Sunday, 22 July 2018

Rain Room Sharjah (#RainRoomSharjah)

I can't remember how we heard about Rain Room. But we did and a glance at the Sharjah Art Foundation website was intriguing, to say the least. It was the work of seconds few to pick a day and time and book (you have to book an 'appointment' online, there's no point just rocking up and expecting to get in - more on this later). That was us sorted - a trip to Rain Room for our 15 minute 'experience'.

What is Rain Room? I hear you asking (unless you've been, in which case yes, I know, you've got the t-shirt*). It is an experiential art installation originally conceived by an London-based art collective/company called Random International, back in 2012. Rain Room toured the Barbican in London, MoMA in New York, LA's LACMA and other august artsy locations, to rave reviews. It has found its permanent home in Sharjah, and is open to the great unwashed in return for Dhs25.

It's a giant, black rain shower. You walk into it and sensors clear you a 6-foot dry patch as you wander around. Clearly, if you walk too fast or move suddenly, you get wet.

So here we are in Sharjah and it's late July. It's hot, the mercury at times nudging 50C. It's humid, too. Nasty, muggy, dense humidity that gets so thick and cloying a goldfish swam past my head the other day. The very idea of spending a little time in the rain has a certain appeal, no?

We booked for Saturday at 5pm. Get there 20 minutes early, says the email that followed my booking. Present this registration code when you arrive. And please use the hashtag #RainRoomSharjah. And so this is precisely what we do. Parking isn't a problem, there are reserved spaces alongside Al Majarrah Park with the blood-curdling threat of a Dhs1,000 fine if you park and aren't a guest of Rain Room. How do they know?

The building's totally plain - funky, for sure, but unadorned by any text that proclaims it to be Rain Room or, indeed, to be anything. It's all concrete, glass and steel and the floor is not only laid with the same blocks as those out on the pavement, but they're matched so they form a continuation with the outside paving. There's a Fen Café, just so's you know you've arrived in funky town. For those that don't know Sharjah's 'signature' art café, Fen is on funk. So much so that it actually aches, like eating too many ice cubes. We get our tickets printed and settle down to wait for our turn.

We watch people coming in off the street and expecting to get their 'experience' right here, right now. The chap on the front desk seems to spend 95% of his time explaining things and turning very entitled-feeling people away. Do you know who I am? Yes, and you haven't booked, mate. We're holding tickets and booked in for 5pm, the next available booking is 7pm. We briefly consider setting up in business buying tickets up online and sitting in Fen touting them to walk-ins. They only let six people in at a time and slots fill fast for popular times like weekends and evenings. Putting up a sign to this effect would save a great deal of very repetitive explaining. Our man stays calm and patient and we admire his stoicism almost as much as we admire Fen's jars of funky cookies and display of hipster cakes.

At just before 5, the security guard asks if we're the five o'clock crowd. Yup, that's us. Go to the waiting area, please. It's around the corner, a long concrete wall with bench seats set into it on our left and a great glassed vista looking out over Majarrah. It's a bit odd, looking out onto Sharjah backstreets from this cool concrete monument to contemporary chic. We wait. Nothing happens. 5pm comes and goes. I go to see Security Man. We're aware we're getting 15 scant minutes and that's our lot. So what happens now? We are waiting for people in the toilet, apparently. I ask if we're getting to stay in there until 5.17, then? The security guy giggles nervously. The man on the ticket desk intervenes, no, go on just go ahead. To be fair, they could have been a bit more precise with the old directions, there...

We go back down the corridor and turn a corner into a long passage that descends into the very bowels of the earth. We can hear water. A lot of water. At the bottom of the ramp, a local gent greets us and then we walk into a massive black room containing a single brilliant white light and a enormous cube of rain. It falls from tiny spouts high up in the ceiling, spattering and disappearing into the black grating which covers the entire expanse of floor. We walk into it and are consumed, enveloped in rain. The light picks out the droplets and they shimmer and scintillate as we turn and swoop. We're both laughing. There's a group of three Emirati girls in there with us and they're more nervous than we are, picking their way slowly and wonderingly into the big wall of constantly falling drops.

It doesn't smell of anything. There's no reek of chlorine or even musty damp. There's no sound beyond the hiss and spatter of rain, no hum of machinery. It's just the falling water and the shadows picked out by that single brilliant light. We get our mobiles out and start photographing ourselves not having a great time because we're so busy documenting the great time we're having. To be fair, you can't help yourself. It's deeply photogenic.

We throw shapes. We walk too quickly (and are punished). We're dancers, now, exaggerated slow movements as we carve our wee swathes through the curtain of bright droplets. We play like the big children we are. Our fifteen minutes flash by in subjective seconds and we are politely ejected through a curtain to wander back upstairs, blinking and giggling. It's all a bit intense, really. You feel bereft afterwards. I prescribe a nice cup of coffee and a Fen cookie.

*I said earlier that if you've been, you've got the t-shirt, but that's one trick the Rain Room misses - no merchandise. Sharjah of late has been quite good at merchandising its attractions, but there's not a Rain Room branded goodie in sight. Which is a missed opportunity, IMHO. Yes, yes, I'm sure art transcends base considerations of merchandise and all that...

In short, GO! You can get tickets to Rain Room Sharjah here at the Sharjah Art Foundation website. There's even a pin for those of you that don't know Sharjah or  where to find Al Mujarrah Park (or Al Majarrah park. It's a sort of movable feast, that spelling). The traffic's fine right now, so stop being a lily-livered Dubai type and make the journey North. Swing by the Heart of Sharjah while you're here and take a wander around some real souks. Or visit the Museum of Islamic Civilization (just around the corner from Rain Room) or even Sharjah Fort and its museum or discover the Imperialistic joys of Mahatta Fort, the site of the first airport in the UAE.

Go on, treat yourselves!

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