Fog enshrouds me as I emerge from the subway station. Through its haze I see little else besides my rubber boots and slick sidewalk. I hunch against the mist on my way to see the “Rain Room” at the Yuz Museum, Shanghai.* The Rain Room is an interactive art installation. Water disperses from ceiling sprinklers onto a 150-square meter space equipped with floor drainage. Unseen cameras track visitor movements allowing the falling water to respond to and avoid human presence. The irony of my indoor adventure is not lost on me as condensation accumulates upon my poncho outside.
Despite the climate a crowd has gathered for the presentation. “Why do we need to see rain inside,” a child complains, “when it’s already raining outside?”
“This is art,” his mother retorts, “it will be good for your education.” Two elders shuffle into place behind me.
“Nasty weather we’ve been having,” one mutters to the other.
“I know,” his companion replies, “haven’t seen the sun in a week.” Their conversation prompts me to consider the complex relationship humans have with this natural occurrence. In monsoon country rain is revered, inspiring festivals and ragas. In drought ridden valleys families pray for it. In London it is an ice-breaker party topic, in Seattle it is unwelcome. Flood prone towns dread it; desert dwellers worship it. To farmers it is the gift of life.
The ushers permit a dozen of us into a darkened corridor. From behind a rope barrier we observe another twelve museum goers inside the chamber enveloped in a curtain of water. They are ecstatic, frolicking in the deluge until the allotted time expires and they are escorted out. Our turn comes and we enter. Vivid spotlights glare from rafters painting the precipitation into sharp relief as endless plummeting slivers of silver needles. We spread out, our heads lifted. Some unfurl their arms into a tee shape and twirl. The impatient son tries to grab some beads onto his tongue, his mouth agape. He fails. We all remain dry despite our gesticulations to and fro. Two girls waltz. Their silhouettes flit like shadow puppets reminding me of the romance rain evokes: Gene Kelly tap dancing in puddles with closed umbrella, Tim Robbins smiling up into the cleansing storm as a free man, Audrey Hepburn finding cat and love under a downpour.
The air smells damp as the continuous spray pings against the tiled ground in a soothing monotone. Only I and the drops exist. I watch them spatter, pool, and radiate outwards, glazed by an artificial sun. Palm upturned I slowly extend my hand and the shower stops over it, continuing to drizzle just outside my body. It is a bizarre phenomenon. I pull my hand in then dart my fingers back out. I succeed in tricking the concealed sensors. A single dribble lands on my thumb. I chase the rain trying to catch a trickle here a drip there. While doing this I think about how I am usually avoiding inclement weather. I stay indoors, I wait for it to pass, I cancel plans because of it.
Real rain does not fall in gentle timed synchronization. It is a frantic beast, lashing its way to earth, driven frenetic by the wind. It does not descend in straight lines. It thrashes sideways. It pounds into the soil razing delicate petals demolishing robust trunks. While I know it replenishes crops and fills reservoirs, I solely see its destructive capacities: inundated villages, wrecked properties, lost lives. It affects my mood, cripples my sociability, hampers my schedule. Can this pleasant imitation teach me to enjoy the genuine storm?
I am in a memory pad. Immersed in a peaceful cocoon of moisture while physically dry, I remember childhood days barefoot in the courtyard splashing in puddles with my best friend. I recall racing through mid-afternoon summer torrents that rolled in with thunder claps and left double rainbows. Revolving in place, arms raised high, I return to a time when I embraced the elements rather than fearing them. Perhaps this counterfeit precipitation can reignite my appreciation.
Part of the allure of this space is that it gives me power over something I cannot control. I move left, I move right, I swing my arms and the waters part way for me. The world is wet, yet I remain dry. I need not worry about umbrellas or raincoats or galoshes. I notice the others too are fascinated by this. They stride back and forth, they leap, they wave their appendages motioning the rain to a standstill over them. Such mastery over nature is intoxicating. We seek the same sway through atmospheric reports, meteorological studies, seasonal forecasts. What dangers come with mitigating our helplessness, I wonder? What would we lose if we gained command of the rain?
Such supremacy is not implausible. Applied science has given us means to replicate animals, bring back extinct species, and eradicate populations. A future in which we determine when and where it rains or snows or hails is no less applicable. We are looking to technology for all our answers: relying on it to cure disease, using it to grow food, expecting it to provide “better” futures. Paradoxically, I am contemplating my relationship with the elements in a digital room. A complex mechanical installation is questioning our dependency on technology, our separation from the natural.
It is time I decamped for the actual downpour and reveled in its power, learned to value it, accepted its duality in my life…. Outside the Yuz Museum the mist has dissipated into a clear sky. In the distance heavy clouds gather over a different part of town. I think I shall chase the storm.
*The “Rain Room” was a temporary exhibit at the Yuz Museum from September 1 to December 31, 2015.
The Rain Room experience was devised by artists Stuart Wood, Florian Ortkrass, and Hannes Koch who make up Random International. The show was first presented at the Barbican, London and has since been a sight specific installation at the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
What do you do when it rains: stay in or go out? Have a storm story you want to share? Let us know in the comments section.