Sound and Fury at the Houston Cistern

Experiencing Magdalena Fernández’s ‘Rain’

“Rain,” Magdalena Fernández’s 2iPM009 at the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. Photo by Peter Molick, courtesy of the artist and Sicardi Gallery.

“Just as pure abstract art is not dogmatic, neither is it decorative.” — Piet Mondrian

Magdalena Fernández, right, at the opening of “Rain” at the Cistern. ISSUE photo by Elena Ivanova.

The cold breath of the earth on your face, you follow a descending tunnel into the deeper underground.  Finally, the space unfolds and you find yourself standing on a balcony running along the perimeter of a giant hall.  Slender columns uphold the vaulted ceiling evoking the image of an ancient temple.

And then the lights go out and the magic begins.  You hear the staccato of raindrops as vertical and horizontal lines start dancing on the columns.  The gentle patter reaches a crescendo and soon the whole space is resonating with the roar of a powerful storm syncopated by bursts of thunder.  The performance of this celestial orchestra is overwhelming and stirs some primordial fears deep in one’s psyche.  Flashes of lightning illuminate the dark interior and reveal, for a split second, the majestic beauty of the strange place.

This is not a long-lost architectural wonder of the ancient world discovered by tenacious archaeologists.  We are looking at the former underground drinking water reservoir of the city of Houston known today as the Cistern.

Built in 1926, this colossal structure — the size of 1.5 football fields — used to hold 15 million gallons of water.  The vast space, modulated by 221 25-foot concrete columns, resembles the Roman cisterns under Istanbul.  This similarity was first pointed out by landscape architect Kevin Shanley who coined the name “Cistern” for the Houston water reservoir.

Decommissioned in 2007, the Cistern was slated for demolition, but was saved by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP).  After an extensive restoration, the former water reservoir welcomed its first visitors in May of 2016.  Not surprisingly, the new attraction became instantly popular with Houstonians and city guests: more than 19,000 people have visited the Cistern since the day of its opening.

Piet Mondrian, Composition in Line, above, 1916-1917, Oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, The Netherlands

Now there is another, even more compelling reason to see this magnificent structure.  For the next five months, the Cistern will be the site of the video installation “Rain” by renowned Venezuelan artist Magdalena Fernández.  Recently purchased by MFAH, this work was featured in the last year’s exhibition “Contingent Beauty.”  However, the scale and the raw interior of the new location take it to a completely different level of experience.

Magdalena Fernández draws inspiration from the masters of geometric abstraction and transforms their works into virtual installations that involve light, sound and movement.  In “Rain” (original title  “2iPM009,” which stands for “second installation-Piet Mondrian-2009”), she started with a basic geometric unit that references “Composition in Line,” dated 1917, by Piet Mondrian from his “Pier and Ocean” series.  While Mondrian was breaking the image of the visible world into a series of basic geometric shapes,  Fernández reverted the process and re-united the abstract patterns with nature, having created an illusion of a rain-soaked night.

The image originates with a dot on the plane which metamorphoses and moves in space.  The resulting unit, which runs on a 1-minute and 56-second loop, is then multiplied through the exponential projection on the walls of the exhibition space.  In the dark and mysterious interior of the Cistern, the imagery reaches cosmic proportions as the flickering lines appear and disappear on the columns and cast reflections in the shallow pool of water deep down at the bottom of the abyss.

The virtual experience of being caught in a storm is further enhanced by the soundtrack.  However, there is a trick.  Although we are convinced that we hear rain and thunder, the sound actually comes from people.  This amazing illusion is produced by the members of the Slovenian choir Perpetuum Jazzile who are snapping their fingers, slapping their palms against their legs and stamping their heels on wooden surfaces.

The artist skilfully edited the recording of the performance to create a soundscape that adds a human dimension to this complex and multi-layered work.  Amplified by a 17-second echo, the sound seems to be emanating from the walls, the ceiling and the columns, as if the giant Cistern were a living thing caught in a frenzy of a universal chaos.

Contemporary art often strives for an immersive experience.  “Rain” by Magdalena Fernández offers a rare opportunity to transport oneself to a dream-like reality where we can neither rely on our spatial awareness nor trust our senses.  We are floating in the darkness, exposed to the sound and fury of the universe, surrounded by the flickering lights and the unending song of the rain.

The installation“Rain: Magdalena Fernández at the Houston Cistern” is organized jointly by BBP and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and will be on view through  June 4.  Follow on Instagram and Twitter with #CisternRain.

The Houston Cistern is located in Buffalo Bayou Park at 105 Sabine Street, Houston.

Hours are Wednesdays through Fridays, 3:30-7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tours every 30 minutes. Admission is $10 a person; $8 for seniors (65+ with ID), youth (9-17), and students (18+ with ID). Admission is free on Thursdays. Children under the age of nine are not permitted .

Timed tickets can be purchased at www.buffalo bayou.org.

Story by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE staff writer

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