Brian Eno: The life of Brian

When you're an avante-garde polymath, why make one painting when you can produce 77 million? And Brian Eno still found time to speak to Charlotte Cripps
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The Independent Online

In the serenity of dense woodland, up a steep hill away from the noise of the Big Chill festival, in Herefordshire, the musician Brian Eno will exhibit his paintings for the first time in the UK. Part of the festival's night-time art trail, 77 Million Paintings is a constantly evolving projected triptych, generated from a computer software programme and set to ambient music. More than 300 hyper-colourful images, painted by Eno on to slides, in an eclectic range of artistic styles from classical to Pop, are randomly mixed in a process he calls "generative" art.

"The ancient wooded environment of The Enchanted Garden provides a powerful and enigmatic backdrop," says Eno. "The triptych structure we are building for it is angular and architectural, and will stand in juxtaposition to not only the arboretum, but also the paintings it contains, which are usually pretty organic in nature. I think it will look as if it has just landed from another planet but has turned straight into the surrounding woodland to create a gentle piece, in keeping with the event. "

The work's title reflects Eno's early calculations as to its possible permutations, although the actual number is much higher. It was shown at Tokyo's LaForet Museum and at the Milan Triennale this year, and is going on to the Venice Bienniale. It will also be released as a DVD-R, alongside a book consisting of Eno's thoughts on television as an artistic medium. The idea is to bring the Eno art experience in to the comfort of one's home.

"I enjoy the idea that it is impossible, even for the artist, to see all the possibilities as there are so many of them, and they are evolving and growing in ways we can't control in spite of the fact it came from the same 'pack of seeds'," Eno says. "The element of surprise combined with its very slow movement makes it satisfying for me, both as a painting and an audio-visual piece. Until recently it wasn't possible for me to make a home version of these experiences. The difference is that the viewer has control over where the piece is placed, when it is viewed, what is happening around it, and how fast it runs. By making 77 Million available as software, the art comes to you."

Eno began his first experiments with generative music on albums such as Discreet Music (1975) and Music For Airports (1978), before undertaking visual art work such as the projected pieces Natural Selections (1990) and Geological Cinema (1992).

Eno graduated from Winchester School of Art, where he studied painting, in 1969. But he "started playing with lights at the same time as I started playing with sounds - in my mid-teens," he says. "By 1975 I was deep into making records, and hardly touched any of my lighting experiments until I moved to New York in 1978." One day, while Eno was in a studio, "the roadie from Foreigner" sold him some video equipment. " The bulky camera was about the size of a large shoebox," recalls Eno. "I'd never really thought much about video, and found most 'video art' completely unmemorable, but the prospect of actually owning a video camera was at that time quite exotic."

In 2000, Eno's large-scale projected installation Sonic Boom was shown at the Hayward Gallery, but otherwise he has been largely ignored. "I am firmly in the 'musician' box here, and people [in the art world] are a little disturbed that I might wear two hats - it smacks of dilettantism, they think. The rest of Europe doesn't seem to have that compartmentalising mentality, but being a rock musician and a serious artist is regarded with some suspicion, especially in the UK. If you are a musician, you can't be taken seriously as a visual artist and vice versa.

"It is an odd prejudice and very alien to me as I have always worked visually and musically. Neither my visual nor my musical directions would have taken the shape they did without each other. I make no distinction between the development of my visual and musical output as the two have been growing together, feeding and informing the other."

Watching the piece's morphing images is hypnotic - and slow. "People ended up going round the gallery in Tokyo and Milan earlier this year several times to check," says Eno. "It slows you down to its own pace." It also creates an experiencebetween painting and music. " We are used to the idea of paintings being still and music moving. When I started making ambient music, I was trying to make a type of music that approached the condition of painting - that approached a sort of stillness," he says. "Now I am doing the obverse of that: trying to make paintings that behave a little like music... I don't have a clear picture of the finished piece (if indeed the piece ever ends), but sit back and see how they build and evolve."

at The Big Chill, Eastnor Castle Deer Park, Herefordshire, 4-6 August ( www.bigchill.net); the software for '77 Million Paintings' will be available later this summer on All Saints Records/Wordsalad

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