Thing of beauty: Elusive art for man in the street

Between 2.45pm and 3.45pm every sunny and relatively wind-free day, bystanders and dedicated art seekers can witness a rainbow shining from the front door of Commune.1 gallery across Wale Street. Be wary, though, of getting stuck in the occasional traffic jam as fellow drivers are filled with wonder.

The handiwork of artist Michael Elion, the spectral happening is created using a high-pressure pump that forces water through a specific nozzle, which atomises the water to a certain vapour size and disperses it evenly across a volume of air. It took Elion more than a year's worth of trial and error to identify the exact nozzle required to create a brightly coloured full-spectrum rainbow.

However, apart from the crucial nozzle, the most important part is "the viewer's perspective relative to where the sun is, relative to where they will see the rainbow, relative to the height of the arc of the rainbow – all need to be in synch", says Elion.

He was inspired to "put a rainbow in an art gallery" after surfing in Betty's Bay on a misty day and witnessing a perfectly circular rainbow. He is still working on recreating that completely round wonder in a gallery, but is confident that it is just a matter of time.

"Once you know how to do it, it's relatively easy to orchestrate. If you don't, it's maddeningly difficult because you keep trying to do a rainbow, but it's just not doing what you want it to – it will be a half arc or on the floor and you just can't control how it works," the 37-year-old artist says about his search for the end of the rainbow.

Although relatively unknown in South Africa, Jo'burg-raised Elion has amassed acclaim for his urban installation work overseas. A quick Google search results in his name cropping up on a number of "guerilla art" websites lauding his playful pop-up urban art that is done without obtaining municipal permits.

In Paris, for instance, he painted streets pink and in London he installed chairs with backs that arch across the road in various tourist hot spots, including in front of the Tate Modern.

"With my urban installations, especially, I try to do something inspiring that gives back to the viewer rather than screaming 'me-me-me'," says Elion. "I like to create art that evokes a sense of the sublime – you come, you're awed and it gives something back to you. The heart is one of those things that you can perceive art with; without being an art fundi to get it, you can feel it."

After its stint at the Commune.1 gallery until October 14, Elion's rainbow will be popping up at the V&A Waterfront during the Sustain Our Africa summit from October 24 to 26. michaelelion.net

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