Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
2 April - 23 May 2010
Reviewed by: Jonathan Gilhooly »
Fabrica occupies the space of the former Holy Trinity Church, a deconsecrated building in the centre of Brighton. Whilst for the majority of its exhibitions the gallery tacitly renounces this sacral connection, there are occasions when it makes fruitful testimony to it: Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings is one such instance. A centrepiece of the 2010 Brighton Festival (for which Eno is guest artistic director), the work is described as a "painting installation in light", and comprises an interrelated suite of high definition video screens displaying a gradually unfolding sequence of abstract images. The conceit at the heart of the work’s title is that the viewer will never (at least within a single lifetime) witness the same configuration of images more than once, but instead will become immersed in a process of near-limitless change. In occupying a position in the ‘chancel’ area of the gallery, the work is intended to evoke the luminous chromatic display of stained glass windows which, in earlier times, would have afforded the religious faithful a highly controlled vision of mystical transcendence. In its modern variant, generative computer software replaces the random nature of natural sunlight, and comfortable seating is provided for the purposes of relaxed contemplation.
In actuality, 77 Million Paintings more accurately resembles a large kaleidoscope, and is none the worse for that, its twelve screens arranged in simple, rotational symmetry. An invention of the early nineteenth century, David Brewster’s kaleidoscope was for its inventor an artefact capable of producing a kind of “industrial delirium” by virtue of its innovative alliance between the artistic and the mechanical: “It will create in an hour, what a thousand artists could not invent in the course of a year; and while it works with such unexampled rapidity, it works also with a corresponding beauty and precision.” In Eno’s digital version of this “industrial paradigm”, the rightness and declamatory nature of the disposition of its forms is immediately graspable, leaving the viewer's attention free to focus upon the slow-burn changes taking place within the screens themselves, all of which simultaneously reinforce the regularity of the overall pattern. This straightforward conception of a flat matrix of varying forms and colours, creating a kind of ‘pure’ image effect, would be enough for the work to succeed—a geometric phantasmagoria—but this is where things start to go badly wrong. In what can only be imagined as a desire to extend the work into three-dimensional space, an extra, diamond-shaped screen has been installed to the lower left of the main mandala-like arrangement, but here protruding visibly from the wall. On the floor in front of it are two pyramidal piles of unidentifiable material, which serve to act as reflective sentinels for the shifting display of light. This rudimentary and desultory attempt at sculptural materiality instantly vitiates the dematerialized qualities of the main actant in the piece, diffusing and confusing its potentially meditative effect. Moreover, the presence of low-level ambient sounds—emanating from cheap looking beat-boxes around the walls of the gallery—seems superfluous, adding little more than weak sonic illustration. As first and foremost a musician/sound artist, one supposes that the visual aspect is historically ancillary to Eno’s earlier experiments in generative music (beginning with his 1975 album, Discreet Music) and that, perhaps because of that connection, it was felt necessary to maintain the sound component here, even when it could have been functionally relinquished.
There are numerous musicians and sound artists who have in recent years explored the material and conceptual dynamics of aural time and space—from the rhythmic stasis of Moritz von Oswald’s dub-techno sound worlds, through Carsten Nicolai’s (aka Alva Noto) sonic sine wave structures, to Jem Finer’s more radically generative ‘thousand year long musical composition’ (Longplayer)—but arguably the cutting edge of experimental music is exemplified by the tendency for software to be placed increasingly at the disposal of the user (Eno himself, in collaboration with Peter Chilvers, produced the iPhone music app, Bloom, in 2008) or, in more conventional settings, for the spectator/listener’s incorporation and movement within the work to be, at the very least, a strongly considered component.
Florian Hecker’s sound installation at London’s Chisenhale Gallery contains a contrasting operational methodology to 77 Million Paintings, largely by virtue of the simple dynamic that listener movement plays in the changing perception of the sound experience. Four discrete and ‘composed’ works unfold in sequence, emanating from different sets of loudspeakers positioned sparsely around the stark white space. In Magnitude Estimation, a voice reading the decibel levels of given sounds is heard from a wall-mounted speaker; on the opposite wall a second speaker emits the same spoken words but distorted by the very sound levels that they describe—signifier collapsing into its sonic referent. 2 x 3 Channel consists of two separate sound pieces that simultaneously ‘rotate’ in opposite directions about three suspended, outward-facing loudspeakers, coaxing the visitor to move around and through the space in an attempt to take in the full aural sweep of the work. Hecker’s installation raises questions about the nature of sound—its physical status as ‘sculptural’ object—and reminds us of music’s capacity to arouse us not just emotionally but also physically. (At a point somewhere in the middle of 2 x 3 Channel the psychoacoustic properties of the extreme-pitched sounds created the illusion that they were actually colonizing the interior of my ear canal, like a swarm of demented insects; this was an at once disturbing but weirdly pleasurable and mildly hallucinatory experience.) But the installation also invites us to consider our own phenomenological experience of—as embodied subjects and therefore, by extension, our own creation of—the sounds we are hearing.
Like 77 Million Paintings, Hecker’s piece is immediately accessible, but it is also visceral, purposeful, unnerving and fun: an aural roller coaster, it leaves the listener exhausted and exhilarated. The zephyric images and tones of Eno’s work seem joss stick-thin compared to the astringency of Hecker’s ammonium carbonate sound world. Perhaps the comparison itself is unfair, but it is worth reflecting upon the claims made for each work, both by the artists themselves and through the attendant publicity material. Those for 77 Million Paintings are certainly the grandest: the work “underscores our essential human and ephemeral nature” and, more dramatically “we get an intimation of our own mortality”. Both of these statements presumably allude to the lack of repetition within the work over an extremely long duration of time—at least longer than a human lifespan—but it is difficult to sustain this assertion given that the piece itself takes the form of a temporary installation. An interesting comparison would be with Jem Finer’s Longplayer, permanently installed within the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London. Longplayer is a “one thousand year long musical composition [which] began playing at midnight on the 31st of December 1999, and will continue to play without repetition until the last moment of 2999, at which point it will complete its cycle and begin again.” Here any 'intimations of mortality' are not merely rhetorical, but are conceptually and materially embedded within the work itself, and the visitor is free to reflect on the possibility that—all things being equal—the piece will still be playing, free from repetition, until the end of the millennium. The press release for Hecker’s installation is certainly more specific, and arguably more modest in the breadth of its claims for the work as a continuation of the artist’s “investigation of sound in relation to the body and space, employing idiosyncratic psychoacoustic propositions in order to examine and disrupt spatial perception.” Ironically, what might seem like a somewhat limited and limiting physiological objective—more palpably earthbound than Eno’s desire for meditative ‘surrender’—results in a deeper transforming experience. Hecker’s experiments in sound push the listener closer to the edges of our (human) vestigial perceptual awareness and, upon leaving Chisenhale’s cavernous space, quotidian sounds—a revved car engine, birdsong, footfall on concrete—seemed intensified and fringed with echoic after-images; at least for a while, until they once again receded into the backcloth of workaday consciousness.
Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings continues at Fabrica, Brighton, until 23rd May 2010
Florian Hecker was at the Chisenhale Gallery, London, from the 12th February – 28th March 2010
The 2010 Brighton Festival runs from 1st – 23rd May
 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (MIT Press, London, 1992), p. 116.
Jonathan Gilhooly is an artist and lecturer based in Brighton, UK
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