Well, talk about good timing! Of all days to visit an interactive installation titled, ‘Rain Room’ at London’s Barbican I happen to pick one of the wettest days (and this will come as no news) of what has already been an exceedingly wet year. On Wednesday 21st at six in the morning as I walked to catch the bus to London it was raining, it proceeded to rain the entire journey on the bus, it rained on my way from the tube station in London to the Barbican and then when I got there I then queued, yes queued for forty-five minutes to go stand in a room in which it was raining. But in the funniest, craziest and most ironic of ways, I have to honestly say, it was GREAT!
What’s difficult is to detach the experience of viewing this work from the sheer comical absurdity of the experience of waiting in line to see some rain when it’s pouring down outside. You find yourself thinking, “I’m English! I’ve been in the rain virtually my entire life. What the heck am I doing here!?” I could barely contain my laughter at the comedy of the whole situation but then I’d been up since six and it was now nearly two in the afternoon and I still hadn’t seen any ‘art’ so I think I might have been displaying the very early stages of some sort of cabin fever. Maybe that was meant to be all part of the experience who knows, but prior to my rain filled journey the premise of an interactive installation in which the viewer has the, ‘power to control the rain’ as they make their own path through a room of perpetual rainfall sounded like the kind of spectacle I’d like to experience.
The immersive installation, ‘Rain Room’ is a new commission created by the arts group, ‘Random International’ established in 2005 and made up of Royal College artists, Hannes Koch, Florian Ortkrass and Stuart Wood. It uses technology that recognises when someone is stood underneath it turning off the rainfall in that particular area. The resulting affect can be likened to a ‘god-like’ complex of being able to walk into a torrential downpour without getting wet and without the aid of an umbrella. The viewer puts the technology and their trust to the test as they walk openly into the rain. Here’s what the info on the gallery wall had to say about Random International,
‘Random International combines aesthetic purity and technical sophistication to create works, often hard won, that explore materiality and immateriality, the animate and inanimate alike. New technologies form the basis of their work which nonetheless draws on op art, kinetics and post-minimalism.’
The piece aims to be, ‘elemental and simple’ which I think it successfully does and the water falling does look beautiful in the dark space as it is lit by a strong back light which emphasises the sculptural quality of the rain even if it does feel a little too staged of theatrical. I think that’s the crucial distinction for me, the rain room didn’t feel ‘natural’ in the way we know the actual rain to be although admittedly it is an incredibly ambitious thing to recreate. This did leave the rain room installation at the Barbican feeling a bit more like a mega giant shower rather than the more unpredictable and wild nature of rain itself. The sort of ‘magical’ quality about the rain is the mystery of not really ever being able to see the source of the cloud it’s falling from but still knowing it’s there somewhere. The confined space of the installation (although by gallery terms it is a ‘big’ space) could never match the awe and intensity of when the ‘heavens open’ and maybe it isn’t supposed to but I point it out because it demonstrates the difficulty and ambition of the installation. It is also why I disagree that the work fulfils its intention of, ‘reminding us of its [waters] growing scarcity on the planet, and encouraging us to consider technologies role in harnessing our precious natural resources’. I didn’t get a sense of the preciousness of water from this work, as it felt more like it was being wasted if anything and for me the piece felt to be more about the people animating and interacting with the work and their reactions to it than anything environmental. More like a social experiment in which our normal reactions of cowering, running and covering up from the ‘rain’ were being challenged as we were invited to stand in it without getting wet. Perhaps giving us time to admire it more?
‘An awful lot happens without people being aware. They come to certain conclusions and even perform actions without ever really, consciously considering why. This is what forms both the impetus and the investigation of the studio’s work. We experiment with this world of barely perceptible behaviour and its simulation to explore human existence.’
This isn’t the first time artists have explored the elements and weather in their work, a few more examples I could think of being, Antony Gormley’s fog room at The Hayward, Olafur Eliasson’s sun in Tate Modern’s turbine hall, Anish Kapoor’s vortex at the Venice Biennale, Anthony McCall’s ‘Column’ of mist during this year’s Liverpool Biennial, Walter de Maria’s ‘Lightning Field’ and Berndnaut Smilde’s ‘Nimbus 2’ cloud installation. Phew! And that’s obviously without going into the depths of art history as if I did then Turner and numerous others would certainly make that list.
I think that whilst I was in this installation the biggest irony of the day was yet to come because the sound and intensity of the amount of water that was falling all around you actually left me feeling like I wanted to be a part of it and get soaked. Despite having battled my way through the rain all day by all of a sudden being deprived of not being able to get wet reminded me that in a way the most important and most human thing about the rain which is the getting wet. The theatrical way the light hit the rain, cast and created shadows and danced across the room reminded me of all of those dramatic scenes from films like, ‘Singing in the rain’, ‘Instinct’ and the most famous one being a scene from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ where the characters all receive a proper drenching in the rain acting as a metaphor for freedom and or liberation. Except I was remaining dry! It was an odd experience and I enjoyed the visual look of the piece but felt that maybe the context of it was a little weak (I don’t know maybe the Met Office would have benefited from a rain room?) but then maybe the Barbican is the right place to exhibit a rather stagey piece of installation I can only speculate. Maybe it did feel a bit gimmicky in the way that other debatably gimmicky art works have managed to avoid by having a connection or reason as to why they are situated in that building, site or context. It did leave me feeling slightly less resentful towards the rain as I continued my journey around London that day but its view of the rain was very one-sided as it showed a very romantic and beautiful side to rain as opposed to its destructive side. My expectations for one piece of work may have been too many as I still enjoyed the experience and have had a lot to think about because of it since. Any who, don’t take my word for it check it out for yourselves and see what you think.
Rain Room is on at the Barbican until March 3rd 2013.