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Brian Eno: 77 Million Paintings

Monday 02 August 2010

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Words Spindle

Brian Eno, artist, producer and musician at the forefront of ambient music has turned his hand to relaxation therapy, as he successfully manages to slow down an ever-frantic world with his installation 77 million paintings in the 2010 Brighton Festival.

As you enter Fabrica art gallery and venture past the purpose built walls, designed to keep out life, you are presented with a room full of relaxed strangers basking in the glow of what can only be described as technological stained glass. The sun filtering through religious scenes has been replaced by a symmetrical arrangement of high definition screens with a morphing display of vibrant paintings. To the left of the ‘windows’ is another screen and two neatly positioned piles of debris lit up in the same colour; to the right is a pulpit left over from Fabrica’s past life as a church. The congregation have long since lost their way, but as the installation takes pride of place at the head of the church, sofas have replaced the pews and the church has once more found some followers.

The changing installation of paintings appears to float as the intense colours leap out from the darkened room. However the movement from one painting to the next is so incredibly slow, you can’t perceive it, whilst being acutely aware that the changes are not just present, but extreme. Such is the human desire to control and diagnose your surroundings, the initial experience is intensely frustrating, until you give in, accept that you can’t see what’s happening and then all of a sudden Eno’s intentions become clear.

He is willing you from every angle to surrender control. His trademark soundscapes fill the building and draw you deep down into the sofas: the kind that can only be sat in comfortably if you are slouched almost parallel to the floor. A position, looking around, you can see a few people are uncomfortable to adopt, as they cling to their default control mode. These people unsurprisingly did not stay for long, leaving with their shirts still firmly tucked in. By contrast the slouchers seemed intent to stay all day.

Having assumed the position, all that remains is to bathe in the glow of the digitised paintings and allow your mind to wonder, occasionally becoming aware of a particularly beautiful display. The arrangement is completely at home in Fabrica, a former church, sitting comfortably beside the silenced pulpit. After the church lost its congregation, the building became an art gallery to escape the clutches of the bar industry, as became the fate of another church, now ‘The Font,’ only round the corner. As I sat pondering what had replaced religion as the opiate of the masses, the answer came beaming down on me from above: high definition screens. They are also responsible for the ‘need for speed’ that Brian Eno is trying so hard to snap us out of.

We spend a ridiculous amount of our waking life moving from one screen to the next: from the television to the computer, to finally the mobile phone, which is on its way to swallowing the other two whole and spitting out any hope of solitude and reflection. The set up of this disused church mimics almost every living room across the country with absorbing sofas pointed at even more absorbing screens. Except the screens of the home don’t promote reflection; they keep you one step ahead of the moment, anticipating the next cut from one brash noise to another. If the screen is the new God of our time, then we are clearly better consumers than we are Christians, with ‘congregations’ regularly exceeding ten million for shows like Britain’s Got Talent, with the final boasting a mind boggling 19.2 million.

This concept of building up to a final is yet another factor causing us to wish away time and it was this presupposing of an event that caused my initial frustration in experiencing 77 Million Paintings. Interestingly, the title of the installation seems to refer to a concept of infinity described by Jesus in the bible. Infinity defies this anxious anticipation, as it levels out the experience of peaks and troughs, instead being omnipresent and accepting of events to come as they please. In Mathew 18 verse 21, it says:

‘Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”’

The number 77 is believed to indicate infinity in relation to Peter’s question, as if you forgive somebody eleven times more than you feel you are able to, your forgiveness will have no end.

It is in this concept of infinity that Brian Eno has also surrendered control, as his finite number of paintings have been entered into a computer system that randomly assigns them an order. The amount of combinations the paintings can form, whilst incomprehensibly large, is still finite. However there are an infinite number of paintings lying in the transitions between them. In fact, there are an infinite number of states between just two paintings, as the world does not divide itself into centimetres and seconds, that is a human obsession. The one thing that grounds the overall composition is the four-fold symmetry of the screens, locking the paintings in their stained glass formation.

At the centre of the arrangement is a block colour that is repeated on the separate screen and also projected onto the neat piles of debris, which stand reminiscent of the pigment now missing from the paintings. The intense colours mostly achieved through paint now find their source in the glowing screens, inviting us to look differently at painting and art, in light of the technology we have become accustomed to. The sofas have asked us to become absorbed in art once more, as we did before technology became so proficient in psychological trickery: bombarding us with information so quickly we haven’t got the time to entertain the idea of leaving. Our collective attention span lies in tatters, causing us to fleet past paintings in a gallery as if flicking between TV channels.

The installation offers us every chance to look a bit closer, as each painting is displayed from all angles, with the exception of good old-fashioned landscape and portrait. That would be too predictable; the one thing this installation is not. But for all Eno’s efforts to make me surrender my expectations and become comfortable with the infinite, I still found myself gripped and unable to tear myself away from a screen. Sorry Brian.

Photography by Philip Carr