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 Enos Constellations, and have only 40 minutes left
to absorb it before surrendering myself to another three hours of
It soon transpires that Im 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 were herded
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, its not quite the chill-out zone Id
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 cant catch them
Eno, suave and soft-spoken, is almost drowned out by the whispers
and whirs of his ambient soundtrack. Hes conscious of having
kept people waiting, and ever-gracious, even when a fashion writers
most burning question is to know what he wears in the studio, and
how its accessorised (thats overalls and felt shoes, in
case youre 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 cant
bear to sit with his back to the installation. You cant
get them back, he says. Once it changes, its 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 dont 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 cant
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.
Black, Sunday Herald 11.02.07