Circa JULY/AUGUST 1986 - by Nick Stewart



During the early '70s I was something of a fan of Brian Eno's. He had come to represent one of the more acceptable faces of rock music in an otherwise predominantly ego-obsessed macho/sexist and increasingly corporate dominated business. His early 'musical' embellishments for the band Roxy Music and his first few solo albums created an image of an intelligent and highly articulate artist, as much an inventor as a musician. Later on the albums became some what more mannered, increasingly emphasising a kind of languorous passivity that seemed to parallel his burgeoning wealth and fame. A familiar pattern you might say, and one that finds not a few reflections in the visual art world. I remained interested though increasingly sceptical, hoping that some modicum of passion would manifest itself in his somewhat monotonous output. Certainly, on albums such as On Land, the refinement of his musical 'scores' - they always seemed 'filmic' to me - was at times exquisite. In general, though, they increasingly became something like a rich, sugary cream, alright in small doses but nauseating if indulged in at length.

My initial feeling on hearing of his burgeoning career in the visual arts through video installation work was of curiosity as to how he would apply his 'strategies' to this medium. Five or so years later and the fruits of his labours could be seen at The Douglas Hyde gallery in Dublin during June. Like ghostly presences hovering in the darkened, cavernous space of the gallery were a number of video 'paintings' enveloped in an aural 'eiderdown' of ambient sound.

Eno describes these works as 'video paintings' because they, unlike much video art, utilise the ability of a television set to create light rather than images. In each piece a television set was hidden behind a kind of perspex 'fish tank'-like structure with various abstract patterns delineated within it by pieces of coloured (?) perspex. Each video has a subtle, constantly shifting pattern of light playing on it that, in conjunction with the perspex 'fish tanks', created shifting patterns of colour and form.

Initially, these looked like designer 'quotes' from the works of Paul Klee and Wassily Kadinsky translated into video and embellished with mood-enhancing 'music'. Given some time, however, they began to develop their own integrity. Each of the four works had its own moody 'aura' generating a wide range of feelings and associations; an old church and a futuristic film set simultaneously came to mind. Subtle, almost imperceptible changes in sound and light (form remained constant) created different moods and stimulated new associations: hot deserts, cities, space flight...

One piece in particular strongly evoked Paul Klee's paintings except that with Eno's work the colours, which had an ethereal, opalescent quality, constantly changed with a subtle, pulse-like rhythm. Certain reviewers have remarked that the work has a contemplative quality and Eno himself does not refute this description. But contemplation is, if my understanding of the word is correct, concerned with a much more rigorous and concentrated frame of mind than that induced by the works. With Place No. 13 you disengaged from the daily routine and shifted into a kind of playful reverie of reminiscence and unfocused 'speculation'. If anything, this state was the exact opposite of contemplative. To be fair to Eno, this observation could be applied to many other exhibitions of contemporary art, film, music and so on, but I feel that it is a point worth making as I increasingly think that what people do in art galleries has absolutely nothing to do with contemplation in any real sense of the word.

Another claim made for this work is that it is breaking new ground for video-art. This may well be so... on a purely formalistic level ("I think that this is the first time that television has been used specifically as a radiant light source"). However, it could also be seen as the same old modernist story of the castle of abstraction built on the sands of intellectual theory. The problem, I think, is with Eno's almost over-developed capacity to create theoretical 'models' and strategies to legitimise his various activities. Now, Eno's work both in music and in videos is technically innovative, formally it is beautifully 'orchestrated' and overall it is imbued with a delicate 'structure' of constantly shifting moods and, as I said, Eno has no problem when it comes to explaining and legitimising his work. Nevertheless I am suspicious that the appeal of the technological fantasies and aural abstractions has more to do with the dream of a particular lifestyle than with anything related to the manner in which people perceive actual reality... There is a langorous aura around the work that has something of the feel of a glossy advertisement set in a glamorous Manhattan apartment and I find it not a little coincidental that more and more television 'ads' are using Eno-type soundtracks to seduce the viewer into the particular advertiser's fantasy world.