It’s barely even midday, but where I am it is as dark as night.
You don’t need more than basic schooling in geography to know that the Arabian Peninsula is one of the driest and hottest regions on earth. Sharjah, one of the seven component parts of the UAE, is no exception to this rule. Today, however, there’s a distinct chill in the air and thick sheets of rain are rattling down from above.
Visibility is impaired by the gloom. Even so, I can make out other human forms. Although it’s not the sort of weather you would usually venture out in, these few hardy souls are making the best of it. Young ladies resplendent in black abaya are getting active with their camera phones, flashing V signs and pouting for shots.
Somewhere to the left of me, my companion for the day, Fatima Zahrae – a marketing executive at Al Bait Sharjah, my hotel in the emirate – appears to be having the time of her life. “When you get little rain as we do here, something like this is just so refreshing,” she laughs, striking a pose as the water continues its relentless trajectory.
A network of 3D tracking cameras manages the 2,500 litres of self-cleaning, recycled water to ensure that visitors don’t get wet.
A veteran of innumerable sodden seasons in Edinburgh, my home city, I’m familiar with rain. Lots of it. What I’m not so accustomed to is such a positive reaction to a deluge.
Back in Scotland, we tend to accept our meteorological fate with stoic acceptance. We are not (most of us anyway) driven to despair by the unfavourable deal parlayed by the weather gods. Still, rare is the person that is overjoyed at the arrival of yet another bleak, damp day. In normal circumstances then it might be hard for me to compute the sight of Fatima and the others whooping it up in the near pitch-black gloom. This is not your average Biblical shower we are experiencing. Outside, the May heat is building and there’s not a cloud in sight. Inside it’s pouring.
We are in The Rain Room, an award-winning installation by London/Berlin-based art group Random International that has now found a permanent home in Sharjah thanks to the efforts of Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), the emirate’s dynamic government-funded contemporary art and cultural foundation.
The immersive installation – which had stints in various international locations including London, Los Angeles, Shanghai and New York before pitching up in the UAE – encourages guests to walk through a downpour of continuous rain in a darkened underground space. So far, so uninviting: at least for those of us with an aversion to soggy conditions.
The installation’s not-so-secret saving grace is the presence of 3D tracking cameras placed around the ceiling that detect where you are and stop the water from falling.
An art group based in London and Berlin, Random International, developed the Rain Room in 2012 and shared the art in London, New York, Los Angeles and Shanghai before moving the installation to its permanent home in Sharjah in May 2018.
Sudden or rapid movements risk exposure to frigid droplets of the 2500 litres of self-cleaning water used in the installation. Those who move at a languid pace can glide through the thick curtains of rain with no fear of getting splashed.
According to Random International, the installation was built with the intention of “exploring how humankind’s relationships to one another and nature are increasingly mediated through intangible technologies”.
It’s doubtful that every visitor is thinking as deeply about the experience as its creators obviously were. Of course, I may be wrong, but it seems that my Rain Room companions are more concerned about getting the right shot for their Instagram feeds than they are about brushing up on their social sciences.
For most, it seems, the idea of gambolling around in the rain takes precedence over high-minded conceptualism. Nevertheless, an overwhelmingly positive response from art-lovers around the Middle East has more than justified the decision by SAF – one spearheaded by its founder and director Hoor Al Qasimi, daughter of Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi — to bring the installation to Sharjah in 2018 for an extended stay.
“She (Al Qassimi) saw how the audience responded and interacted with the work,” says a SAF spokesperson of the acquisition process. “Given the long history of site-specific and ambitious major installation projects that have been experienced by the Sharjah community over the years, the Rain Room seemed to her to be perfect for the cultural offering in the Emirate.”
Indeed, it’s yet another example of a long-standing commitment to artistic mores that has produced a febrile climate that appeals equally to connoisseurs and the merely curious.
In fact, it wouldn’t be pushing matters too much to argue that Sharjah has the most rounded art scene in the UAE. The emirate has been hosting its own Biennale since 1993 when the idea of franchising the Louvre and Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi would have been dismissed by most as a far-fetched fantasy.
And a clutch of arty highlights ranging from hip contemporary galleries such as the Maraya Art Centre to celebrations of traditional calligraphy serves to confirm Sharjah’s reputation as a cultural hub in the region.
“Arts and culture have been central to life in Sharjah for a very long time,” says a spokesperson for SAF.
“It’s our intention to expand on that tradition through our yearly exhibitions and wide-ranging programs. It’s with great pride that we can say that the Sharjah Art Foundation has become a vital part of everyday life in Sharjah.”
Back at The Rain Room, we are getting ready to leave. Before we go, Fatima encourages me to make a few continuous movements in the heart of the downpour, which she captures in slow motion on my camera phone. After watching the results (Gene Kelly, don’t eat your heart out), we file out into the bright sunshine.
The Sharjah Art Foundation purpose-built a venue in one of the city’s residential neighbourhoods to house the singular attraction.
“I’ve been (to The Rain Room) several times now, but I never get tired of going,” says Fatima. “There’s something calming about just standing there as the rain falls all around me. It’s so refreshing.”
Having experienced the installation – and its role in aiding an overall artistic flowering in the Emirate – for myself, that’s a sentiment to which I can only concur.
Text by Duncan Forgan for GHM Journeys.
Featured image: To be able to hear the rain, see the rain and smell the rain — without getting wet — is an astonishing experience, say visitors.
First published on 21 October 2019.