ART / Breaking out of the box: Peter Gabriel asked 11 artists to respond to tracks on Us, an album he wrote to deal with his failed relationships. He tells Dalya Alberge of plans to improve relations between music and visual art

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The Independent Culture
At an exhibition organised by Peter Gabriel, people walking around with headphones on may be listening, not to a recorded guide, but to music. The former lead singer of Genesis is exploring the potential of bringing music into the art gallery, breaking down the unnatural divide between the art forms.

Having commissioned 11 artists to respond to individual tracks on his latest album, Us, Gabriel intends to display the results with a musical accompaniment. As visitors wander from one work to the next, a radio frequency will automatically switch tracks in an audio-visual tour that Gabriel sees as a logical extension of record sleeves by Peter Blake for the Beatles or Betty Swanwick for Genesis in the Sixties.

The idea has not been sufficiently developed in time for the exhibition of the Us artworks that opens on Thursday as part of the Art 93 London Contemporary Art Fair, but Gabriel expects it to come off later in the year, at one of the show's European stops. At Art 93, each of his exhibits will be displayed with glorified captions - videos of the artists explaining their intentions.

The idea of breaking down barriers between artforms, languages and nationalities has long been a theme of Gabriel's work. Since he left Genesis in 1975, establishing a record label and a pounds 5m-studio complex in Wiltshire, he has launched the WOMAD cross-cultures music festival and has given a stage to musicians from as far afield as Armenia and Senegal. As in music, so in art: in his search for sculptors and painters to respond to his album, he looked beyond British shores and British galleries.

The man who refused to sell his records in South Africa is once again challenging what he describes as a cultural apartheid. 'Just as a white rock band has a much better chance of reaching the media than an Indonesian, Chinese or African group,' he says, 'the same is true of the artworld, which still tends to be very dismissive of artists of other cultures. A little less so now, but it's still a European and North American focus . . . Those barriers need to be totally destroyed.'

However, he explains, a tight schedule prevented him from going as far afield as he would have liked in seeking out artists; whatever their exotic place of origin, most are now based in Europe. Indeed, Gabriel concedes, there is little in the range of styles or artistic languages to distinguish nationalities. And, in the event, none of the artistic styles closely complement scores orchestrated for the distinctive sounds of Indian violins, Senegalese shakers and North African doudouks.

But Gabriel was, he says, never looking for a literal translation into a visual medium, only an 'interpretation' of his most personal and revealing album to date, his way of dealing with the break-up of two long-standing relationships, first with his wife Jill, and subsequently with the actress Rosanna Arquette. 'I let my emotions go in this album,' he says. 'They're very evident.'

Above all, he says, he wanted the artists not to adapt their styles to the project but 'to feel it was part of their work . . . like a collaboration rather than a commission'.

Within a loose brief, Gabriel gently prompted his chosen artists to consider the idea of a box - an idea sparked off by the American sculptor Joseph Cornell's explorations of the cube. For Gabriel, a stage is a box of sorts, as is an album (or rather, a cassette or CD box). And then there is Box, the picturesque Wiltshire village in which Real World, his sprawling recording studio complex, is based. What makes this more than a perfectly packaged PR line is Gabriel's affirmation that the box is also about relationships, more specifically the 'boxing up' of emotions.

Although extremely shy, Gabriel is remarkably open about his inability to show his emotions. He came to the end of a five-year therapy programme a year ago, but he intends to take some weekend courses. 'There's one on 'anger' I was thinking of doing,' he muses, so casually that for a moment I thought he meant Ingres, the 19th- century French artist.

He continues in his soft voice with disarming honesty. 'I feel a lot of anger, unexpressed anger. I have a tendency to deaden the emotion. It's got to go out or reflect back in and start eating away. Part of my struggle is to break out of that box, which I feel that at least I have the capacity to do and the means and knowledge to do now.'

Whether by knowledge of his patron or an affinity with his music, David Mach's photographic image of Gabriel's face, contorted and pulled into a nightmarish, suppressed scream - a response to a track called 'Come Talk to Me' (which Gabriel describes as 'about the blockage in communication between two people') - probably comes closest to conveying these suppressed emotions.

It was precisely this inability to let himself go that attracted Gabriel to the seemingly untethered and untutored Zush, an eccentric artist who, since doing time in a mental hospital for possession of marijuana, 'exists in his own self-created state of Evrugo', somewhere in Barcelona. 'Zush's sensibility has . . . raw power, as well as the technical skills of a trained artist . . .' says Gabriel. Similarly, he is fascinated by Yayoi Husama from Japan who, since 1977, has lived in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo, and whose imagery comes from hallucinations experienced since childhood. (Although her work, silver coils entwined and contorted into abstract shapes within the confines of four boxes, will be exhibited at Art 93, it was omitted from the album when the track to which she was responding was dropped.)

The spirit of opening the box of his emotions does not, however, extend to lifting the lid on his art collection. 'It's a private thing,' he says, adding only that he leans towards the figurative and is keen on African art and the boldly-coloured works of Eileen Cooper ('very honest and personal').

Gabriel describes himself as 'an aspiring art groupie', and looks forward to the day when Box becomes a truly multi-cultural village, with artists' studios and a commercial gallery. In the meantime, when he's not on tour, Gabriel can be found in a studio developing his plans for an interactive 'virtual reality' theme park for Barcelona and devising a visual language - modern- day hieroglyphics based on symbols and signs - that transcends all verbal language. THE ARTISTS RESPOND, SIDE ONE

Details, from top: David Mach, 'Come Talk to Me': 'Peter is a very good screamer. That song is very gutsy. It's a real plea. . . it's what you say and how that has changed by the time it comes out of your mouth. The image of him is being distorted.' Finbar Kelly, 'Love to be Loved': Kelly's work seems to point to the lines 'I cry the way babies cry, The way they can't deny, The way they feel.' Zadok Ben David, 'Blood of Eden': 'The figures I am using are having their own activity. What they are about is day by day activity and day by day relationships between people.' Ian Hughes, 'Steam': 'It's to do with the nature of perceived reality. The box is like a reliquary. You open it up to an explosion of colour.' Mickael Bethe-Selassie, 'Only Us': 'It represents a goddess of love. Besides, we have two couples which are coloured. This represents multi-ethnic persons.'


Details, from top: Andy Goldsworthy, 'Washing of the Water': 'The way it's talked about in the song is the way I feel about the river as an expression of life. The work has the quality of a fish and of going upstream.' Zush, 'Digging in the Dirt': 'As the song says: 'As I close in, I get so blind I feel it in my head. I feel it in my toes I feel it in my sex, that's the place it goes.' ' Jordan Baseman, 'Fourteen Black Paintings': '. . . so there are 14 black thorns round the circumference of the ostrich egg. To me it is a symbol of life, but it's also a symbol of fragility.' Bili Bidjocka, 'Kiss that Frog': 'I hope my frog will be like a magician. The frog will make this doll become a princess. I think it's a symbol of frigidity.' Rebecca Horn, 'Secret World': 'It's a story about a secret world Peter developed. It's like a private little museum and you can open it and it's your little secret world you carry with you.'

(Photographs omitted)