(Photos by Ben Rosenberg)
Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings at Yerba Buena, July 1
Better Than: 77 million pokes in the eye with a sharp stick
Last night was the final presentation of the 77 Million Paintings instillation, put on at Yerba Buena under the auspices of the Long Now Foundation, of which Paintings creator Brian Eno is a founder and guiding spirit. I waited until last night to go, when it was Long Now Members’ Night and the conditions for an Eno sighting would be most favorable.
Eventually museum staff opened the gallery area, and about 200 people filed in to the cavernous, darkened space. The five make-out bean bags and a squishy couch went first, and about eighty grown-ups laid down, sciatica be damned, on their backs in front of the screen, gazing up with coats and Timbuk2 bags as pillows. The room was still light enough to look around and play a game of “which bald intellectual dressed in all black is Brian Eno?” There were many, many potential candidates, but all were ultimately disqualified on the basis of being taller than 5’6’’.
The work was a giant triptych, a large center panel flanked by two identical images. Eno has been working on the hand-painted slides for 20 years, but recently digitized the whole thing, using generative software to superimpose random images on top of each other, each element fading in, changing color, and bleeding away at an imperceptibly slow pace. The images were mostly abstract; Rorsascht blots, blocks of color, mazes and grids, finger paintings, scribbles. A naked lady and some warheads appeared a few times. “Oh shit, we forgot to get stoned,” was my first thought, an oversight surely not committed by many of the assembled art persons, nerds, hippies, and smart old people.
The other half of the project is its sound, generated by a computer program that responds to the art on the screen with a random mix of typical Eno ambient-ry: disembodied, grainy Vocoder chants, electronic whirrings and drones, broken chime melodies. “Space Druids” is the best phrase I can come up with for it, and indeed the whole scene at Yerba Buena had the feel of a beautiful and vaguely sinister cult ceremony in a futuristic cathedral, from the immobile bodies laid out Heaven’s Gate style in front of the screen, to the otherworldly transcendence of the music, to the palpable sense of joy and gratitude when Eno took the stage, bald, little, dressed in neatly in black.
He mentioned, in the dry, precise diction familiar to fans of his ‘70’s rock albums (before he created the genre of ambient music), that the project confounds predictions of the death of the modern attention span. “There’s a feeling,” he said to a roomful of people who’d been laying on their backs watching a glowing screen in reverent silence for 30 minutes, “that to surrender to something is worthy. It’s what religion used to do, and [the piece] even looks a little like stained glass -- it’s a poor man’s religious substitute.”
And to extend the cult metaphor a little, I couldn’t help but wait 20 minutes in the reception line in the lobby later, until I finally got to the front and sputtered a few blushing fangirl sentences at Mr. Eno. He was very cool and charming about it, and if he’d handed me a glass of Kool-Aid I wouldn’t have thought twice.
Personal Bias: Like I said, fangirl.
Random Detail: I saw my first iPhone last night.