This autumn has seen a number of big events in the arts, but one of the most popular has undoubtedly been Random International’s Rain Room in the Barbican Curve gallery. Since the installation opened on 4 October, queues to enter the space have dominated the Barbican foyer and stretched 2-3 hours in length. What is it that has made Londoners so excited about rain?
Florian Ortkrass, Hannes Koch, and Stuart Wood met at the Royal College of Art and formed the studio Random International in 2005. In the relatively short time since founding, the three artists have created a number of notable installations and projects, becoming known for their integration of cutting-edge technology, design, and fine art. The Rain Room is the largest and most popular installation to date with hundreds of visitors each day.
Part of the charm of the Rain Room is that the artists have taken a natural phenomenon, dissected it, and replaced nature with technology. The artists have become like God but pass their powers to visitors so that they may also control the rain. The sophisticated technology is not readily apparent; it seems almost effortless, thus creating a sense of magic. But alas, it is not magic, the artists are not deities, they just a few smart guys with a strong team creating an aesthetically beautiful experience and sort of social experiment.
The Curve gallery is named for the obvious reason that it is shaped like a curve, wrapping around the Barbican Hall. This unique geometry sets the stage for the Rain Room with the atmospheric cold and dark, the suspense of not seeing the rain until reaching the end of the space. Despite not seeing the installation at first, the sound of rain echoes through the space and can be heard before even entering. The journey through the Curve is long and full of anticipation, but soon shadows are discernible along the wall, then the sound of rain becomes even louder, and finally a bright light shines through a heavy downpour creating silhouettes of those already in the space. After all the waiting, what is it that visitors actually experience? In groups of 5-7 visitors are allowed to enter the rain and as they do so, motion-sensitive cameras detect their movement and stop the rain from falling on the tiles above their heads. Moving through the space as though in a bubble, the senses of magic and power and fun permeate the experience.
I’ve had a lot of time in the space, I’ve been able to observe others and experience the rain for myself. The installation is beautiful (though one woman remarked that it was “oppressively dark, almost apocalyptic”), but many visitors seem not to fully appreciate what the installation is or forget it is meant to be art. Perhaps this is part of the experiment – to see how people react. Many spend so much time taking photographs that it seems they never actually see or experience first-hand but only through the camera lens. Subtleties such as that the water is recycled through the system thereby replicating the actual life cycle of water never occurs to many. The popularity seems to be both a blessing and a curse – I cannot recall a time I’ve seen so many people excited about a single work of art. It is populist as well as popular, appealing to those who may never have set foot inside a museum or gallery. However, this excitement has turned the installation into almost a themepark attraction – lengthy queues, a lot of staff, a lot of rules.
One of the questions most frequently asked of me: “Is it worth it?” probably ought to be mentioned, and answered honestly. It is a creative and well-designed installation. It is aesthetically brilliant and an almost surreal experience. However, two hours is a long time and three hours is even longer. The installation is not perfect – visitors must walk slowly or they will get wet, the sides are less reactive than the centre, and the entire experience in the rain should only last about five minutes. I suppose this does not entirely answer the question, at least not as straightforwardly as it could be answered, but, the truth is, I don’t believe it’s up to me to decide.
Tips for visiting:
The queues are long – all day, everyday. Hosts will be able to give an estimate, but due to the nature of the experience, it is hard to be exact.
It is cold and it is dark and it is wet – be prepared for that.
Always check the website for up to date information – the gallery will close at 8pm most evenings, but the queue will close around two hours before that.
Lastly, and this is more of a personal plea, be patient and be courteous – the staff works hard to ensure the smoothest running and best experience possible.
Words/Photo Emily Sack