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Brian Eno's mind-altering experience (in Calgary)

Brian Eno in front of his new exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary

The Globe and Mail

Inside Brian Eno's big-thinking brain, there is a notion that paintings might move while music becomes still. That the experience of visual art can be shifting, moving, and different for every person who experiences it. That light is a powerful medium for art. And that while the ambient music - or sound art - it accompanies remains constant, the visual art dances. And ultimately it is not only the art and the experience which are altered, but concepts of time and even space.

Eno has been contemplating these ideas for many years, since he studied visual art in the 1960s, and they form the basis of his installation 77 Million Paintings, opening January 6 at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.

77 Million Paintings is a constantly evolving "generative" work, with sound and visuals created by the artist, but generated by a computer. The combinations are seemingly endless - Eno has never seen the same full image repeated - and are in fact far greater than 77 million.

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In a dark room, 10 screens project an ever-changing combination of some 550 paintings created by Eno over 22 years, while ambient music provides a conversation-discouraging soundtrack. Nine of the screens combine to form a jagged square, rotated 45 degrees so it balances on its tip. Off to the side, a lone screen projects a solid, often vibrant, colour - mirroring the colour in the centre of the large square.

"There's some very high-class carpentry, particularly in [the Glenbow]show, actually," Eno said during an interview in Calgary on Wednesday. "It's beautifully built. I have to say it's probably the best built show that we've ever had."

On the floor are two piles of vermiculite, sometimes colourfully lit, resembling smouldering heaps of ashes. Angled toward the back of the room are four black leather couches, forming a sort of crescent - Eno's touch when he arrived at the museum Wednesday morning, and something he hasn't done elsewhere. People have been known to spend hours in galleries with the work, which has been installed all over the world since 2006. They've called it immersive. Mesmerizing. Mind altering.

The soundtrack emanating from multiple speakers helps create a three-dimensional feel, a different experience than staring at a wall. "It tells people what's going on in here is something that ... changes over time, like music does. It's a psychological clue that says settle down and spend a few minutes here."

It's music, of course, for which Eno is best known. A founding member of Roxy Music who still records as a solo artist (his most recent album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea came out in November), he has produced and collaborated on seminal works by some of the biggest artists of our time - including Talking Heads, David Bowie, Coldplay and U2. He has also partnered repeatedly with Canadian Daniel Lanois. He is considered a pioneer in ambient and experimental music. Educated as a visual artist in the 1960s, Eno, 62, has been contemplating these notions of aural and visual art.

Eno's presence in Calgary is the result of a years-long collaborative effort by the Glenbow and Calgary's High Performance Rodeo, which also kicks off Thursday and where Eno will serve as artist-in-residence. The Rodeo's curator Michael Green spent months trying to find a connection to Eno. When he finally reached his manager, Eno was interested. It helped that when Eno did some online research on Calgary, he learned about the Cantos Music foundation, which holds a stunning collection of hundreds of musical artifacts. While in town, Eno will spend time there as an unofficial artist-in-residence.

"What Brian gets to do is to spend as much time as he wants to in there, in complete monk-like seclusion, doing anything he wants," says Green, who hopes to hear sounds sampled from Cantos on future Eno albums.

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77 Million Paintings was at first conceived as an in-home installation (it is available on DVD), the idea born as Eno walked home from his studio one evening and glimpsed a posh Notting Hill dinner party through a window. "Where there would have been a painting on the wall, there was this big, black screen and it looked kind of ugly and stupid. I could see exactly the problem: You're not going to have the TV on when you're having a dinner party. There's nothing on TV that you would want to have showing in a situation like that. ... I thought you need a painting there. But you need a painting that is of now, something that does have movement."

In the gallery, the work can serve as a tonic for our frenzied urban lives - something Eno - a busy Renaissance man with many projects on the go - has seen firsthand.

"I think the thing that most fascinated me when I started doing these shows was watching the audiences," says Eno. "I would sneak in and see people sitting there and I would think what are we actually doing here? We're not seeing a film. There's no beginning, there's no progression, there's no end, there's no narrative, there's no drama. In fact everything is missing that would normally be called art or entertainment.... and yet people were always saying the same sorts of things, the same things that I felt. 'It's so nice to just sit still and not want to change anything. Not feel impatient. Not drumming your fingers.' I thought, 'Gosh, this must be an experience that all of us are craving.'"

77 Million Paintings is at the Glenbow Museum Jan. 6 - Mar. 20. Brian Eno: An Illustrated Talk is at the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. and at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. The High Performance Rodeo is on from Jan. 6-30.


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