Open wide: this won't hurt a bit

Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson, veterans of the interactive avant- garde, have taken over a vast depot in north London for Self-Storage. Kevin Jackson opens the box `There's a wonderful eerie feeling that there's a lot more here than we're show ing' - Laurie Anderson `You can find everything here from piles of cassava pellets to the contents of houses. I think it's a very modern idea, the notion that you can simply park bits of your life around the place' - Brian Eno
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A seven-year old girl came up with the best analogy: "It's like an advent calendar". Just so, though the kind of advent calendar a hard- core surrealist might give his offspring to keep them weird and naughty. You walk along a yellow line that runs down long corridors lined with anonymous doors, and every so often a little arrow instructs you to pull a door open and see what you can see: perhaps a huge ebony sarcophagus from Ancient Egypt, last resting place of Sisibeck, Vizier of Memphis; perhaps a bed of oversized "flowers" made of loudspeakers mounted on wires, waving in the wind from an electric fan; or a bank of power-drills that burst into deafening, screaming life the second you prise open the door.

All of these curious sights, and another 30-odd besides, can be found in Self-Storage, an exhibition comissioned by Artangel and mounted in the incongruous location of Acorn Storage, a huge depot on the eastern side of Wembley Stadium where the public can stash their surplus goods. The devisor of Self-Storage is Brian Eno, quondam glam-rock star turned ambient music composer, video artist, U2 producer and all-round cultural guru; his main collaborator is Laurie Anderson, the singer, neon violinist, multi-media performer and chart-topper; and the contributors are students from the Royal College of Art, where Eno is a visiting professor.

Eno's idea is straightforward enough: instead of putting bits of installation art in the usual context of a commercial gallery, the participants have worked inside vacant storage units. One of the points of this exercise, Eno explains, is to remove the anxiety people may feel confronting conceptual art in the solemn atmosphere of the posh arts centre (the children thundering around at the private view certainly weren't your standard black-suited avant-gardists); another is to encourage us to experience some of the everyday strangeness of the commercial storage centre.

"You can find everything here," he says, "from piles of cassava pellets to the contents of houses. I think it's a very modern idea, the notion that you can simply park bits of your life around the place." Laurie Anderson is particularly keen on the latent mystery of this former Alcan Foil factory: "There's a wonderful eerie feeling that there's a lot more here than we're showing. And it's usually very quiet and deserted; we've been told that the only man who comes out here regularly to visit his unit is a collector of Japanese pornography."

Eno adds that Self-Storage is best witnessed during the hours of darkness, partly because some of the units rely on quite subtle lighting effects, partly because it accentuates the uncanny effect of a wander through the curiosities. The basement area is particularly dramatic, with a strong whiff of the ghost train to it. (The word "whiff" is used advisedly, since this is not merely an audio-visual trip but an olfactory one: unnatural scents, from pineapple to camphor, are released en route.) You shuffle your way cautiously through the darkness to happen upon the likes of a large black vat, full of water, fed with clinical plastic tubes and containing the floating, motionless form of its creator, Michelle Griffiths. Unkind visitors, like generations of tourists at Horse Guards, pull faces at her in the circular mirror suspended above its rim to try to make her laugh, but conceptual artists are made of stern stuff and her face remains poker.

Though both Eno and Laurie Anderson insist that they did not give the RCA students any particular brief, it's clear enough that some of them have been fooling around with notions of storage and self-storage: hence Griffiths storing herself in warm fluid, and hence the work of Michael Callan, who has converted one of the units into an exact replica of his bedroom - complete to the smallest detail of ghastly Seventies wallpaper, smelly socks on the floor and an overflowing cardboard rubbish box. Conversely, a display of Bryazoan fossils from the Natural History Museum takes off from the idea of showing items that are usually tucked away unseen in museum drawers.

Other installations evoke the threat or promise of a shut door. One unit contains nothing but a hard chair, a bare light and the voice of Laurie Anderson intoning a chilly little text beginning "You know, sometimes when you hear someone screaming..." Then there is a little homage to Plato's myth of the prisoners in the cave; a delicate display of pyramids made of brightly coloured spice; a hall in which films are projected on to dangling sheets of white fabric... the whole thing held together by short texts written by Laurie Anderson and electronically treated by Eno.

In fact, as Eno explains, the original proposal was entitled Song Storage: "a sort of 3-D realisation of a piece of Laurie's music". The project changed when Eno "became a visiting professor at the RCA, and since I didn't expect to do a lot of visiting there, I got the students to visit here". Meanwhile, Laurie Anderson began to send Eno recordings of short stories and other verbal fragments, which were used as jumping-off points. She seems charmed by the results: "It's like writing someone a letter and finding out it's been turned into an opera."

What makes Self-Storage a particularly diverting experience is its success at defusing that familiar internal yammering of puritan or paranoid anxieties sparked by a lot of conceptual work: But is it art? But is it a con? But is it an advent calendar? Trudging around Acorn - it takes at least an hour, even if you don't linger - such worries seem daft: it's an experience of novelties, a novel experience.

Its deepest source of inspiration, Eno says, was an exhibition of African shrines (trees dressed up with an empty bottle on each branch) and a beach in Brazil where the locals had dug shallow holes and filled each one with candles, so that the sands glowed in the night. "These were the works of people who wanted to make a small part of the world special to themselves. And that's the real idea of Self-Storage: to take a vulgar, secular space and charge it in some way. It's meant to say to people: you can do it, too... it's really not that hard."

n Continues until 7 May at Acorn Storage, junction of South Way and First Way, Wembley. Admission, £3.50, is hourly, 7pm-9pm, Tues-Fri; 5pm-9pm, Saturdays; and 12noon-5pm on Sunday

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