commissioned at a cost of more than $1 million to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the private nonprofit Emerald Necklace Conservancy, which manages the parks.

Northeastern faculty played a prominent role in developing the project, which operates daily from 8 a.m. until dusk.

“Fujiko calls fog the most generous medium—it’s permeable, it has no barriers or boundaries, it’s absolutely inviting,” said Jen Mergel, curator of the exhibition. “This is art that you don’t just see. It’s art that you hear, you feel the hairs on your arm go up, you taste, you smell, you swallow. And if there were 150 people standing in this space, their own body heat would change the form of the water vapor. So it truly is responsive and reactive.”

Nakaya named her exhibition after the initials of Frederick Law Olmsted, who was celebrated for designing New York’s Central Park but considered the Emerald Necklace to be his most important landscape design.

Nakaya connected with Olmsted’s vision, spiritually and mechanically, said Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Conservancy. Olmsted sculpted the Emerald Necklace in the late 1800s as a water-engineering project that created a public area of natural beauty for all visitors, rich and poor. Nakaya, in turn, uses highly-pressurized water to draw attention to Olmsted’s creation. She surveyed a variety of sites along the Emerald Necklace, paying attention to the landscape and flurrying breezes that could bring her art to life and make it dance.

“These are individuals from two different centuries, with so many decades of experience behind them, who are humble enough to respect that nature has already done something amazing,” Mergel said of Olmsted and Nakaya. “Fujiko would say, ‘I’m doing 10 percent and nature’s doing 90 percent.’”

The conservancy was seeking an exhibition that would encourage patrons to view the Emerald Necklace as a singular park.

“It’s been so chopped up over the years,” said Dan Adams, the director of Northeastern’s School of Architecture, whose firm, Landing Studio, designed more than 100 signs to help direct patrons between the fog sculptures at Franklin Park, Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Pond, Olmsted Park, and the Back Bay Fens, which is closest to the Northeastern campus.

Other Northeastern faculty joined Adams in contributing to the project. The BosUA firm of architecture professors Silvia Illia-Sheldahl and Paxton Sheldahl transformed the Shattuck Gate House into a gallery space detailing Nakaya’s exhibition and Olmsted’s designs. Kristian Kloeckl, an associate professor who runs the graduate program in experience design, is a member of the project’s Design Advisory Committee. Beau Kenyon, an artist in residence for Northeasterns Center for the Arts, composed a three-movement dance piece to accompany the exhibition. Performances like Kenyon’s can be seen at the sculptures on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Mergel invited Northeastern students who are interested in creating performances at any of the five installations to apply for micro-grants, worth $500 to $2,000. “As a Boston curator,” she said, “this exhibition is like a dream come true to give funding to artists and to be so flexible.”

The installation at Franklin Park, Fog x Ruins, is the largest of the sculptures. It is based in what is left of Olmsted’s original Overlook Shelter, which burned down in the 1940s. Nakaya erected scaffolding that suggests a skeleton of the lost building. The fog spurts from an array of pipes that trace the old roof line.

“All sorts of different people are coming into the park to look at art, and it’s not just for rich people,” said Gia Batty, a teacher at Noble & Greenough School who was walking her dog with her two sons one morning last week. “At night, when the lights are on and the fog is rolling on these ruins, I just think it’s really cool. This is a place that I’ve been many, many times, and it’s like I could not know where I am when the fog comes in.”

Her dog, Cody, did not look so comfortable as she braced for the fog with her tail low. “She doesn’t like it when it gets really thick,” Batty said. “For me it’s like a weird, magical feeling.”

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University