- Dark Psychedelia: A conversation between Gean Moreno and Michael Jones McKean

This interview with Gean Moreno discuses some ideas surrounding The Rainbow and was published in DIS Magazine, October 2014.


- In Conversation: Priscilla Frank and Michael Jones McKean

A short interview with Priscilla Frank of Huffington Post discussing The Rainbow: certain principles of light and shapes between forms, May 23, 2012


- In Conversation: James Gaddy and Michael Jones McKean

A short interview with James Gaddy of Surface Magazine discussing The Rainbow: certain principles of light and shapes between forms, June 4, 2012


- A Rainbow by Suzanne S. Arney

A short text describing the challenging early stages of the fabrication process, and one viewer's emotionally poignant response to the final result


-The physics behind the rainbow by Joseph A. Zehnder

This Text by Joseph A. Zehnder, PhD  discusses some of the optics and science surounding The Rainbow.


- On the Surprising and Unlikely Appearance of numerous Rainbow, Over Many Months, in the Sky Above Omaha by Gregory Volk

An essay by art critic Gregory Volk that ruminates on the conceptual and art historical significance of The Rainbow: certain principles of light and shapes between forms

- Dark Psychedelia: A conversation between Gean Moreno and Michael Jones McKean



Gean Moreno: Let’s begin by talking about how time functions in your projects and just see where this takes us.


Michael Jones McKean: One way time is often addressed is through handling objects as if they were already artifacts. When viewed this way, contemporary objects shed some of their present day qualities, and in doing so, become encoded with a stranger, but perhaps clearer relationship to time. So, as an archaeologist might understand profound and hidden away details about a Neolithic hand axe through analyzing its shape and materiality, someone in a thrift store picking up a by-now ancient Motorola Razr might feel the precise psychic pangs of a pre-crisis 2006. In both cases, each object claims an idiosyncratic, but precise time signature.


Very much related to time, we’re witnessing our lived-through Middle Anthropocenic Period rapidly consolidate into a super sophisticated monoculture, where massive objects like Samsung, The Black Forest, Liberia, the Renminbi, and a copper mine in Chile operate interdependently within ultra-networked systems. To this, we’ve learned that when we burn coal and oil we’re blazing through 300 million years of compounded growth and decay – stored and compressed time – at an unimaginably accelerated rate. This sudden and hyperbolic release of energy creates a radical reconfiguration to our conception of time, while in the process disrupting seemingly stable systems: climates, migrations, economies, ecologies, our evolving human psychology, space itself. Heidegger’s musings about airplane travel fucking with distance/nearness/time seem quaint now, with algorithmically-enhanced high frequency trade distorting capital even further, or machines like the Large Hadron Collider spinning particles at obscene speeds, effectively time-traveling to the nanosecond following the universe’s creation. Or even the very real science of de-extinction as it plays out over the next few years. In all cases, the reliability of time’s arrow – even death itself – becomes more lost in an inchoate warp flow.


Bringing it back to the work, maybe the project that consolidates my interest in time most clearly is certain principles of light and shapes between forms (2012) – the central component being a real, prismatic rainbow. The rainbow form collapses time. It lives unbeholden to circadian, glacial, and geologic registrations, lacking any sort of time signature at all. The rainbow form unbinds itself from these kind of object-oriented archeo-clocks. Immune to age or even evolution, its essential character is consistent in Nairobi, Singapore or Manitoba; in 20,000 BC or 3,000 AD. What we see, when we see one, is the crystallization of an unyielding set of physical principles conspiring together – the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun, light waves racing through the upper and lower atmospheres, the proper density of water-prism-drops––all held in precise alignment. These integers form a code sequence that is oblivious, in some deep ontological sense, to the passage of time.



Certain principles of light and shapes between forms (2012), harvested and reclaimed rainwater, 110 pound 5000 year old Campo del Cielo meteorite, conch shell from Micronesia, handmade American quilt circa 1880, antique glass prism, Bristlecone Pine, white light emitter, photo background stands, muslin, six 10,500 gallon water storage tanks, modified downspout system, 60 horse power turbine pump, UV water filter, galvanized piping




Certain principles of light and shapes between forms (2012), harvested and reclaimed rainwater, 110 pound 5000 year old Campo del Cielo meteorite, conch shell from Micronesia, handmade American quilt circa 1880, antique glass prism, Bristlecone Pine, white light emitter, photo background stands, muslin, six 10,500 gallon water storage tanks, modified downspout system, 60 horse power turbine pump, UV water filter, galvanized piping



The reverse is that observing a rainbow-event is an incredibly durational experience – another kind of time altogether. I imagine its attraction and importance to so many cultures throughout history is partly due to its fleeting nature. The pronounced gap between these two time registers – both here-and-now, and out-of-time – summarize a lot of my interests with objects and sculpture.


GM: But these two time registers — exo-temporal and now-durational — are complicated in this case. The exo one, which as you say in some way unbinds the rainbow from any specific time and makes it immune to age and evolution, is interesting in that it indexes a kind of absolute time––something beyond our temporalities, if you like. One can imagine the rainbow existing before the possibility of chronological time as we experience it was conceptualized. In fact, one can imagine it before the very possibility of conceptualization, of thought. Unburdened by any need for carbon-based life forms in its production, one can posit the rainbow as a figure, even if devoid of all the meaning we’ve pinned to it, that points to a moment prior to the emergence of life and of a chronological understanding of time.



Anthropocenia (2013  inkjet prints, black and white laser print, tape, UV resin, wood, panel board, embedded insects, paint   56 x 48 x 2.25"Anthropocenia 2013   inkjet prints, black and white laser print, tape, UV resin, wood, panel board, embedded insects, paint   56 x 48 x 2.25" 142 x 122 x 6 cm Michael Jones McKean, Anthropocenia (2013), inkjet prints, black and white laser print, tape, UV resin, wood, panel board, embedded insects, paint, 56 x 48 x 2.25″



MJM: Yes, in a speculative, almost psychedelic way one can also imagine how aesthetics and maybe even our conception of the sublime might have co-evolved with naturally occurring out-of-time forms. Rogue synaptic pathways traveling in the brain could have become organized and grooved by witnessing phenomena like the sun rising or an ocean wave crashing, or for that matter, a rainbow. Near the origins of cognitive intelligence, what were the forms that proto-humans had available, and how did these forms imprint themselves on our psyches? Just as our neural capacity for abstraction might have been born and honed while gazing at shifting cloud formations or mentally drawing shapes in the night sky, the rainbow form might have helped prototype our modern understanding of the sublime.



The Religion (2013)   plywood, pine, paint, epoxy resin, stainless steel, fluorescent lights, dirt, cement, clay, wigs, prosthetic silicon, makeup, clothing, jewelry, chains   36 x 8.5 x 8 feet




The Religion (2013)   plywood, pine, paint, epoxy resin, stainless steel, fluorescent lights, dirt, cement, clay, wigs, prosthetic silicon, makeup, clothing, jewelry, chains   36 x 8.5 x 8 feet


GM: But it may be more wicked that this. The form may index a moment before synaptic pathways, before life and witnesses. A world that precedes us. A world like the one I imagine after biological extinction. Maybe the rainbow, as part of a world that was there before life and that will be there after it, is a paradoxical and unexpected element of a black psychedelia, of the morosely tripped out possibility of us actually not being around. It casts long shadows over, and opens deep voids in, thoughts that orbit an inorganic world.



The Deep Field (2014), Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image, ink on vinyl, telescopic banner stand, 80 x 80″



The Deep Field (2014), Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image, ink on vinyl, telescopic banner stand, 80 x 80″



MJM: The concept of black psychedelia opens up really strange territory. It also feels metaphorically apt – blackness as the compression of the visible spectrum, or color’s acid black inversion. And yes it’s wild to imagine the rainbow reporting to us from the edge-time, a history before our existence, as it races out prophesying a post-human future without us.


However it’s important to mention that through all recorded history – real and mythological – the rainbow exists for humans as a profoundly associative event. It appears as a message from a divine force conjuring proof of creation, or an omen of luck, doom, goodwill, democracy, LGBT pride, hope… The overwhelming spell that the popular rainbow form collectively has cast on us has reached an obsessive perversion. For the object to regain consciousness in sculptural form, it was necessary to escape the orbit of kitsch and branding, symbology and cartooning – all things that bind it pathologically to our cultural moment. It seemed necessary to reverse polarities regarding its image and embrace its origins as an object. An object not in contempt of us, but dissociated from us – living in another orbit of private omniscience.


As a thought experiment, Meillassoux’s idea of ‘objects without us’ or his concept of the ‘arche fossil’ – which your question maybe alludes to – feels immensely generative. In practice, though, we’re still taking the first steps at actualizing the promises of de-anthropomorphism, toward realizing a production that utilizes its offerings. This brings to mind a term you used a couple of weeks back over lunch: the ‘beta version of ourselves.’ It has me wondering if multiple forces conspiring toward some ad hoc singularity might be pointing the way – the kind of reverse myopia that, say, the release of the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field photograph induces, or the very real way in which social media slowly extends our minds into the hive, or any number of advances in understanding the intelligence of plantlife, new theories about emotion, how exactly our epigenome works…



The Garden (2014) wood, shellac, wax, prosthetic silicone, makeup, jewelry, hair, fabric, lights, stainless steel, resin, rubber, tar, plastic, embedded meteorite fragments including: Canyon Diablo Meteorite - Northern Arizona, estimated fall 50,000 years ago; Campo del Cielo Meteorite - Argentina, estimated fall 4000 BC; Gibeon Meteorite - Namibia, no recorded fall, discovered 1836; Oued el Hadjar Meteorite - Morocco, recorded fall 1986; Sikhote-Alin Meteorite Eastern Siberia - recorded fall 1947; Katol, Meteorite - India, recorded fall 2012; Bondoc Meteorite - Philippines, no recorded fall, year found 1956; Nantan Meteorite - China, recorded fall 1516, year authenticated 1958.   64 x 229 x 9 inches 162 x 582 x 23 cm



The Garden (2014) wood, shellac, wax, prosthetic silicone, makeup, jewelry, hair, fabric, lights, stainless steel, resin, rubber, tar, plastic, embedded meteorite fragments including: Canyon Diablo Meteorite - Northern Arizona, estimated fall 50,000 years ago; Campo del Cielo Meteorite - Argentina, estimated fall 4000 BC; Gibeon Meteorite - Namibia, no recorded fall, discovered 1836; Oued el Hadjar Meteorite - Morocco, recorded fall 1986; Sikhote-Alin Meteorite Eastern Siberia - recorded fall 1947; Katol, Meteorite - India, recorded fall 2012; Bondoc Meteorite - Philippines, no recorded fall, year found 1956; Nantan Meteorite - China, recorded fall 1516, year authenticated 1958.   64 x 229 x 9 inches 162 x 582 x 23 cm



GM: I know what you mean regarding the difficulty of translating certain speculative lines of thinking into actual physical production, but I also feel that it’s very fertile territory. While sculptural objects will always end up in some kind of transaction with human bodies and their desire for meaning, this may be a historical contingency. Maybe other ways of engagement are possible. What if meaning is deposed as the sole goal of cultural artifacts? What if instead of significance, they diagram unfathomable processes, they point to things that exceed our capacity to fully comprehend them? What if they could just throw us out over a void, zap us with dark affect, and not crystallize into a tight ball of meaning?


MJM: I agree, this kind of old-timey semantic engagement with objects and images looks a little quaint as an end game. Moreover, the collateral damage of developing thought this way seems violent – like 100 million realities, a Babel of kaleidoscopic dimension, razed in pursuit of something hermeneutic.


Still, the question becomes difficult when we consider our neurobiological baseline. We can’t overcome our prefrontal cortex, the brain-space where we process connections, solve problems, build abstractions and think toward an understanding of thought. As an organ, it’s the awesome distillation of slow, beneficially adaptive evolutions enabling us to survive, in part, through creative problem-solving. In this way, humans might be conscripted to meaning-making as an evolutionary default, leading us back to the beta human idea – Homo Sapiens as new Homo Erectus. The question becomes: is there a way to actively rewire our brains, or at least fool them into functioning more unexpectedly?



Gliese 667C c, Kepler-22b, Kepler-69 c, Kepler-62e, Tau Ceti e, Gliese 180 c, Gliese 667C f, Gliese 180 b, HD 40307 g, Kepler-61 b, Kepler-62 f, Kepler-186 f, Gliese 180 b, Gliese 682 b, Kepler-296 f (2014) wood, black and white print, tape, resin, SeaMarker rescue dye, paint, insects



GM: Some of this rewiring may be afoot. Neuroscience doesn’t tire of challenging our cherished idea of a phenomenal self. Certain strands of it are proposing the the notion of a self is just an evolutionary prop. There literally is no such thing as a self, just chemicals firing up the illusion of such a thing as a survival mechanism. It constantly reminds us that there is no “me” beyond the biochemistry. Once this knowledge seeps into the general culture and replaces our “common-sense” understanding of who and how we are, who knows what biological and cognitive consequences will follow?


But let’s turn to the now-durational time register of the rainbow component of certain principle of light and shapes between forms, which is complicated, I think, in a different way than the “exo-temporal register.” The rainbow is, in some sense, “faked”–that is, mechanically produced–which leads me to its relation to the thoroughly artificially-generated time of spectacle. I’m not thinking of spectacle in a Debordian sense, as much as in relation to the construction of mechanical artifacts. Artifacts that generated events or temporal experiences that shadowed the Industrial Revolution and have crossed over, perhaps amped up, into our digital age. The generation of these events, akin to the production of certain adrenaline-inducing activities like roller coasters and gambling, seem to me –here the spectacle has more to do with Benjamin’s reading of modernity than with Debord’s–to participate in the shock therapies that helped us through the shocks of modernity. The shock of the assembly line was tempered by the controlled shock of the roller coaster. I think the “faked” durational aspect of the rainbow in some way participates in this. Or, at the very least, channels the methods and desire for particular results that come down through modernity into the experience architectures that rise up around us. Out of tune with the mythical or poetic dimensions of the rainbow, as a mysterious event-thing found in nature or whatever, we now have to invent a mirage of it. And the time of this mirage has to be, surely, at an ontological level, different from the “non-fake” time we inhabit.




Sister Giving Birth, detail (2013) resin, wood, embedded hair, stainless steel, paint, 84 x 84 x 39"



MJM: You hit on some important concepts. As you mention, the project is odd in that it’s simultaneously an actual rainbow, composed of the same substances, optics, and geometry of the real artifact – in some ways not unlike a readymade – and also a construction, a representation, a fiction. ‘Mere’ when measured against the mythical version you mention. In this way, the project seems all wonky and deranged, a little drunk. I don’t see this as an error or miscalculation, but a reflection of the process of representation itself. Through the machinations of producing a one-off this way – some kind of post-representation representation – it offers-up a self-signifying reality whose relation to time ends up being super elastic.


Cloud Formations, proto abstraction



GM: The distinction between readymade and one-off recalls another time involved in the project: let’s call it the time of planning and production. It took a very long time to get this off the ground. And what is interesting, too, is that all kinds of experts in other fields–engineers, irrigation professionals, etc.–had to be incorporated. This time, I imagine, is registered less in the actual experience generated than in all the infrastructure assembled and installed.



Coal chunk


MJM: Time in relation to production and labor isn’t a combination I usually think much about. Of course there are models for artwork where labor becomes a proxy for value or the meaning itself. Like how negotiating, talking, networking, and collaborating become investments in something relational, where one’s time is aestheticized. I’m not interested in performing work. The exchange risks becoming an artifact or an end, rather than a real and powerful means to something more.


With this project and some others, I’ve been working on problems with a high enough degree of difficulty that collaborations are born naturally, out of necessity and from the strong valent attraction they emit. In the end, the relationships that are forged are totally unperformed – unmediated by the desire to collaborate at all.



Nokia phones, 1982 – 2006



GM: I was thinking of this time not as somehow aestheticizing the collaboration with all these experts. I was thinking of it more as evidence of something like “infrastructural thinking.” I’m not quite sure what the term means, but it has something to do with complicating the idea and the “necessity” of the discrete object. It seems that increasingly interesting sculptural objects need to be plugged into different lines of production and thinking. It has something to do with networks, but also with tying the vague or ethereal idea of the network into actual physical practices and fields.


MJM: I think I understand you better. An artwork can be imagined as an emergent and metabolic structure, an organism that, if it’s to thrive, must keep absorbing and feeding. This project both necessitates and invites infra-level thinking, so the artwork is serviced by science, engineering, architecture, social relationships, and local governance, and on a intra personal level with the mayor, city planners, scientists, arborists, riggers, irrigation specialists, app coders, curators, writers. As a project absorbs more and more, it creates its own gravitational field. All these interactions form an essential mezzanine level of the project, allowing things to weave in and out of civic scales, from communities, down to households, and our own interior lives and dreams. The resulting meshwork plugs into a style of problem-solving that is perhaps infra-structural in its process.


GM: I like that you used the analogy of a mezzanine for the infra space or activity of the project. It places us in a more architectural field, in some “outside” in relation to the discrete sculptural object. And maybe we can use this as a way to talk about new possibilities of sculptural dimensionality. A few years ago James Meyer wrote about the rise of size in sculpture at the expense of scale. Size was what was needed to spectacularly fill the new mega museums. Scale, charged positively in this account, is what sculptures used to actively engage with by creating a relationship with human bodies and what used to be proportionally sized architectural/exhibition spaces. Meyer proposes Olafur Elliasson’s The Weather Project as a paradigmatic culprit in the perpetuation of Size. I find this binary between good scale and bad (spectacular) size a little dusty. I think there has to be a different conception of Size. It may be true that gigantic new museums have hypertrophied certain sculptural qualities by forcing them to swell unreasonably, but it is also true–or rather, this is the question–that this networked and globalized world that has generated these mega museums has also opened some new space to drive sculpture through.


Size, I think, need not always be defined as scale detrimentally swollen to spectacle; it can name objects with swollen infra or mezzanine levels. Objects that emerge out of a scaffolding of networks and enlarged fields of relations and which, in order to maintain an internal logic with this mode of production, can no longer rely on a final morphology that is tuned to the scales of the human body.



Alibaba sourced coal fired generator


MJM: Yes, but more, as infra or mezzo-level engineering might reveal new possibilities for size and scale, we could also add the concept of ‘scope.’ to the equation. While size and scale might best be measured in centimeters, proportion, volume, or girth, ‘scope’ seems to gauge range or saturation – an expanding and contracting field that encompasses objects and images. In the Age of Hyperobjects and the waning days of Web 2.0, where traditional ideas of size and scale seem inadequate, scope describes different forms of dimensionality. But you’re right, by dissing on size, we dispense with an essential tool enabling the possibility of real contributions to the issues of our time. As many artists retool to extend out of an attention economy paradigm, it will be the sensitive juggle-triangulation of all three – size, scale and scope – where the fruit might lie.


I wonder if some of the ‘size’ backlash you mention comes from a critical orthodoxy still charging art as a watchdog of global capitalism – that art should hold these systems in check by critiquing them through its machinations. And if actual participation is required, it should exist as a formal element, properly end-noted to hedge against complicity. It’s important to qualify this, as I’m not advocating blind acquiescence to these power structures, especially with so many limpen artworks willfully participating in the DeBordian size/spectacle dialectic you describe. Yet, as outlets to produce work with greased-up currency increase, its interesting to imagine ways – and the ‘infra’ is called to mind here – that artists might join the table through the back door and get to deploying size that raw capital might afford in stranger and less predictable ways. The process embraces an accelerated movement through capital as a means of eventually escaping it – some baseline Accelerationist thinking I suppose.


Thinking a little back to an earlier topic in relation to these systems, if a de-anthropic state were ever to actualize, the planet in some sense would shrink. We could no longer divide the world up, the human world and the natural world would merge into one world, and moral-ethical distinctions currently separating ‘natural’ and ‘synthetic’ production would melt away. By recognizing survival, adaptation, and propagation as emergent biological patterns contained with the embedded directives of cities, athletic teams, brands and corporations, they would become as natural as apple trees, bird flocks, sea coral, or invasive species for that matter.


The mental reprogramming needed to roll back anthropomorphism is already being seeded with Moore’s Law-like strides in science and technology. But these advances are entangled with all sorts of sideways questions and opportunities. For instance, as human and nonhuman worlds Venn together, could a hyper-empathic state emerge creating new forms of solidarity with objects, substances, mammals, plant life, gender, countries, weather, global warming? – like the promise of Object Oriented Ontology revealed itself as a techno infused pan-animism only with massive downstream socio-political perks. Or, as we evolve from the shadow of our beta-selves, how do we navigate the social/cultural pitfalls that emancipation though encryption, 24/7 surveillance and billions of data-mined objects with IP addresses would induce – or is acquiescence and acclimatization to this condition just a waypoint in our march toward unimagined freedoms and networked omniscience? As we and eclipse our understanding of human finitude with newly acquired exo-capacities can we learn to disappear in new, more meaningful ways long enough to diagram these new dimensionalities that the expansion into ultra-networked infra and mezzo ecologies might invite? With an entire generation of artists groomed in the glow of screens, how will the asymmetrically large amounts of content entering our brains lead to the adoption and implementation of new practices, new morphologies, more or less coherent fields of emotion? And in the present tense, how might our murmuring anxieties induced by massive uncertainty, anticipation, accelerating velocity and the omnipresent specter of disaster be re-channeled? The degree to which we might be both excited by these sorts of propositions, yet also intensely fearful of them describe exactly the generative and optimized working conditions artists seem actively in pursuit of.



Rainbows,clockwise from top left: Prague, Tehran, Johannesburg, Jakarta, Chicago, Sao Paulo


Gean Moreno is an artist and writer based Miami. He is currently Artistic Director at Cannonball.


Michael Jones McKean is an artist based in New York City and Richmond, Virginia where he is an Associate Professor in the Sculpture + Extended Media Department at Virginia Commonwealth University.




- In Conversation: Priscilla Frank and Michael Jones McKean



Priscilla Frank: You have commented on the rainbow's ability to exist between the real/representation, actual/artifice, which is also a magical quality art possesses. What can we learn from rainbows in terms of viewing art?


Michael Jones McKean: When we see a rainbow we're witnessing a fixed, visual constant that races toward us through millions, billions of years of earthbound time. It is an image that exists simultaneously as a here-and-now event, but also as an ancient thing — our ancestors saw this identical color band in the sky. It's an image burned into our collective being. For me, this is artwork not about spectacle — it's about building a constellation of delicate metaphors about time, image, material, the earth and people...


PF: You have been working on this project for a decade. What were some challenges you faced?


MJM: Some works can be realized quickly, others take a while — this sculpture just took a while. It's funny because making a rainbow is an easy thing to do; we've all experienced the backyard, sidewalk magic of hydrant and garden hose rainbows. What made the project difficult had to do with scale and more specifically the insistence of harvesting and reclaiming rainwater in a perpetual loop. From the beginning, it was essential to consider water as a rare commodity within the project. From this, a set of difficult problems cascaded down in which to solve — problems that required a very specialized group of people and an organization willing to step into the unknown.


PF: How has the rainbow been "branded and commodified"?


MJM: When someone says 'rainbow' we tend to picture it in the minds eye as some logo, a sticker, cereal box, a pride flag, kitsch bric-a-brac — the prevalence of these images in many ways speaks to a certain power that the rainbow has on us — but it inevitably manifests in our culture through branding and commodity. But a real rainbow, an actual prismatic one hovering like a color ghost in the sky still has the ability to jolt us from the everyday, to focus our scattered attention spans, to slide into reverie.


PF: Do you worry that rainbows could lose some of their magic if they become man-made events?


MJM: There is a vital mere-ness, an elaborate sculptural slight of hand embedded within the project. Even in its seeming grandiosity it exists more comfortably within the history of the miniature. In the way this project has been conceived, it could never complete with the majesty of a rainbow after a shower arcing 30 miles over terrain, linking shore to town. I'm making a project that flirts with the charged space, as you mentioned early, between real and representation. Buried within the DNA of the project I've tried to maintain an essential decency, and resiliency to the image. Over the course of the entire project the rainbow appears only fleetingly, a few minutes here and there. To some degree, the rainbow is never there, we wait for it in all its contingency and fragility, still leaning on the whims of nature with sun and rainwater remaining fixed tenets within the project. Even as we've gone to extreme measures to produce a rainbow, the project exists for most people more as a figment in the mind, in many ways as a real one does...


- In Conversation: James Gaddy and Michael Jones McKean .



James Gaddy: Can you elaborate a little bit on how you became interested in the rainbow phenomena and when / how you decided to incorporate it into your practice?


Michael Jones McKean: The project's genesis has its roots in objects and time. In a poetic way, but also in some sense a phenomenological way through all of time there has been only one rainbow. Coded within the image there is a consistency, an extreme fidelity in the essential form of a rainbow. The image doesn't evolve or degrade in the same way a piece of fruit does, or an iPod does, or even more stoically the way a mountain does — it is a constant. When we see a rainbow we are communing with our ancestors — seeing exactly the same shape they saw just as we astral project into the future witnessing the same event our children's children will see. It races out to the edges of time. But this image is also fully absorbed in the here-and-now and in all its fleeting fragility, at the moment we witness a rainbow it reminds us that we are also here, and right now. As someone that thinks a lot about objects and time, the rainbow became an interesting starting point to build a series of metaphors about objects, time and people....


JG: What was the most difficult or surprising aspect you discovered in the process of trying to create a rainbow 'on demand' as it were?


MJM: I do not really understand the project as 'on demand.' I'm interested in the extreme contingency the project embraces. But if I were to push it a bit, in some sense the 'on demand' quality you're interpreting was the easiest part. When we see a rainbow we are witnessing the result of a fixed set of constants, a set of principles that behave in very predictable ways: basic geometry and sight lines, the orbit of the earth in the relation to the sun, the tilt and spin of the planet on its axis and the miniature prism-water droplets all collaborating to produce an elegant optical effect — a rainbow. But even as these parts can be relied on and are known — the result still feels like magic.


What made the project difficult had to do with scale and more specifically the insistence of harvesting and reclaiming rainwater in a perpetual loop. From the beginning, it was essential to consider water as a rare commodity within the project — from this, a set of difficult problems cascaded down in which to solve — problems that required a very specialized group of people and an organization willing to step into the unknown.


JG: How much concern do you have about the weather itself and whether it will conspire against you during the project? Are there specific elements that are outside your control, which keep you up at night?


MJM: It is a good question. With a project like this, one with so many working parts and possible contingencies I might never sleep, panicked that a cloud might pass in front of the sun at an inopportune moment. But early on I realized that it was essential to fully embrace fragility and the delicate nature of the project not only as important conceptual pillars — but as something that gave the project a sweetness — a kind of mortality. The project could never be about overcoming nature or battling nature, it's about embracing things that are already there — about creating a bizarre internal logic and following it through logically.


JG: Do you think that much of the power of the rainbow comes from its surprise — like a favorite song unexpectedly on the radio? And if so, do you think that re-creating this effect will reduce that power somewhat?


MJM: To answer the question it's critical to understand that I'm making an artwork. In some ways your question is like asking, "might making a film about love diminish the power of love?" I just don't see it that way. I'm making a project that flirts with the charged space between something that is in of itself actual and real, but also a representation — a fiction. And as with any fiction, the project exudes a vital 'mere-ness' when measured next to the magnitude of life...


In the way this project has been conceived, it could never complete with the majesty of a rainbow hovering in the sky after a shower arcing 30 miles over terrain, linking shore to town. Buried within the DNA of the project I've tried to maintain a decency and resiliency to the image. Over the course of the entire project, the rainbow appears only fleetingly — a few minutes here and there. To some degree, the rainbow is never there, we wait for it in all its contingency and fragility, leaning on the whims of nature with sun and rainwater as fixed tenets within the project. Even as we've gone to extreme measures to produce a rainbow the project exists for most people more as a figment in the mind, a ghost, in many ways as a real one does...



- A Rainbow by Suzzane S. Arney



A rainbow is as ephemeral and as constant as time. All of us recognize a rainbow, its colorful bands arcing across the sky after a summer shower. Yet each rainbow is unique, and in fact changes from moment to shimmering moment. When exactly did the water droplets become beads of color? When did they coalesce and when did they begin to fade away? How can someone produce a rainbow, drawing it up out of the dusk as if by a sorcerer’s dowsing stick?


Perhaps time is more quantifiable, with its neatly packaged sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour. Yet it too can be fluid. Ask someone who is working against deadline or waiting for a phone call.


Michael Jones McKean was fascinated with rainbows and for ten years watched, took notes, and experimented, moving in and out of sunshine and cloud cover; balancing a schedule of exhibitions of his large-scale, conceptual installations; teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Innately and intensely curious, he is a man enthralled by paradox, and guided by a human desire to find connections. He travels regularly between our “thing-based world” and “the plastic universe of thought,” assembling odd collections of familiar/disguised/discarded/made and unmade/art-nonart objects, collections he frequently refers to as poems. He speaks discursively. He is an agent of surprise.


The first to be ensnared was Hesse McGraw, Chief Curator at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, Nebraska. He was familiar with McKean’s work and offered him a commission in 2008. The proposal to launch a rainbow, on schedule, over a summer came with no sketches, plans, or maquettes; McGraw had to be wondering what he’d gotten into when the first line in this newest McKean legend came over the fax: “Anything is possible.”


And so began a process of continuous creativity, evolution, and refinement that was three years in testing and two months of installation, the making of a rainbow. “What was so exciting,” said McGraw, “was to do work that tested our limits on a daily basis.”


 “Everyone studies them,” said Professor Joe Zehnder, Chair, Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Creighton University, “but nobody ever makes one.” Zehnder was another who succumbed, joining a decidedly eclectic team of experts in this quixotic effort to make something intangible.


The challenges were very tangible. How much water does it take to make a rainbow? (4,000 gallons) Each question led to others: How to capture rainwater (ecology being a key factor), store it, and get it to the roof of the art center (a five-story former warehouse) — How best to disperse the water? How much weight will the roof bear? And what is the optimal size water drop for a rainbow?  Even with every question answered, there were no guarantees. Each rainbow is a unique and spontaneous coincidence of atmospheric conditions. “It can’t be owned; it can’t even be fixed,” said McKean. “It’s very mischievous.”


Inside, a small gallery display waited, ready with its counterpoint—a bristlecone pine (watered by the same rainwater that makes up the rainbow), a meteorite from Argentina’s famed Campo del Cielo, a Micronesian conch shell, and a 19th-century handmade quilt—all emblems of endurance.


Finally, and triumphantly, an arc of iridescent light shimmered above the Bemis Center, uncontained by walls, undefined by labels, over the cognoscenti and the clueless, the hum of tires, the sounds of music and laughter and evening birds. For McKean, the ephemeral banner flying overhead was not simply a flight of fantasy, but a means to “test our private and collective assumptions and, in some way, build our world anew.”


On a beautiful, end-of-summer evening, I felt a pull to the rainbow. It was at its peak when I arrived; very soon and imperceptively it would begin to dematerialize. I thought of my husband, whose recent death was much the same. When in that long night did he cease to be a person, my husband, Roger? I recalled the poem/prayer which opened his memorial service: “Death is not too high a price to pay for having lived.” The rainbow, McKean’s idea, a human being—all temporal, shifting now from form to memory; each one evanescent and enduring.





-The physics behind the rainbow by Joseph A. Zehnder


A rainbow is a beautiful and often awe-inspiring phenomenon that is familiar to most everyone. However, when you look into the sky after a summer thunderstorm, you will sometimes see a rainbow and sometimes not. It’s not that the rainbow isn’t there in some sense, as long as the sun is shining of course, but that you the observer may not be in the right location relative to the sun’s and the thunderstorm’s position.  Seeing a rainbow is a matter of circumstance or coincidence but one need not rely on coincidence when creating a rainbow on demand, such as was done over the Bemis Center.  The physics behind the formation of rainbows is well known and was described by the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes nearly 400 years ago.  An understanding of the physics of rainbows allows us to determine preferred viewing areas as well as understand some details of the rainbow display.


Visible light is part of an electromagnetic spectrum that ranges from very short wavelength, high-energy gamma and x-rays, through the ultraviolet, visible and infrared, and into the microwave and radio portion of the spectrum. The output of the sun is primarily within the visible portion of the spectrum and consists of a full pallet of colors, the combination of which we perceive as white light. Figure 1 shows the colors that comprise the visible portion of the spectrum ranging from violet through blue, green, yellow, orange and red.  The peak intensity of sunlight is concentrated in the green portion of the spectrum, with a wavelength of around 570 namometers (.00057 millimeters) and with lesser intensity at the shorter and longer wavelengths.


Figure 1: The visible spectrum of light.


The speed of light in a transparent medium such as glass or water depends a property of the medium referred to as the refractive index. The refractive index determines how much the speed of light is reduced in the medium relative to the value in a vacuum.   If ray of light is incident on a surface of glass at an angle, the variation of the speed of light across the interface results in the ray being bent as it passes through and the angle of the bending depends on the wavelength.  The shorter wavelengths of light are bent at a larger angles with the result being that the beam of white light is separated into a spectrum of colors as it passes through the medium.


If visible light is incident on a water drop there is another factor that comes into play in addition to the refraction described above. As a ray of light enters a drop, some of the light passes through the back of the drop and some is reflected internally from the back of the drop. The result of this reflection and the separation of colors due to the refraction is that the color spectrum is returned back in the direction from which it came. There is a characteristic bending angle of about 42 degrees, with the exact angle depending on the wavelength of the light. The result is a band of color at the characteristic angle relative to the direction of the sunlight. The result of this internal reflection and the separation of wavelengths shown in Figure 2. ( It is possible for there to be a second internal reflection and a much less intense beam of light exiting the drop at an angle of around 53 degrees. This produces a dimmer secondary rainbow is some circumstances.)


Figure 2: Refraction and total internal reflection of light inside a water drop.


Figure 2 shows a cross-section of the path of a ray, but in reality light being reflected from the back of the drop is reflected in a 360 degree arc, resulting in a ring of color emanating from the drop as is shown in Figure 3. When an observer views a collection of drops, like the ones resulting from the rain shaft of a thunderstorm or from a stream of water sprayed into the air, he or she sees the light coming from the bottom of the drops overhead, from the right side of the drops to the right, etc. Each of these beams converge at the location of the observer, and the collection of drops for which the rays pass through the observer’s location define the arc of the rainbow.  There is a unique collection of drops for which the rays will pass through a given point, so each observer sees rays from a different set of drops, that is, his or her own personal rainbow.  Also, if the observer were to move, a different collection of drops will determine the arc of the rainbow. Simply stated, the rainbow moves with the observer, which is why it’s never possible to get to the end of the rainbow.


Figure 3: Three dimensional refraction and reflection of sunlight from a drop.


The incident sun angle defines a collection of rays that would pass through a given point and these rays define a cone of revolution around the incident sun angle, as is shown in Figure 4. Water drops at any point on this cone will produce a reflected spectrum, but since the water that produces rainbows typically occurs in vertical sheets, i.e. from thunderstorms or sprayed into the air from nozzle on the roof of a building, a vertical ‘slice’ of the cone is illuminated. This cone is referred to as a ‘conic section’.  The arc of a rainbow is in principle a full circle, but the portion of the circle that is beneath ground is obviously not visible to an observer at the surface.  The existence of this cone of revolution means that at any time, as long as the sun is shining, there exists a virtual rainbow defined by the incoming sun angle. All that needs to happen is for water to be placed onto the cone, and the observer will see a rainbow.


Figure 4: Cone of revolution produced by a ray extending from a collection of virtual drops and converging at the location of an observer.


The details of the rainbow optics described above can be used to predict the location of the convergence point of the rays  as is illustrated in Figure 4.  The angle of the sun is given in terms of an elevation above the horizon. If there is  a stream of water extending up from a point, say the roof of a building, projecting back from the top of the stream at a 42 degree angle  relative to the sun angle defines the point for which a ray strikes the surface and hence an outer range where a rainbow will be visible (see Figure 5a). Likewise, the bottom of the stream will define an inner range for which the rainbow can be seen. If the height of the top of the stream and the height of the rooftop, or equivalently the bottom of the stream,  are known we can calculate the inner and outer distances using the formulae given below.


Outer range = stream height / tan(42 degrees sun ang)

Inner range = roof height / tan(42 degrees sun ang)


An observer standing anywhere between the inner and outer range will see a color band somewhere along the stream.

Figure 5a: Side view defining the inner and outer view ranges for a water stream extending from the top of a building.


As the sun angle changes so does the location of the range where the rainbow is visible. Early in the morning and late in the evening, the range is located relatively close to the stream, but as the sun rises in the morning, the ranges move to larger distances.  While it would still be possible to produce a rainbow display, the farther the ranges are located from the building, the greater the chances that buildings or other obstacles will obscure the view. Once the sun higher that 42 degrees above the horizon, the rainbow is no longer visible from the ground as the rays no longer intersect. This occurs somewhere around 10:00am local time during the summer. As the sun moves across the sky and then starts to set, the rainbow will becomes visible once the sun is less than 42 degrees above the horizon.   As a result, the rainbow displays are only possible during the morning and evening hours during the summer.


The cone of revolution around the incident sun angle defines left and right extent of the field of view as is shown in Figure 5b. An observer standing anywhere inside the shaded area will see a rainbow somewhere on the stream. A specific example of the fields of view is shown in Figure 6, which gives the field of view corresponding to 9:00am (red) and 8:00pm (yellow) for early July. The fields of view change with time of day and also day of year as the sun rises further to the north and the sun angle becomes shallower as the season progresses.  A series of charts of the kind  shown in Figure 6 were prepared for each week of the exhibit to guide viewers toward optimal locations for viewing.


Figure 5b: Top view of the optimal field of view


The fields of view shown in Figure 6 were calculated by assuming that the stream is centered on the building and on the edge closest to the viewer. That is, the east side during the morning and the west side in the evening. Depending on specific wind conditions of the day there could be water drops dispersed over a fairly large area around the building and viewers outside the optimal field of view would see a rainbow, or parts of one. This was typically true for viewers to the left or right of the field of view. Someone standing outside of the outer range would only see a stream of water.

Figure 6: Sample fields of view calculated for July 2 at 9:00am (red) and 8:00pm (yellow). The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts is in the center.


The internal reflection and bending of the light rays that produce the rainbow is an example of scattering of light. This particular optical effect works best when the scatterers, the drops, are large enough that they act as prisms or lenses. Scattering of light by large objects is referred to as geometric optics.  If the scatterers are very small, like say air molecules, then the behavior is different from that shown in Figure 2 and that produces a rainbow.


The scattering of light by objects that have a size smaller than the wavelength of the light, such as air molecules, is referred to as Rayleigh scattering (named after British physicist Lord Rayleigh).  For Rayleigh scattering, the light is scattered in all directions rather than in the coherent beam produced by geometric optics. However, the efficiency of the scattering depends on the wavelength of the light, with the shorter wavelengths being scattered more efficiently. That is, the purple and blue colors of visible light are scattered most efficiently and red the least. There is relatively little purple in the incident solar radiation so it’s primarily the blue light that is scattered while the rest of the colors of the spectrum pass through.  An observer looking into the sky away from the direction of the sun sees the scattered blue light. This is why the daytime sky appears blue.


The Rayleigh scattering is wavelength dependent, with the scattering being most efficient for the shorter wavelengths, but the scattering still occurs for all wavelengths. If the sunlight has to pass through a very thick layer of atmosphere, which happens at sunset, then only the long wavelength part of the spectrum passes through unimpeded while the shorter wavelength parts are scattered. An observer looking at the setting sun will see only the longest wavelength part of the spectrum. This is why the sun and sky appear red at sunset.


If the objects responsible for the scattering are comparable in size to the wavelength of light, then the interaction is governed by the principles of Mie scattering, named after the German physicist Gustav Mie. Mie scattering still occurs in more or less all directions, similar to Rayleigh scattering, but is no longer strongly dependent on wavelength. That is, all colors of the spectrum are scattered with a comparable efficiency.  The incident white light is scattered in all directions without the color separation produced by Rayleigh scattering. Dust particles and particularly those that have absorbed water vapor and increased in size are efficient as Mie scatterers. The fact that white light is scattered in all directions, independent of wavelength, is why the sky appears milky or grey during periods of high humidity. Cloud drops, that is drops that are too small to fall out as rain, are also efficient Mie scatterers, which is why fair weather cumulus clouds appear white.


In order to provide as large a field of view for the rainbow display as possible, it was necessary to maximize the height of the water stream while keeping the flow rate as low as possible to conserve water.  Ideally, one would like to produce drops that are within the size range for geometric optics to be effective in order to maximize the rainbow effect.  A size selection of this type isn’t possible in any sort of practical way, and the stream was composed of a collection of drops of a wide range of  sizes. The ascending part of the stream is more or less continuous, with drops of a range of sizes being sheared from the edge of the stream. As the stream reaches its maximum height and begins to fall, the water separates into drops of a wide variety of sizes. Large drops are influenced more by turbulence and wind resistance and break into smaller drops, further complicating situation.  As the collection of drops begins to fall, the drops separate by size with the larger ones being able to fall past the turbulent updrafts while the smaller ones are carried up and away. As a result, there is a selective distribution of water drops with the ones being efficient in producing the geometric optics effects that separate the visible light into a color spectrum falling back down toward the surface, resulting in the rainbow.


Some very good examples of the issues related to drop size were captured by a variety of photographers during the course of the exhibit.  The separation of colors due to the geometric optics is much more efficient in places that are composed of the larger falling drops, that is in between the water streams, as is seen in Figure 7a.  Sunlight is striking the ascending portion of the stream, but since it is composed of the full spectrum of drops the Mie scattering dominates and the colors are muted with the stream appearing predominantly white.  The selective descent of the larger drops into the regions between the streams provides for color separation in those areas.  However, owing to the finite width of the ascending part of the stream there is still a combination of Mie scattering and geometric optics in this region. This results in the colors being somewhat muted. In areas that are farther from the water streams there tend to be only the larger drops present and the separation of colors is more complete with little of the ‘contamination’ by scattered white light, as is seen in Figure 7b. This figure also shows evidence of a secondary rainbow that is produced by two internal reflections within the drop.


Figure 7a, b: Sample rainbow displays showing the effect of drop size on the color intensity


Geometric optics relies on the light entering the drops in the form of a parallel beam. In this way, the coherent bending and internal reflection of light can occur.  If there is anything between the sun and the water stream (or a rain shaft of a thunderstorm for that matter), that can make the incoming sunlight diffuse, the separation of the light into a color spectrum is supressed.  A layer of high thin cirrus clouds, composed primarily of very small ice crystals, while not limiting the intensity of  the incoming solar radiation, would cause the light to become diffuse  through Mie scattering and greatly limit the intensity of the rainbow.


This section provides an overview of the physics behind the production of rainbows. A knowledge of geometric optics, and particularly the changes in the angle of the incoming light, along with some basic trigonometry allows for the determination of the inner and outer ranges as well as the horizontal spread of the field of view. Some of the subtleties of the appearance of the rainbow can be understood  in terms of the different response of light to drops of various sizes.


-On the Surprising and Unlikely Appearance of Numerous1, Over Many Months, in the Sky Above Omaha by Gregory Volk


Several months ago, Michael Jones McKean commenced creating rainbows in the sky above Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in downtown Omaha, with his sculptural installation The Rainbow: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms. He did this during a historically dry and drought-stricken season when rainbows were in very short supply. His chief materials were elemental: rainwater and sunlight, exactly that from which rainbows are created as a matter of course.


These rainbows, instigated by McKean, had a soulful effect on viewers, including chance passersby who hadn’t intended to visit a contemporary art exhibition that day. They induced bafflement, curiosity, delight, and reverie: a gorgeous rainbow, for example, on a scorching summer day in Nebraska with no clouds in sight. Something about rainbows tends to elicit rapt joy, and something about them is also sublime. They make the invisible (the constituent components of pure light) visible and resplendent, and while elusive and temporary, they are also staggeringly ancient. They’ve been bedazzling the world for as long as there has been a world, and when we encounter them we are in the presence of not just exquisite beauty, but also primal origins, a physics that dwarfs our little moment in time. In this sense, McKean didn’t exactly add a new artwork to the world; instead he used technology and ingenuity to allow for fresh appearances of a billions-year-old phenomenon.


Still, as much as McKean’s engineered rainbows seemed pure and elemental, they inhabited a peculiar, unsteadying space between representation and the real, and were a thorough blend of purity and artifice. Moreover, while they evoked significance and symbolism, they also resisted the iconic aspect of rainbows, since they were so planned and arranged. As a result, these familiar and beloved things became unfamiliar, jarred from their usual context and suffused with a new set of ideas, centering on how and even whether a hybrid nature, in the form of concocted "natural" events, can indeed yield heightened consciousness and outright wonderment: a mediated sublime.


While McKean’s rainbows hovering above a building may have looked effortless, a great deal of thought, planning, research, and collaboration was required to transform the building, in effect, into a rainbow-producing machine. Rainwater was filtered and collected in six aboveground 10,500-gallon tanks.  A specially designed 60-horsepower pump in the gallery sent pressurized water through a network of galvanized pipes to nine nozzles on the roof; within and on the gallery; this whole storage, pumping, and transport system also functioned as a compelling installation in its own right, complete with a high tech control panel. McKean’s rainbows operated according to a schedule. In the morning and again in the early evening, when weather permitted, the nozzles jetted water above the building, from which rainbows emerged, while the falling water was collected and reused, making for an ecologically-minded, self-sustaining system.


Depending on the available light, the angle of the sun, atmospheric conditions, and viewers’perspectives, the rainbows differed markedly. Arcing over the roof of the five-story building, some were very big and pronounced with vivid bands of color—bigger than a torqued steel sculpture by Richard Serra, and a lot less weighty. These big, arcing rainbows, these lambent sculptures in the sky—let’s call them sculptures, despite their weightlessness and brevity—are likely among the lightest (in both senses of the word) monumental sculptures ever made. Others were slight and almost apparitional; snippets and traces of rainbows that you could just barely perceive. Some formed perfect arcs above the building; others arced from the building’s facade or, seemingly, from an upper floor window. All were ephemeral; they happened, made their visual magic, and then vanished. These were fragile and contingent sculptures, even mortal ones. McKean’s elaborate, very physical apparatus was in service to fleeting and intangible sculptures that also constantly shifted and changed.


This project involved a radical re-imagination of what sculpture is and can be. Rather than incorporating or utilizing light, McKean’s rainbow sculptures were light, pure and simple.  Rather than applying colors that he chose, McKean beckoned the literal colors of the revealed spectrum. Rather than deciding on sculptural shapes, McKean let his shapes happen; each new day, and indeed each fresh sculpture, was a surprise. Not abstract (though they sometimes had the look of abstract sculptures as well as paintings) and also not representational, they were the pure thing itself without modification or translation; they weren’t facsimiles of rainbows, but instead were rainbows, just ones technologically induced.  While bringing viewers close to art, these sculptures also brought viewers close to the world, with all its complexities and mysteries, in large part because they were made in, but also from and with the world, including elemental forces like sunlight, wind, gravity, flowing water, concentration, and dispersal.


Among McKean’s expansive sculptural materials, including rainwater, sunlight, the colors of the spectrum, the extensive apparatus, and the building itself, were air and sky. His rainbow sculptures were made in the very air, and when they were aloft you looked at them but also beyond them to the immense sky stretching in all directions above Nebraska: an experience humbling, awe-inspiring, and cathartic. "The sky is the daily bread of the eyes," Transcendentalist poet/philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his journal, conflating the Bible and nature.2 For Emerson, looking up, at, and into the eventful, ever-changing sky was restorative and transformative, a natural sacrament. Such aerial "daily bread" was also apparent in McKean’s work and people approached these rainbows above downtown Omaha with joy, but also reverence; with curiosity, but also gratitude and bliss.


That McKean was able to elicit all of this while questioning and altering how we use natural resources in an urban context, how we design our buildings and for what purposes, and how best to proceed in a world that looks severely threatened by climate change only makes his project all the more evocative and apt. For me, one of the most fascinating parts of this whole project has to do with its direct action approach. Rather than commenting on some pressing issue (and there are plenty of artworks which do precisely that) McKean’s work directly challenged our habits and assumptions, intervened in how things usually are, and temporarily realized exactly what he would like to see: his artwork doubled as a viable and practical proposal for how we might best function in an urban environment faced with ecological threat. Other buildings in Omaha, or anywhere else for that matter, having nothing to do with contemporary art, could easily pick up on McKean’s cue and be reconfigured in a much less wasteful, and far more self-sustaining manner. This was a rare instance in which complex, idea-filled contemporary art altered and improved, however temporarily, life in an urban context.


There was also something very open and democratic about McKean’s installation. Rather than presenting the artist’s subjective vision to the audience, something to be considered, learned, and absorbed, this was a work that really opened itself to the viewers’ eyes and minds, and did not close anything, or anybody, off. "I speak the password primeval," Walt Whitman wrote in "Song of Myself," "I give the sign of democracy," knowing full well that democracy consists of multiple, often fractious viewpoints. Call McKean’s rainbows his own primeval password, which meanwhile let a concrete local situation temporarily manifest the infinite and invisible.


These particular rainbows refused to be enlisted into any particular ideology. They didn’t deliver some sort of message, political or otherwise, some plea for peace or signal of hope, and didn’t endorse some cause, which in my opinion is a real plus. Instead, this technologized nature, these natural artifices, at once evoked and challenged a multitude of possible interpretations. Seemingly serene and elemental sculptures, born of pure physics, were enmeshed in multitudinous ideas, a variety of ideologies, because that’s how it is with rainbows. We’ve been ascribing multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings to them, and perceiving them as harbingers and omens, since as long as we have been sentient beings. Rainbows are endlessly engaging and inspirational: scientists study them, authors write about them, singers extol them, religions enlist them, and painters render them. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, paintings of Guru Ripoche include prominent rainbows or rainbow-colored light; Christians have long adopted rainbows as a symbol of their faith, as have Muslims and Hindus. The neo-hippy "Rainbow Family of Living Light", which sponsors an annual Rainbow Gathering, takes its name from them, as does the Rainbow Warrior, the signature vessel of the environmental activist organization Greenpeace. New Age spirituality is chock full of them; the rainbow flag is a prominent gay pride symbol; the so-called Rainbow Confederates are busy trying to convince us that during the Civil War the Southern army was a lot more racially inclusive and culturally diverse than one might usually suppose; a multitude of day care centers have "rainbow" in their names, as do many bakeries, and several substance abuse recovery centers. In the nineteenth century, Hudson River School painters and painters of the American West, along with related artists and writers, had a field day with rainbows. Frederic Church painted one spanning jagged mountains and jungle foliage (Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866); Albert Bierstadt painted double rainbows above the tumultuous waters of Niagara Falls (Home of the Rainbow, Horseshoe Falls, Niagara, undated); and Thomas Moran painted one above the Grand Canyon (Rainbow over the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1900). Herman Melville located a rainbow above Moby Dick’s spout. Emily Dickinson approached them with her peculiar mix of ardor and religious doubt. Late in his life, Walt Whitman celebrated one in a spectacular, closely observant and ecstatic passage in Specimen Days. Henry David Thoreau, with his mix of naturalism, moral philosophy, and spiritual intensity, memorably analyzed them and rhapsodized about them in both Walden and his Journals.


I mention these nineteenth-century Americans, in particular, all primed for sublime and ecstatic encounters with a nature understood to be suffused with divinity, because such a sublimity is palpable in McKean’s work, although this was a twenty-first century, technologically savvy, hybrid sublime, which also involved ecological issues of efficient architectural design, sustainable use of resources, recycling, and a response to climate change. McKean’s work had everything to do with a confluence of nature, representation, technology, and ecology, and as such encapsulated what, in fact, nature largely is to us these days: not original "purity" at all but instead a contested environment molded, manipulated, used in advertisements, and conscripted to competing ideologies; in short not the world per se but "our interpreted world" as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke presciently put it in his first Duino Elegy (translated by Stephen Mitchell). Still, these elemental sculptures in the air, dependent on the sun, riveted attention while triggering an engagement with overwhelming vastness (of space, and time), which is a prime characteristic of the sublime; they also elicited a great deal of emotional upsweep.


What all of the nineteenth century Americans I’ve mentioned share, in some measure, is an involvement with Emerson. As he moved from organized religion to nature, poetry, writing, and art for his spiritual inquiry, Emerson often theorized about ecstatic experiences in nature, which could then be channeled into a risky, freedom-seeking, personally revelatory art, but he rarely attempted to describe them. There is, however, a tremendous moment in his 1836 essay, "Nature" when he does so. The famous passage that begins, "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear." Emerson then declares, "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God."3


Emerson’s 1844 essay "The Poet" is, to me, the first great statement about radical and experimental art-making produced in this country, an essay that proved enormously influential in Emerson’s day and has continued to nurture many artists and writers of an especially questing bent, who have come much later. In that essay, Emerson announces, "Thought makes everything fit for use," thereby opening art to almost anything (and anticipating an artist such as McKean, who revels in eclectic materials) and he also says, "We are far from having exhausted the significance of the few symbols we use. We can come to use them yet with a terrible simplicity."4


Without asserting that McKean is some sort of current Emersonian, there are real points of contact. Emerson’s wonderful, and proto-surreal "transparent eyeball" seems especially apt for McKean’s rainbows, born of a flowing exchange between artwork and environment, as does his "terrible simplicity." When you get right down to it, it isn’t easy to take something so familiar and ubiquitous as rainbows and render them as markedly fresh and cathartic, potent and challenging, but that’s precisely what McKean did.


If there are connections between McKean and Emerson, McKean is in some very good company, including artists close to Emerson, like the Hudson River School painters, but especially Luminists such as Fitz Henry Lane and Martin Johnson Heade, whose paintings are not simply of a place, but rather formed from a complex dialogue with that place.  The landscape with all its immanent power entered the artist’s consciousness, while his consciousness infused the landscape, and the painting is the result. This company also includes many artists far removed from Emerson and his romantic milieu. Robert Smithson’s great Spiral Jetty, 1970, made from shoreline rocks, boulders, and salt-encrusted earthen mounds, is in total dialogue with its remote environs: the Great Salt Lake, the huge Utah sky, passing clouds, spiral-shaped galaxies millions of light years distant, the spiral shape of salt crystals on the rocks, and the vicissitudes of changing daylight. When you visit this renowned earthwork, and spend time at and on it, it seems much less monumental than it does in photographs: an almost modest work that merges with its surroundings, and that sensitively responds to everything in its vicinity. It also changes during the course of a day, from luminous white in pinkish red water to a somber gray in black water. In James Turrell’s room installation Meeting, 1986, at P.S. 1 MoMA in New York, one sits on wooden benches in an austere yet quietly elegant room that is suggestive of Shaker furniture and spare Protestant chapels. Above, there is the sky, framed by a rectangular opening cut through the ceiling, and as you look up, much as you would at a fresco on the ceiling or a video projection, the otherwise familiar sky, the sky which you glance at all the time but rarely study, suddenly seems a total marvel, a deep and invigorating zone of pure enchantment.  Roni Horn’s long-term Library of Water, 2004, in coastal Stykkishólmur, Iceland, features 24 transparent columns filled with water from Iceland’s glaciers, which are gradually disappearing because of global warming. In this "library" you look at clear water but also through and beyond it to much more water outside: the North Atlantic on one side of the building, and the harbor on the other.  There is something very lovely, contemplative and, once again, sublime about the experience, while you are disturbingly forced to consider that massive glaciers really are disappearing, and that the weather and climate really are changing, with ominous and likely dangerous results.  All three of these excellent works (and I could cite many others)—involving rocks and boulders, the sky, and water—are distinguished by a fluid interplay between artwork and world: the world flows into the art, and vice versa. That’s something that characterized McKean’s work as well, occurring on a border between closeness and vastness, city and sky, temporal experience and the immense scale of time, both past and future.


Emerson lived in Concord, Massachusetts and his "transparent eyeball" ecstasy happened close to home; it was on a "bare common" (which was Boston Common, the principal park in downtown Boston) and not somewhere far off and exotic, like atop a Yosemite peak or in the Himalayas. This understanding that consciousness-shifting encounters with nature are available and possible not elsewhere, but right here, if we are but open to them, was nutrition for the Luminists, whose paintings of commonplace Massachusetts sites like a Gloucester beach (Fitz Henry Lane) or the Newbury Marshes in Newburyport (Martin Johnson Heade) also suggest enraptured psychological states. It emboldened Walt Whitman ("I was simmering, simmering, simmering," Whitman declared late in his life, "Emerson brought me to a boil") to pay robust attention to just about everything he experienced, or imagined he did, no matter how humble or seemingly inconsequential, including log huts, lumbermen, a panther, an alligator "in his tough pimples", a black bear, buckwheat, a quail, a bat, a hot air balloon, a wrecked ship, a printing press, a shark fin, a copulating cock and a hen, a Quaker woman, a moccasin print, and a baseball game—and that’s a small sampling of what you find in just one section, 33, of Song of Myself.


I’m suggesting that there is something Emersonian about McKean’s work, which has to do with quest and sublimity, but also something deeply Whitmanic, involving a fusion of expansive materials with spirit and ideas—sprawling physicality coupled with keyed up consciousness. Here is a list of materials, culled from just the three most recent of McKean’s projects: rainbows, a building, sunlight, water, wood, stainless steel, clay, dirt, cement, papier-mâché, lights, resin, eyelashes, a wig, makeup, fabric, rubber, necklaces, paint, a shell from Micronesia, a meteorite from Campo del Cielo in Argentina, a circa 1880 American quilt, a circa 1960 blanket from India, a circa 1900 Kuba blanket from Zaire, and a circa 1950 blanket from Mexico. Like Whitman with his lists, like Smithson with his focus on rocks, mud, salt crystals, sun and water (which he accentuates and intones in his 1970 film Spiral Jetty), McKean assembles his eclectic materials and imbues them with his own ranging inquiry, in the process shifting vantage points, varying scale, altering functions, scrambling hierarchies, and juxtaposing many different kinds of meaning.


McKean’s engineered rainbows, his rhythmic miracles, temporarily, yet decisively, transformed a space, into a place of wonder, revelation, and provocation, not by constructing something marvelous and new, but instead by creating the conditions for something already marvelous in the world to appear, and disappear, and appear again, each time different, each time with natural splendor and abundant grace.





1 The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854


Why the Colours of the Rainbow appear in falling drops of Rain, is also from hence evident. For, those drops, which refract the Rays, disposed to appear purple, in greatest quantity to the Spectators eye, refract the Rays of other sorts so much less, as to make them pass beside it; and such are the drops on the inside of the Primary Bow, and on the outside of the Secondary or Exteriour one. So those drops, which refract in greatest plenty the Rays, apt to appear red, toward the Spectators eye, refract those of other sorts so much more, as to make them pass beside it; and such are the drops on the exteriour part of the Primary, and interiour part of the Secondary Bow.

-Isaac Newton, “Letter to the Royal Society,” 1671


The first question then shall be what is that reflection which we call a rainbow from. I answer from the falling drops of rain, for we never see any rainbow, except it be so that the sun can shine upon the falling drops of rain, except the heavens be so clear on one side as to let the uninterrupted rays of the sun come directly upon the rain that falls on the other side.

-Jonathan Edwards, “Of the Rainbow,” 1738


The parts of the rainbow, the higher you ascend, the nearer and nearer do they come together; so the more eminent saints are in knowledge and holiness, the nearer they are to a union in opinion and affection; but perfect union is not to be expected but in heaven.

-Jonathan Edwards, “Notes on the Bible” published 1830


And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor- as you will sometimes see it- glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts.

-Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or,  the Whale, 1851


I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.


And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:


And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.


And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.

-Genesis 9:13-16 (King James Version) circa 1440-1400 BC


After a hurricane comes a rainbow.

-Katy Perry, “Firework”, 2010


Then said Gangleri: "What is the way to heaven from earth?" Then Hárr answered, and laughed aloud: "Now, that is not wisely asked; has it not been told thee, that the gods made a bridge from earth, to heaven, called Bifröst? Thou must have seen it; it may be that ye call it rainbow.”

-Snorri Sturlson, The Prose Edda, c. 1200 A.D. (trans. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur)


Adored with caution, as a brittle heaven,

To reach

Were hopeless as the rainbow's raiment

To touch

-Emily Dickinson, “Each Life converges to some Centre—“, 1863


If there is a rainbow and it is not complete and another rainbow is there there are two incomplete uncompleted rainbows there are or were two rainbows which were there. Which were rainbows incomplete rainbows of which two were there.

-Gertrude Stein, “Arthur A Grammar” in How to Write, 1931


There were serpents of cyanus that reared themselves

up towards the neck, three upon either side, like the rainbows which the son of Saturn has set in heaven as a sign to mortal men.

-Homer, The Iliad, circa 760-710 BC


Those who attain this level of awareness also transcend physicality and manifest the "rainbow body" ('ja lus), a form comprising pure light that cannot decay, which has no physical aspects, and which is coterminous with the nature of mind.

-John Powers, A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, 2008


Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld...We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

-Nelson Mandela, “Inaugural Speech,” May 10, 1994


Rainbows end down that highway where ocean breezes blow

My time coming, voices saying, they tell me where to go

-Grateful Dead, “Estimated Prophet”, 1977


Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high

There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue

And the dreams that you dare to dream,

Really do come true.

-“Over the Rainbow,” music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, 1939


Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow -- red, yellow, brown, black and white -- and we're all precious in God's sight.

-Jesse Jackson, 1984 speech to the Democratic National Convention


I trace the rainbow through the rain,

And feel the promise is not vain,

That morn shall tearless be.

-George Matheson, “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go”, 1882


This was the sky, Jack Christ; each minstrel angle

Drove in the heaven-driven of the nails

Till the three-coloured rainbow from my nipples

From pole to pole leapt round the snail-waked world.

-Dylan Thomas, “Altarwise by Owl-Light”, 1935-1936


Today man stares at the rainbow. If one looks at it with the slightest imagination, one sees elemental beings active in it. They are revealed in remarkable phenomena. In the yellow certain of them are seen continually emerging from the rainbow, and moving across to the green. The moment they reach the underneath of the green, they are attracted to and disappear in it, to emerge on the other side. The whole rainbow reveal s to an imaginative observer an outpouring and a disappearance of the spiritual. It reveals in fact something like a spiritual waltz. At the same time one notices that as these spiritual beings emerge in red-yellow, they do it with an extraordinary apprehension; and as they enter into the blue-violet, they do it with an unconquerable courage. When you look at the red-yellow, you see streams of fear, and when you look at the blue-violet you have the feeling that there is the seat of all courage and valor.

-Rudolf Steiner, “The Hierarchies and the Nature of the Rainbow”, 1935


The winds would lift you up into the sky above

Where you would see a trail of treasured memories you love

A rainbow record of the thoughts and moments you’ve enjoyed

Arcs behind the earth as spectral colors in the void.

-Phish, “Scents and Subtle Sounds”, 2004


Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life!

The evening beam that smiles the cloud away,

And tints to-morrow with prophetic ray!

-Lord Byron, “The Bride of Abydos”, 1814


And the daylight was heavy with thunder

With the smell of the rain on the wind.

Ain’t it just like a human.

Here comes that rainbow again.

-Kris Kristofferson, “Here Comes That Rainbow Again”, 1982


Together you and I can stop the rain and make the sun shine Paint a petty rainbow in the sky

-Dolly Parton, “Together You and I”, 2011


And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.

-Revelations 10:1 (King James Version), circa 81-96 AD


One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shores,

One earth so green and round, who could ask for more?

And because I love you I’ll give it one more try

To show my rainbow race, it’s too soon to die.

-Pete Seeger, “My Rainbow Race”, 1973


A sky full of stars, blue sea as far as you can see,

An earth where flowers grow, can you wish for more?

Together shall we live, every sister, brother,

Young children of the rainbow, a fertile land.

-Norwegian version (translation) of “My Rainbow Race,” sung by people throughout Norway in public squares on April 26, 2012, protesting Anders Behring Breivik, far-right fanatic and murderer of 77 people.


Then the Spirit of Rain, the brother of the Spirit of Waters and the Spirit of the Winds, poured down water from above. The waters fell for a long time.


They fell until all the earth was covered. Then the birds took refuge in the branches of the highest trees. The animals followed the trails to the mountain peaks.


Then the Manitou of Waters feared no longer. Therefore the Mysterious One ordered the rain to cease and the clouds to disappear. Then Sin-go-wi-chi-na-xa, the rainbow, was seen in the sky.


Therefore the Lenni-Lenapi watch for the rainbow, because it means that the Mysterious One is no longer angry.

-Delaware (Lenni-Lenapi) legend, from Myths and Legends of the Great Plains, ed. Katharine Berry Judson, published 2007


The belief in the Rainbow Snake, a personification of fertility, increase (richness in propagation of plants and animals) and rain, is common throughout Australia. It is a creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits to all the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones, which turn into stone, thus documenting such events. Rainbow snakes can also enter a man and endow him with magical powers, or leave 'little rainbows', their progeny, within his body which will make him ail and die. As the regenerative and reproductive power in nature and human beings, it is the main character in the region's major rituals.

George Chaloupka, Journey in Time, 1993


What's your road, man?--holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It's an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957


The Spring had commenced in all its brilliancy; a storm, that had been lowering all day, went fiercely down upon the hills; the rain drew back into the country; the sun came forth in all its splendour, and upon the dark vapour rose the lordly rainbow.

-J.W. von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1795


Last night and to-day rainy and thick, till mid-afternoon, when the wind chopp’d round, the clouds swiftly drew off like curtains, the clear appear’d, and with it the fairest, grandest, most wondrous rainbow I ever saw, all complete, very vivid at its earth-ends, spreading vast effusions of illuminated haze, violet, yellow, drab-green, in all directions overhead, through which the sun beam’d—an indescribable utterance of color and light, so gorgeous yet so soft, such as I had never witness’d before. Then its continuance: a full hour pass’d before the last of those earth-ends disappear’d. The sky behind was all spread in translucent blue, with many little white clouds and edges.

-Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days”, 1882


If I were to choose a time for a friend to make a passing visit to this world for the first time, in the full possession of all his faculties, perchance it would be at a moment when the sun was setting with the splendor in the west, his light reflected far and wide through the clarified air after a rain, and a brilliant rainbow, as now, o’erarching the eastern sky...We see the rainbow apparently when we are on the edge of the rain, just as the sun is setting. If we are too deep in the rain, then it will appear dim. Sometimes it is so near that I see a portion of its arch this side of the woods in the horizon, tingeing them. Sometimes we are completely within it, enveloped by it, and experience the realization of the child’s wish. The obvious colors are red and green. Why green? It is astonishing how brilliant the red may be. What is the difference between that red and the ordinary red of the evening sky? Who does not feel that here is a phenomenon which natural philosophy alone is inadequate to explain?

-Henry David Thoreau,  Journals, August 7, 1852


2 Ralph Waldo Emerson, entry for May 25, 1843, in The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman and J. E. Parsons, vol. 8, 1841-43 (Cambridge, Mass : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), p, 403.


3 Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature" (1844), in The Portable Emerson, ed. Carl Bode, in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley (New York : Penguin Books, 1981), pp. 10-11.


4 Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet" (1844), in The Portable Emerson, ed. Carl Bode, in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley (New York : Penguin Books, 1981), p.250.