Brian Eno: Constellations
Until April 15; Baltic, Gateshead

By the time I make it to Baltic I am in serious need of a chill-out. Due to a freight train fire, my 90-minute journey to Newcastle has turned into a three-hour slog. I have missed most of the press view of Brian Eno’s Constellations, and have only 40 minutes left to absorb it before surrendering myself to another three hours of travel frustration.

It soon transpires that I’m not the only stressed-out person at Baltic; all the journalists have been corralled downstairs while Eno grapples with an uncooperative plasma screen upstairs. Only after I arrive is the installation declared open, and we’re herded in.

Eno, founding member of 1970s rock band Roxy Music, and pioneer of ambient music, stands before a kaleidoscopic wall of light. Subtle snatches of sound scatter themselves from ten speakers arranged high around the walls of the hangar-like room. With a hint of press-corps hysteria in the air, it’s not quite the chill-out zone I’d hoped it would be.

The room is big and white, light leaking in from the balcony. A single row of seats faces the black end wall, which is studded with screens arranged in geometrical patterns. Like a stained-glass window in flux, abstract images come and go so slowly that you can’t catch them changing.

Eno, suave and soft-spoken, is almost drowned out by the whispers and whirs of his ambient soundtrack. He’s conscious of having kept people waiting, and ever-gracious, even when a fashion writer’s most burning question is to know what he wears in the studio, and how it’s accessorised (that’s overalls and felt shoes, in case you’re interested).

Eno has grumbled before that while the international art world takes him seriously, the British have him pigeon-holed as a musician. Judging by the questions fired at him today, I see his problem. But the fact is that before he discovered the joy of synthesizers, Eno was already trying to find ways to make paintings with pure light.

At the age of 17, he made his first light sculpture with “old fashioned car indicators”. Having struggled to control the shape and colour of such light, Eno realised in the 1980s that video could be used as a “light synthesiser”. He began to create sculptural installations bathed in slowly changing coloured light from television screens. He wanted to create whole environments which, like his ambient music, which would offer an oasis of peace in a busy world.

Constellations, an incarnation of a wider project called 77 Million Paintings, brings that same idea into the 21st century. Using the principle of generative music, Eno has input 300 hand-painted slides and numerous sound samples into software which slowly overlays them at random. The possible permutations, the artist reckons, number 77 million, and would take 450 years to exhaust.

Aware that images are forming which he will never see again, Eno can’t bear to sit with his back to the installation. “You can’t get them back,” he says. “Once it changes, it’s gone.”

As we watch, the artist explains that by arranging his screens in geometric patterns, he is trying to make something as far away from television as possible. “The problem with anything that looks like television,” he says, “is you expect narratives from it. I don’t want to tell stories.” I point out that the central pattern is suggestive of Islamic art. “I am intrigued by Islamic art,” he confirms. “As soon as you start making these symmetrical patterns you get into an Arabic area.”

We stare intently at the patterns on the screens. I know that one image is constantly blending into another, but try as I might, I can’t perceive the change happening at any single moment. Time has slowed down almost to a stop.

In that sense, this is the chilled out experience Eno wants to provide. But I am disappointed that in such a large, white room, attention is focussed on one end wall. Although random sounds are coming from all angles, the wrap-around environment is abandoned when it comes to images. When 77 Million Paintings showed in Tokyo last year, it was in a pitch black space with mirrored floor and walls, the changing patterns enveloping the viewer.

But if you get up off your comfy sofa at Baltic and approach the wall of screens, the experience becomes spatially more interesting. From a distance, the wall seemed flat, but up close you find that the screens have been recessed deep into the wall, and surrounded by mirrors. The effect is truly kaleidoscopic, introducing a sense of infinity in space as well as time. Every image is multiplied, overlaid, morphing and receding. At the same time it is unique, never to be repeated. This is the essence of Eno.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 11.02.07