A glimpse of spring hit Cape Town last week on Friday 7th September, and dancing on a rainbow seemed the perfect way to celebrate! one small seed caught up with Michael Elion artist / architect who mainly works on large scale public artworks. On behalf of Creative Week Cape Town he created a man-made rainbow, which will appear in front of Commune1 Gallery (64 Wale Street, Cape Town (map) every sunny day from 2:45pm, for around 45 minutes, until October 14th.

Image: Guto Bussab

Image: Guto Bussab

Iris was the Greek goddess of the Rainbow. Is she here today?

(Laughs) We’ll see if the wind doesn’t blow her away! A rainbow at this small a scale is really sensitive to the wind… you need to find the right balance between the amount and size of particles relative to the size of rainbow you’d want to make, and how brightly it’ll appear.

What inspired you to do this?

Well let me tell you the process of how it all started… I was surfing, and when the wind is blowing strongly in the surf you get a stinging mist that showers over you, and every now and again you get to see a perfectly circular rainbow. So, I thought let me try and see if I can put a rainbow in a frame and I began to play with a rainbow like that. After doing different tests I realized that in order for you to see a perfect circle, you need to be completely inside the mist and the sun needs to be at a certain point. That began the process of testing how to make the rainbow bigger; I actually wanted to make a clock like a sundial except using a rainbow as the dial. As I experimented more I realised what a difficult thing it is to get right. It took almost six months to figure out how but it eventually came together at some point in 2010 after I’d sourced the right sort of pump and got special nozzles from the US.

What did you find most challenging?
Tweaking it. It was only when I realized how the arc of the rainbow is constantly moving that I could control how to engineer it to appear in the correct place at the right time. I wanted it to appear in broad daylight in the middle of the street like an apparition, and to have the arc of the rainbow leading you into the gallery door – at this time of year that can only happen between 2:45 and 3:45pm.

Do you believe there is a pot of gold to be found at the end of every rainbow?

Well the interesting thing about the rainbow is that as you get closer it keeps moving farther away…
as a life philosophy, you never really want to have the pot of gold, you should just keep chasing it. My life philosophy is to keep producing and keep learning. That’s what I’m chasing…

Image: Bart Fouche

Image: Bart Fouche

What is your ‘pot of gold’?
To be able to keep producing bigger, more amazing, fantastic artworks and the only thing that slows you down is money. For example I know how to do a really big rainbow – like one you’d see in the landscape – but in broad daylight but it would literally cost millions orchestrate.

What’s your favorite way that people react to this project?
I think it’s the awe and inspiration it gives… Because of my architectural training most of my urban projects are done on quite a grand scale, and so I suppose I’m trying to elicit that feeling of the sublime. A project I did in the courtyard of the National Archives in Paris, called “Halo” was a giant internally-illuminated helium-inflated ring… It was 22 meters in diameter, the size of a seven story building, and Pink! It looked a giant UFO, and when it rose up into the air everyone went silent. It’s that sense of awe and amazement where you give something back to the observer that I think is what I try and do with my artwork.

Your website tells me you got your masters in philosophy of art and aesthetics in Paris. How was life then?
Paris was very tough the first three years; I lived in a room on the outskirts of Paris that was 2×2 metres with no mattress, sleeping on the floor, studying philosophy and also trying to get a job. I could barely speak French and it was a huge challenge. Eventually I got a job through my architectural training with Xavier Veilhan, a well-known artist in Paris who scans people with lasers and then makes sculptures from the scans. Then suddenly the city opened itself up to me and became accessible. The first three years were tough; the next three years were amazing. Then the financial crash happened and there was a great deal of pressure on everyone and that had a trickle down effect on me, and so I had to make a decision: move to Cape Town, or go back to London, or start afresh in New York. So I made a list of benefits for each city and Cape Town’s won, hands down… Believe it or not, the fact that I could surf again was a huge draw card, so the rainbow happened because of my having gone back to surfing!

Why do you think some people never question or challenge their views of beauty?
I think people get preoccupied with their choices in art and they follow that route. I’ve always been interested in the concept of beauty and what it is and so I try and explore it. I think sometimes provocation is necessary… That’s what I’m trying to do with the big red hand grenade. When people see it, it looks like a Jeff Koons lollipop type of thing, but when you learn it’s actually full of explosives and it could actually kill you and blow the building down, all of a sudden it sets up a dynamic between you appreciating something aesthetically and actually being afraid of it, and then you start to ask yourself, “Do I actually find the object beautiful?”

How many explosives are in there?
Could it actually blow the building? Technically it could but it won’t. The idea with the show is not to create a Brett Murray-type scandal and have the police come and close the show but rather for people to experience that sense of ambivalence where geometrically and sculpturally it’s a beautiful object but if it was live it could rip you to bits. I think most people may have missed that.

What helps you change your perception of beauty?
I am constantly trying to look for things where your perception of what is beautiful is questioned, and I am greatly inspired by the natural world. So I am working on another project, some giant chrome-silver ants that will be crawling all over the buildings in town. Sculpturally they’re very beautiful creatures but generally people don’t really like ants. I also want to make an enormous fly because they’re visually fascinating things, especially if you make them enormous. They become monsters, but beautiful monsters.

What would you like people to leave here with?
I’d like them to have a sense firstly of two beautiful things that are diametrically opposed. A rainbow and a hand grenade…  These completely different elements in our lives that are very evocative visually but elicit very different feelings. A beautiful benevolent natural phenomenon and then this potentially dangerous object – and yet you can find them both beautiful.

Rainbows are the universal symbol of peace and harmony and the bridge between heaven and earth – do you believe that?
There is something universal in the way rainbows appeal to all of us similarly as sentient beings – that there is this universal language in the world around us , an economy of commonly understood effects, that is mostly universally understood.