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The Rain Room at the Barbican: An Autumn Deluge
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The Rain Room at the Barbican: An Autumn Deluge

Picture of The Culture Trip
Updated: 12 December 2015
Moses Lemuel visits the Barbican’s ‘Rain Room’, a 100 square metre field of falling water for visitors to walk through. This installation was set up in the Barbican’s Curve room in Autumn 2012 by Random International, a digital arts collective known for their experimental artworks, and was hugely popular with Londoners despite their familiarity with rainy days.

I walk with the wind against my face, blowing frigid and fierce, promising a cold day ahead. This is of course typical of the repertoire of autumn weather in London: wind, rain and fog–and they have all made an appearance throughout the week.

Entering the Barbican Centre, I hurriedly join a friend in the queue that has steadily been building up even before the Rain Room opens. The sight of the growing line begs the question: Why would people want to visit an installation about rain when they experience rain all the time in this city?

Over an hour later, finally stepping inside, the darkened space that is the Curve Gallery feels warm enough–the first difference between experiencing rain in here and experiencing it outside during this season. But the biggest and most important difference between the two experiences is the magic of the installation itself: unlike in the outside world, walking under the rain in here will not get you wet.

There are, however, a few conditions. Firstly, you must take your steps slowly to allow your position to be properly detected. Secondly, anything extending too far from your body is not protected–stretch your arms out far enough and they will get wet.

These caveats hint at the inner technical workings behind the Rain Room’s magic; and they may perhaps take a little of the sense of wonder away.

Still, waiting just outside the torrential box, the excitement is palpable. There is something about the field blanketed in drops of water, glinting in the harsh white light that shines across the space, that is fascinating.

Our turn comes and we step into the rain zone carefully, a dry space forming around us. Looking up, I can see circles where the downpour has been stopped above me, and they seem a little wide, perhaps slightly too wide for the experience to be as thrilling as I imagined.

Nonetheless, the curtain of rain around me, appearing misty in the light that illuminates it, seems as though it encloses me in a kind of surreal personal sanctum, surrounded by a persistent yet ephemeral shroud. And the experience is sublime. The world outside one’s immediate vicinity seems further away but still eminently reachable–it’s as though one has withdrawn tentatively into a serene and reflective place, a mandala, observing the world from a mediated distance. It reminds me of the many times I have stood under an umbrella in tropical rain, the water mere inches from my body all around; except that here I can remain completely dry.

And that seems key to the installation’s appeal. Rain in the outside world often presents itself as an obstacle, an inconvenience, a source of discomfort; in here, one is free to experience and contemplate rain without having to relate it to one’s immediate needs and desires. It is the quintessential Schopenhauerian aesthetic experience.

That is why to me, despite its rather technical and perhaps not quite magical nature, the Rain Room is art. You can’t quite get the same experience anywhere else.

By Moses Lemuel