The exhibit is so popular that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s telephone-reservation system shut down.
LOS ANGELES — For Southern Californians struggling through the worst drought in the history of the state, relief may be here — or at least a sprinkle of relief. Rain has arrived, but it is confined to a 2,500-square-foot windowless room in a museum exhibition, open to a handful of people who are let in for precisely 15 minutes to experience it in all its soaking, spritzing glory.
“Rain Room,” as it is known, had its run in London and New York, and it is on display in Shanghai. But its opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last week struck a different kind of nerve. If people in New York lined up for hours for the theatricality of it — the torrents of rain, controlled by motion cameras, pause as you walk under them, creating a Moses-parting-the-seas kind of spectacle — the Los Angeles exhibit is truly novel and timely, a reminder of what is missing in the parched West these days.
“The only rain we get is indoors, and it doesn’t hit us,” said Ken Bruce, 51, an animation artist who spread his arms as he walked under the high-tech rain ceiling in a mostly fruitless attempt to do what people normally avoid at all costs: get wet.
“I wouldn’t have minded being hit by some of it,” Bruce said.
The exhibit, which is scheduled to run until March, is so popular that the museum’s telephone-reservation system shut down; as of Friday afternoon, nearly 31,000 people had grabbed spots. People walk through in full-gawk mode, turning their faces to the ceiling, holding their hands straight in front of them. Parents bring their infants, thrusting them toward the rainfall to expose them to new sensations and smells.
“It takes on a more extreme quality here,” said Michael Govan, director of the museum. “And I think in a playful way. You go inside a museum of precious objects, and one of the precious objects in Southern California is rain. Rain is a precious thing. We take it for granted.”
One of the artists who created “Rain Room,” Hannes Koch, who lives in Berlin, said he was not prepared for how much the drought, which prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to order mandatory cuts in water use, would set the context for this exhibit.
“It’s such an omnipresent topic,” he said over an espresso at the museum, which is known by its acronym, LACMA.
“The lack of rain is terrible,” Koch said. “You see these big signs on the street saying, ‘We have stopped watering.’ It’s crazy, to be honest. It’s stuff you read about in dark-vision science fiction.”
That said, staging this exhibit in this of all places, at this of all times, raises questions. With strict water rationing in effect — 25 percent statewide, starting in June — is this an appropriate use of a precious resource?
“The artwork uses the same amount of water as a house in a day,” said Govan, the museum director, who came to California from New York almost 10 years ago and clearly anticipated the question. “It uses less water than it takes to make a hamburger: 528 gallons for the whole exhibit. It’s very little water, a tiny, tiny amount of water.”
One museum visitor, Andrea Howat, 30, said she was wary at first about visiting the exhibit after a year in which reservoirs were reaching record-low levels and people were letting their lawns go brown, flushing less often and keeping showers to one minute.
“I was actually kind of concerned when I first heard about it, because of the drought,” said Howat, a production assistant. “But then I read that it was being recycled — that made me feel a little more comfortable.”
Sapora Bradley, 29, who is studying education at Pepperdine University in nearby Malibu, said she had no problem with water being used this way, once she was assured the water was being recirculated.
“I mean, they are doing it for artistic reasons,” she said after walking out of the exhibit, a few drops of water visible on her clothing. “There is a social commentary. It makes you think about how we are using water. Is it right to use water like this when we are having a drought? Hopefully, it will make people think.”
Koch and the other artist who designed the installation, Florian Ortkrass, said they had decided Los Angeles should be the next place for their exhibit about 18 months ago — when concern was growing about the drought, but before Brown’s order. They also said they had found the reception very different from the one in New York in 2013, largely because of heightened concerns here about water.
“The quality of perception here was immediately better, deeper and more heightened and more serious than anywhere else,” Koch said. “Real issues. And it’s much less entertainment, and much more food for thought.”
Ortkrass said the first question they had encountered upon talking about the project was water use. “It was never a question that we would not recycle the water,” he said. “That was kind of from the outset.”
People who manage to get a ticket are instructed to show up 30 minutes in advance; LACMA is intent on avoiding the long-line ordeal that marked the show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Cameras are encouraged; high heels do not do well on the grated floor needed for drainage. If you walk too fast, you will probably get wet.
“Slow,” said Gene Terry, a museum guard keeping watch on people who were waiting in a dark hallway for their moment. Then he demonstrated a Charlie Chaplin-like slow walk to show what he meant.
“S-l-o-w,” he said. “Eight people go in. More than eight people, and the artist says it doesn’t work.”
The reviews in Los Angeles have not been particularly kind. “Let’s stipulate at the outset that ‘Rain Room’ will be a popular hit,” wrote Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times. “Brainless amusement often is.”
No matter. For people enduring this drought, that is something that goes beyond entertainment, or art.
“Exhilarating,” said Carolyn English, 61, a retired math teacher, as she came back into the daylight. “The only thing missing was the smell of the grass.”
Govan brushed off any negative reviews. “What’s not to like about rain?” he said. “But it’s not just liking it. It’s a spectacle. Does it cause people to reflect and think more deeply? Because that is what art is supposed to do.”