The Wire MARCH 2006 - by Ian White


I remember one afternoon in 2000 walking from downtown to uptown Manhattan on a day of late autumn sunshine. Just north of the Flatiron Building - for the story's sake, let's say where Fifth Avenue meets Broadway - I met one of the most surreal, quintessentially new York, apocalyptic spectacles. In the middle of this relatively bland, business clean district was a massive hole in the ground, the Tarmac collapsed, ten-foot-high flames shot from the crater. Some emergency services were in attendance, but there was no hysteria, as if roads caving in was just another, quite ordinary, entirely possible fact of life in this town. I thought at the time about Mistaken Memories Of Mediaeval Manhattan, muttering to myself that, indeed, Manhattan was mediaeval, primitive - Hell manifesting as a matter of fact amidst aggressive, simply functioning architecture - and how the scene defined a set of priorities that also defined the city.

While I might not have been wrong recalling Eno's sense of Manhattan's relationship to the Dark Ages, my point here is that his eighty-two minute video (released here for the first time on DVD) is actually concerned with entirely the opposite of all these things: it is non-narrative, anti-Hollywood spectacle, precisely against extending the principles of (tabloid) television into the construction of video art. Shot from the window of his apartment with a fixed camera in 1980-81, the work's seven sections show buildings against the sky, rolling clouds, changing light. Eno's sustained video gaze is like an unabashed demonstration of Monet's project in his many paintings of Rouen Cathedral - that buildings and light inform, infect, alter each other, that in these instances form is malleable (collapsible) and the look is everything.

What is curious about this work is that despite the kind of meditation it proposes, it also attempts to slip unobtrusively into the environment, following Eno's Ambient model. Mediaeval Manhattan uses a number of tracks from the seminal Music For Airports (1978), while sections of On Land (1978-82) were originally written for use here. The video steps outside the normative narrative operations of film and television, shown originally, specifically, in transitional spaces - airports and train stations. Moreover, as if to symbolise as much as to enact the semantic shift that Ambient proposed, the screen itself was turned on its side, the image to be viewed configued as portrait rather than landscape.

The forty-two minute Thursday Afternoon (1984) also released here to accompany Mediaeval Manhattan, continues Eno's exploration of video art's difference from the televisual. Seven videos of the model Christine Alicino, shot in San Francisco, are subjected to post-production manipulation, the seductive, often erotic images of her body morphing in and out of recognisability. The work proposes the ambiguity of perception as a device to sustain and reward the act of watching the video more than once, in the way that we might return time and again to the same painting and still experience a profound emgagement with it.

Perhaps in the age of the plasma screen, Eno considers both these works to have come of age in the domestic sense and the domestic space. Certainly, the plasma screen intimates the look of a moving painting much more readily than a video projection or a television monitor, even on their sides. Certainly too, Mediaeval Manhattan is lent an auspicious, peculiar beauty in relation to post-11 September 2001 visual imprints of the city's skyline. But just how both of these films will be deployed by this DVD's purchasers remains a genuine - and fascinating - question.