The "Rain Room" at the L.A. County Museum of Art — the installation consisting of a torrent of falling water that ceases to fall whenever the viewer steps into it — has generally earned raspberries from critics. My colleague Christopher Knight dubbed it a "bland tempest." While New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz described it as "the worst single work of art" shown in a New York museum in 2013, after the installation was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. But that hasn't stopped "Rain Room," which was created by the London-based art collective Random International, from being a popular hit. Tickets for the general public are sold out. And even museum members have a long wait: the earliest available slots are for late January. (Though the museum will soon be announcing extended hours on the piece to accommodate demand.)
Naturally, I had to see what the hype — and the 26,000-plus Instagram posts were all about. Here are three things I learned:
- "Rain Room" is better in pictures than IRL
- This is a show that is, quite literally, made for Instagram
- "Rain Room" comes with too many instructions
- Any element of surprise is squashed before you set foot in the room
- "Rain Room" is like going to a spa in Miami Beach
- Humans like to make rain in a room, even though in some parts of the country you can actually enjoy rain outside
It looks really good, doesn't it? Human figures silhouetted by rain against a bright light. It's like every picture taken inside the installation becomes the water dance scene in "Flashdance." And in fact, it looks very much this way when you first walk into the room. Dreamy. Seductive. Wet.
Except that the "Rain Room" is more of a one-sided Hollywood set ideal for picture-making than a full-fledged environmental installation that will subsume you with its awesome water power. Namely, because if you walk through the room and turn around, what you see is this:
Like at any good carnival attraction, before you enter "Rain Room," you stand in line. And while you standing in line, the guards give you the blow-by-blow:
You get exactly 15 minutes. Walk slowly so that the sensors can read your body and stop the water in time. Only eight people at a time are allowed under the water or else the sensors won't work and everybody gets wet. People who wear black are more likely to get wet since it can be difficult for the sensors to read. Let everyone through the installation before stopping the line to take selfies. Blah blah blah...
What it means is that by the time you get into "Rain Room" you know exactly what's going to happen — down to the fact that at least one person will violate the no-selfie-on-first-pass rule and grind everything to a halt.
If the "Rain Room" were really going to be an interesting work of art, you'd arrive at a room filled with rain. The viewer could decide to enter or not and there would be a possibility of getting wet or not. This would allow moments of pandemonium and surprise — and society ladies in dripping wet blowouts.
That would be the piece I'd want to see.
Many moons ago, when I regularly covered travel as one of my beats, I paid a surreal visit to the Canyon Ranch spa in Miami Beach (since renamed the Carillon Hotel). Part of its detox schtick was a series of spa "environments" called "Aquavana" (a.k.a. stuff with water), which included an "experiential rain" room where you could stand in what was essentially a fancy mosaic-tile shower stall and press a button that would deliver one of three rain experiences: "Caribbean Storm," "Tropical Rain" or "Cool Fog." These came with sound effects (chirping birds, thunder) and in the case of "Cool Fog," a puffy cloud of white steam.
On the day that I did the experiential rain room at the Canyon Ranch, it was actually raining in Miami — which made the whole experience even more sublimely ridiculous. Here I was flushing positively heroic amounts of potable water into the ocean (Miami has its own water troubles) when I could have simply stood outside in what was a real-deal Caribbean storm.
Like the "Rain Room," the "experiential rain" at Canyon Ranch is fake. It lasts for an apportioned time, then goes away. The droplets are perfectly even. The soundtrack is always the same. There is never any awe-inducing sense of power. It's something, to borrow a few words from Knight, that "performs plastic surgery on nature."
Except as is often the case when dealing with nature, the real deal is very difficult to improve.