“You think about the long winter nights of Northern Europe.” Brian Eno leans back in his chair and toggles his microphone in a loose grip. “There’s fourteen hours of darkness, and all you can do is have sex. If you get bored of that, what happens? Some people started writing poetry.”
Eno is talking about his new audiovisual installation, Empty Formalism, showing now at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, and the sort of atmosphere he wanted it to create. Not the cave sex stuff, per se, but using sound and light to create a space in which thoughts and emotions (and, sure, hormones) can develop without being pushed in one direction or another, in the way that we usually expect art to guide an experience.
Talking about inspiration for the piece, Eno says, “A few years ago I was at a painting show with a friend of mine. He was critical of the work. He said, “Well, it’s just empty formalism isn’t it?” I thought, “Yes, it is. And actually that’s what I like — empty formalism. Like music…” The purpose of the structure, in this sense, is more to enable spontaneous personal events than to embody those things itself. “It’s funny that visual art is expected to have some sort of decodable message, to be translatable into words (which is what art critics think their job is), whereas nobody expects that of music,” Eno expands. “Music has always been a completely abstract art form and nobody minds.”
Eno has been slapping the boundaries of music around for decades, and at this point exists for many people as a godhead of ambient and generative music, but he’s still churning out sonic and visual art. Empty Formalism is the inaugural piece in a series of audiovisual performances being presented in the Institute for Sound and Music (ISM)’s hexadome, currently located in the main hall of the Gropius. Here’s everything you need to know about the meditative installation, gleaned during a special preview with the artist himself, where he talked about randomness, his friendship with Stephen Hawking, and making music like paintings.
For an idea of what the hexadome looks like, picture the thunderdome from Mad Max, but with people relaxing on the floor instead of swinging at each other with chainsaws. There are six screens and 52 very expensive speakers, arranged around the dome’s skeleton, so that when you’re inside you are integrated into the experience, but not immersed per se – you can walk around the exterior, and if you look up from inside, you can see the patchwork of relief sculptures ringing the hall’s ceiling.
Eno doesn’t say whether the title of Empty Formalism is a nod to the physical structure of the hexadome but there’s plenty of meta-textual symmetry, creating space within a space for creation. In fact, he never offers a formal definition of the title — at the press preview, Eno treats the work mostly as a framework too, an architecture he meanders through, pointing out interesting artifacts.
The artist spends a while explaining what “stochastic” means – it’s the idea of a process that is random within certain limits, so that you can know its statistical probability but aren’t able to predict it precisely. The visual elements of the installation, which basically consist of very beautiful overlapping circles, are stochastic in that they generate randomly, but Eno has programmed them so that only certain parts of the colour spectrum are allowed to pair with others.
Stephen Hawking and he were friends, and Eno began developing the circle patterns the day that Hawking died. “As I was working on them,” he says, “I was thinking about Stephen, the feeling of huge planets, the universe emerging.” He wants it to be clear, though, that the circles aren’t planets, or the universe, or anything really. This piece is more in the vein of Colour Field painting (Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newmann), which used large monochromatic plots of paint to cultivate ambiance.
Making Music Like Painting
Walking into the hexadome, I was immediately reminded of The Rothko Chapel in Houston, which is a white octagonal space with huge deep blue paintings by Mark Rothko on each wall; people can lose themselves in the paintings for hours. Eno, though, would probably prefer a comparison to someone like Kandinsky, whose most famous paintings are salvos against the demarcation between painting and music. Kandinsky believed that combinations of colour shades produce visual ‘chords,’ and he tried to put those chords on canvas.
Eno says he realised that what he was trying to do with his work “was to make music more like painting, and make painting more like music.” Whereas Kandinsky focused on colour, his synesthetic efforts are oriented towards time – in his ambient albums (Music for Airports, LUX), sound changes very slowly, the way that new things in a painting become apparent the longer that you look at it.
Art Without Concept
Trying to find a particular unifying concept in all of this is a bit like trying to locate a harmony in an ambient track: frustrating and also pretty antithetical to the point. Fixity and permanence aren’t high on Eno’s list of objectives; he explains, for example, that it’s useless to try to take photographs of his generative images, because their unrepeatability is an important part of what makes them compelling (which doesn’t stop people from taking selfies, but whatever). In fact, he doesn’t really seem to want to make a point at all; he isn’t trying to come up with a novel concept or novel means of communicating that concept. The form of the art itself, and the individual poetries that enables, are where he finds satisfaction.
ISM Hexadome will run at Martin-Gropius-Bau until 22nd April and tickets are available here.