Artist Makes Real Rainbows

Rainbow test
A successful test of McKean's rainbow over the Bemis Center (all images courtesy the Bemis Center)

Well, here’s something we didn’t think could be done: homemade rainbows. Artist Michael Jones McKean has figured out how to create colorful arcs of light in the sky, and he’ll be making them this summer above the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s like instant happiness.

McKean’s project, titled The Rainbow: Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms, has been underway for a decade — understandably, since a rainbow can’t be an easy thing to produce. The artist enlisted the help of irrigation and rainwater-harvesting experts, atmosphere scientists, plumbing and electrical experts and Bemis Center staff to devise a rainwater and renewable energy system at the museum. The whole thing works on a massive scale: Rainwater is filtered and collected in six 10,500-gallon waters tanks. A custom-designed pump in the gallery then sends pressurized water to nine nozzles mounted on the museum’s roof, and twice a day, a wall of water rushes up above the building. Rainbows emerge within the walls of water, lasting for about 20 minutes each.

Rainbow production rendering
Rendering of the rainbow production system

That means the rainbows are somewhat contingent upon rainfall, but Bemis Chief Curator Hesse McGraw told Hyperallergic that, “Essentially it’s designed so that we can sustain normal operations with no rain for three to four weeks. So with average to slightly-below-average rainfall in Omaha, the project is completely sustainable over 15 weeks.”

McGraw went on to add that the project was designed to be very modular, “in such a way that the equipment can essentially be reinstalled at successive sites,” with the goal of touring it to other institutions after its run at the Bemis (mid-June through Sept. 15). Until then, road trip, anyone?

Close-up of a test rainbow
Close-up of a test rainbow

No word if viewers will have a chance to discover a pot of gold around the grounds of Bemis while the rainbows are in effect or if Olafur Eliasson is jealous that he didn’t think of this first, but either way there is so much goodness to be culled from rainbows.

“I guess my way of thinking about that is that a rainbow is something that’s been mythologized and codified and branded and politicized, but yet still has the capacity to jolt you out of your daily routine,” McGraw said. “There’s still a kind of magic that happens when you see an actual prismatic rainbow in the sky.”

So, no gold — but enlightment.

“The thing that Michael’s extremely keen to think about it is the idea that the rainbow is actually our oldest image — it’s an image that has been unchanged throughout time. As long as there has been a sun and water and an eye, that arc has been a constant. There’s a dynamic between that constant, unchanged image and this extremely ephemeral phenomena.”

Michael Jones McKean’s The Rainbow will take place at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (724 South 12th Street, Omaha, Nebraska).

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