Archive: Issue No. 115, March 2007

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Brian Eno at the Michaelis Gallery
By Linda Stupart

It is always daunting to be faced with reviewing the work of someone as famous and important as Brian Eno. Particularly so when your initial reaction (not including giggling like a schoolgirl at the artist's mere presence) is that the work is a little dull and impenetrable.

Faced with the problem of reviewing '77 Million Paintings' I felt it would be apt to turn, as I often do, to an Oblique Strategy*. It reads:

Think
- inside the work
- outside the work

Following this strategy, I decided to sit inside the work and think for a while...

'77 Million Paintings' comsists of a programme which takes a selection of images, deconstructs them into layers and then randomly shuffles through near infinite (77 million is close enough) permutations, creating a series of new pictures each leisurely morphing into one another.

Eno has fed into this system over 300 digitised versions of his paintings, originally painted or etched onto slides. The result is a series of images shown on flat screens, which appear to float freely just proud of the gallery wall, filled with saturated colours and trippy abstract forms. If you've ever been to a trance party and looked up blearily at the pulsing visuals, or even sat for hours staring at an evolving Mandlebrot set, you probably get the idea.

On first viewing then, '77 Million Paintings' seems somewhat dated and uninteresting. Fighting for space in the Michaelis Gallery with the Top Billing crew at the opening event, I stayed barely long enough to catch the piece changing at all. A painting on a wall is still just a painting on a wall when it's rendered in light, I felt, and since my MTV-spawned attention span couldn't last long enough to watch the images' evolution, the work was a bitter disappointment and left me, like many at the opening, feeling cheated - a victim of the Brian Eno hype machine. Meanwhile, amid the clamour of TV crews and countless greetings to the man himself, some barely discernable ambient noise buzzed inoffensively at the pretty pictures on the wall.

However, now that I could relax 'inside' the work and think as advised to by Eno himself, I could apply the attention required to appreciate the piece fully, not only as an image on a wall but as an installation proper with all of the immersive qualities that make the medium so much more fascinating than its older and more static counterparts. It also certainly helped that the gallery curators had put some comfortable furniture in the space, diffusing the white cube formality that had coloured my experience at the opening event.

The subtlety of the sound was one of the first things that I noticed 'inside' the work. Like the visuals, this is randomly generated, with seven CD players each playing a series of modal tracks (each also separated out into layers) on a random shuffle so that there is a purposeful lack of synchronicity in the swelling and retreating sound's irregular, soothing waves. To continue my trance party analogy, imagine the shoddy attempt at calming sound played in a Chill Out tent, then imagine getting it perfect. There was even a bean bag to sit on.

Over the first few days of the show Eno popped his head in more than once, claiming a viewer's interest in the piece, as he too has only seen a tiny fraction of it himself. It was in these moments of the artist's reflection that the sublime quality of '77 Million Paintings' finally occurred to me. By relinquishing God-like artistic control, Eno had finally created an artwork that, like nature, exists in a vastness beyond the frame of human imagination. Despite the awe so much part of an experience of the Sublime, thinking 'inside' the work lead my thoughts to calm, happy places. But now, as advised, I needed to step 'outside' for a while and consider both the many other permutations of the work itself as well as its precedents and potentials.

'77 Million Paintings' is mostly discussed in terms of its application for the Personal Computer. Many lucky Eno fans can own 77 million of his paintings as well as a lot of music for a relatively miniscule cost, as the work is offered in an edition of 10 000. In the lecture that accompanied the exhibition Eno discussed his intention to provide other artists with the possibility of inserting their own images into his system. As a brazenly commercial gesture this is also an interesting artistic one: 'Own every possible combination of (insert famous and edgy artist name here)'s work for only $40!'

Though entertaining, I found the juxtaposition of this particular commercial sensibility with the warm fuzzy glow I felt inside the work, combined with Eno's idealistic assertion that this piece is made for the love of art or something like it, a bit tricky to reconcile. I also can't help feeling that on a home computer, unless it was the sole programme running constantly on a giant monitor, '77 Million Paintings' is bound to be relegated to the role of screensaver. In this vein, it should also be pointed out that Eno is certainly not the first person to make generative images of this sort, though he may be the first artist to do so. A good example of this is http://www.electricsheep.org/, an open-source screensaver run by thousands of people all over the world.

Outside in the artworld, '77 Million Paintings' has not only been shown as a huge display in an apartment store in London, where it apparently fascinates old ladies, but also in a number of different galleries and exhibition spaces around the world, each time in an entirely different configuration and each one apparently more interesting than the way in which the work is shown in the Michaelis Gallery - with hundreds of monitors or with mirrors reflecting each other, the images and the viewer. Rooms where every wall and ceiling is full of the piece seem considerably more appropriate renditions of the work's vastness and colourful, frenetic content.

'Outside' the work then is a more prosaic place, but also a more complex one. Even in the white cube of both academia or programming, worlds outside the work, '77 Million Paintings' holds my attention, succeeding perhaps more than the visual manifestation of this particular Eno philosophy.

'One of the points of these things is to not start and to not finish,' writes Eno, 'I want them to kind of feel like they were always going on and that they could always carry on... that they are just conditions of things, like an eddy in a river is a condition, it's not really a thing. If there is a narrative, it's in what happens to you as a viewer.'

Perhaps this review seems entirely too narrative, cathartic even, but the personal journey that the viewer takes through '77 Million Paintings', often submitting to the work's seductiveness in complete abandonment, is a vital part of the piece. Is it any good? Well, it's sent me on a path of emotional and aesthetic contemplation that has kept me going back to the gallery all week to drink a cup of tea in front of the work. I still can't say I really enjoy the visuals, but the show is worthwhile nonetheless.

* 'The Oblique Strategies' was originally a collaboration between Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in the form of a series of cards, each containing a generalised solution to any creative problem. The idea is that one picks a card at random when help is needed and is from that point totally committed to following the strategy suggested. To consult them go to http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/Consult.html

Opens: February 19
Closes: February 28

Michaelis Gallery
Hiddingh campus, Orange Street, Cape Town
Tel: (021) 480 7111
Email: Lisa.Essex@uct.ac.za
Hours: Mon - Fri 10am - 4pm


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