INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Telegraph FEBRUARY 2, 2007 - by James Flint
THIS 'ART FOR AIRPORTS' IS MERELY SCREEN DEEP
James Flint reviews Brian Eno: Constellations at Baltic, Gateshead
Back in the 1990s, as the dotcom bandwagon gathered speed, Brian Eno marketed an album called Generative Music. Housed on a floppy disc, the contents weren't musical tracks in the traditional sense. They were assembled on the fly by a computer algorithm from various different "seeds": bits of code that set the parameters of the sounds the speakers would emit.
The result was eight unfolding musical "patterns", repetitious but not quite repetitive, that sounded not unlike the ambient works that Eno had been creating "long-hand" for several years.
Now, as the art bubble expands to poptastic proportions, Eno has repeated the experiment - with pictures. He has digitised some three hundred of his own abstract paintings and devised an algorithm to blend and send them, in a near-infinite sequence of permutations, to a number of flat computer screens.
These screens, tastefully arranged on the nave-like top floor of the Gateshead Baltic across a large black wall in a manner suggestive of the stained-glass windows of an extravagantly modernist cathedral, make up the work that is Constellations.
The ecumenical echoes are no accident. Eno describes himself as an "evangelical atheist", and has spoken of his intent to create a space in which one could have "secular spiritual experiences". Has he achieved this? Were the temple of Eno to be built according to the principles laid out here, would it be profound?
When he speaks of his generative works, Eno also likes to refer to nature. These works, grown from those "seeds", he sees as representative of natural processes, of evolution and ecology. Eno's space, mediated by computers though it is, is very consciously reaching out to a reality beyond the merely virtual, and in this aspect it is reminiscent of some of James Turrell's sky spaces, which I, for one, have found as moving as any modern art or architecture that I've seen.
But Turrell's work does more than allude to an idea of "nature": it incorporates the natural into the actual fabric of the work. Real nature is not a single and ultimately repetitive generative system going calmly on its way. It is a multitude of generative systems.
Turrell's spaces, with their dependence on the actual sky with its genuinely infinite moods and shades, tunnel into this chaos to find the calm within. Eno's work mimics the natural in a way that in fact subtracts from it, and the calm that results feels artificial and thin.
Constellations, to redeploy Eno's own phrase, is Art for Airports. It is decoration. Subtle, extravagant, elegant decoration, but decoration none the less. Rather like the music of Coldplay, whose next album Eno is booked in to produce, it doesn't enhance my sense of nature, or politics, or the social. It in fact flattens and subdues the chaos and the noise of the "natural" world around me, freeing me up to think rather more intently about myself. I understand that in certain parts of Notting Hill this experience passes for something "spiritual". But personally I've never been quite convinced.
Which isn't to say I didn't like it. I did. Constellations is very lovely and very pretty, and I'd rather travel through an airport designed by Brian Eno - or Richard Rogers, his architectural counterpart - than through one that looks like, say, Heathrow. But profoundly secular it isn't. Profundity deals in tension and conflict, which flow from its involvement with the real. The seventy-seven million pictures which make up this kaleidoscope lack that fight or bite, and as a result they fail to get beneath the skin.