'77 Million Paintings': From Brian Eno's Brain to Yours

From Eno’s Brain to Yours
Is 77 Million Paintings nothing more than your iTunes visualizer writ large, or an engrossing shared aesthetic experience?

It’s debatable whether Brian Eno is a ground-breaking visual artist, but after spending an hour listening to him lecture about 77 Million Paintings, his current installation at Cal State Long Beach, I can declare him to be a serious and thoughtful one.

Sunday’s lecture before a sold-out crowd at the 1,000-seat Carpenter Performing Arts Center featured the constantly engaging Eno—an eminently likeable combination of self-deprecation, charming intellect and impeccably dry English wit—trying to illuminate the method behind the apparent visual chaos of an installation that has appeared across the world.

It’s a shame Eno’s lecture isn’t available at the installation. Not that the generative-art installation doesn’t work on its own. Its main feature—a bank of 12 monitors on which a series of randomly generated, constantly changing images appears—is a heady, visual trip. Depending on your particular life experience, it could have you nostalgically reminiscing about a skip down hallucinogenic lane, or that time you started babbling in tongues.

The images fade, dissolve, superimpose and bleed into one another, creating vibrant combinations of drips, dots, lines, splashes and any other shape you can imagine. And the beauty of it? You’ll never see the same image twice. At least not for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But without the Eno-supplied context, it’s easy to side with a recent Los Angeles Times critique of the piece—a review that Eno referenced periodically during his lecture. The review labeled Eno—best known as an icon of avant-garde music and for a triumphant run as a producer for bands ranging from U2 to the Talking Heads to Coldplay—a “visual dabbler,” more celebrity and visual aesthete than artist.

In other words, that 77 Million Paintingsis visually stimulating but ultimately irrelevant, offering little more than a pleasant respite from the stress of daily life. It’s a 21st-century, ultra-souped-up Etch-a-Sketch, a high-tech kaleidoscope, a cyborg Lava Lamp, a bigger version of your iTunes visualizer.

That’s an easy conclusion to reach, but it’s one that denies the potential for a much deeper, imagination-evoking experience.

For Eno, the piece is about both artist and audience surrendering to the artistic process. Rather than subscribing to the archaic—if still prevalent—hierarchical mindset that a piece of art belongs to its creator and that, to truly understand it, the viewer must decipher its inherent meaning in order to figure out what the artist “means” by it, Eno described the process as a transaction between artist and viewer, a loop that builds on itself.

It’s about creating complexity out of simplicity, and the nuts and bolts of 77 Million Paintings are ridiculously simple. It’s actually a two-room installation, with one room devoted to photographs of images taken from the main room: a visual and sonic lounge outfitted with semi-comfy couches haphazardly arranged around mounds of pulverized rock (actually, crushed Vermiculite) designed to make the viewer feel as if they’re part of the installation.

On the back wall of the room are those 12 monitors, arranged in a slightly off-center box, kind of like a stained-glass triptych. The monitors are plugged into three unseen computers, each containing four banks of images with a hundred digitized paintings created by Eno over the past 20 years. Each computer randomly picks an image from one of the four banks and fades it into one of the monitors.

All the while, a generative soundtrack created by Eno plays on boom boxes carefully positioned throughout the room.

There is no beginning or end. You can stay for two minutes or until the gallery closes. Some people pop in, wait for something to happen and, not seeing what they think they should, split. Others plop down for 10 or 20 minutes and surrender to a process that the artist kick-starts but doesn’t finish.

It’s the high-tech equivalent of watching clouds: some people see nothing but puffy blobs; others see flame-bellowing dragons. The person next to you might see squiggly lines or drops of paint; you might see, as I did, everything from the Twilight Zone intro to bats caterwauling against a sky engulfed in red flames.

To each his own. Ultimately, that’s what Eno accomplishes with 77 Million Paintings. As he said in his lecture, art is what happens in the place where nothing is supposed to happen. It’s not functional, not necessary to supply basic human needs. But, when the right combination of artist, viewer and artwork clicks, the place where nothing is supposed to happen transforms into an imagination foundry where anything seems possible.

77 Million Paintings at the Cal State Long Beach University Art Museum, 1250 E. Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5761; www.csulb.edu/org/uam. Open Tues.-Wed., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., noon- 5 p.m. Through Dec. 13.

 
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