Russia: A temple to ambient light and sound

From The Financial Times, Saturday December 6 1997, by John O'Mahony, who kindly gave us permission to post it on the site.

John O'Mahony finds Brian Eno with a room of his own in a St Petersburg museum.

"Did you see that?" yelps Brian Eno at the crew of technical staff shuffling nervously around St. Petersburg's Russian Museum. "She didn't wring the mop out in the bucket, not even once."

With less than 24 hours to go until the opening of his installation, "Lightness", in the museum's Marble Palace wing, many of the vast numbers of slides to be used in the show are still lying in an unruly, promiscuous heap on Eno's cluttered table. The seven projectors, which will eventually spew gnarled coils of light onto a giant, diamond-shaped screen, are behaving erratically; and the three CD players, that should glide over one another to produce a constantly permutating soundscape, still need to be hooked up to the speakers. But Eno's thoughts are focused elsewhere: on the floor, the mop and the professional peccadilloes of a post-soviet cleaning-woman.

"I mean, what is the point in just sluicing the water around the room like that? It makes no difference whatsoever. All it achieves, in true socialist fashion, is an even redistribution of the dust."

One would expect that Brian Eno might have grown accustomed to this sort of thing by now. The founder-member of Roxy Music, producer to David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2 and inventor of "ambient music", has spent a total of five months in St. Petersburg since announcing last April that he and his family were relocating to Russia for an indefinite period.

Since then, he has moved almost exclusively in the city's grungy visual art circles - Eno's original ambitions to be a painter were derailed when met the other members of Roxy Music while studying at Winchester School of Art - popping up unannounced at exhibition openings, becoming involved with a new St. Petersburg aesthetic-terrorist organisation called "Artistic Will", and going on an art expedition to a Crimean lunatic asylum. The familiar persona of producer, techno-boffin and all-round pop-visionary has evaporated and been replaced by "Brayan Ino painter" - the legend that the Russian foreign ministry have kindly stamped into his visa.

The main result of this grand Russian experiment is "Lightness", which managed to be ready for last week's premiere despite a catalogue of typical Russian glitches, including a hold-up at customs. Only after the formalities of the premiere were over did he manage to find time for an interview.

Looking a decade younger than his 49 years and displaying eloquence enough to justify his title as "the most formidable pair of frontal lobes in the rock world," he launches into the motivations behind his move to Russia: "I have a status and a very defined position in London," he says, in rich clipped tones; "And one day I suddenly realised that everything could go on exactly like this for the rest of my life, and I don't want it to. What I was frightened of was what I call the Frank Muir syndrome," he says, referring to the British TV and radio personality. "In England if you are finally accepted, then you can coast without doing anything else. I don't mean to single Frank Muir out particularly, but he's an example of someone who seems to persist simply because he has persisted. So, I decided to uproot myself."

While the choice of St. Petersburg was influenced by his wife Anthea, an ardent Russophile, the deciding factor for Eno was not the city's beautiful neo-classical architecture, nor the hazy, infinite climactic aberration known as "White Nights", but the protean nature of the cultural scene. "I felt a lot of strange potential here," he says, "it seemed to me like a place where every boundary was so fuzzy that anything could happen. It may be difficult to do simple things here - like the situation with the cleaning woman, or negotiating the customs - but often it is very easy to do complicated things. Activities that involve complex interactions of people, which would be impossible in London, seem to be relatively easy."

One case in point is Eno's installation, which in April was barely more than a vague, ill-defined and very distant possibility. After an offhand suggestion to members of the Russian Museum staff, he suddenly found himself in possession of a gigantic, neo-classical, newly-renovated chamber and a carte blanche invitation to do what he liked with it.

By the opening, he had completely transformed this extraordinary space, erecting a system of screens and pillars at one end, dousing the surfaces with shards of colour and delicate shreds of light, and finally enveloping the whole thing in sound: soft liquid droplets of electronic music that seems to ooze from the speakers. A computer programme controls the slide projectors so that the same pattern never repeats, and the three CD players all interact in different ways. The rest of the room is given over to the audience and darkness. The result is a rather like a temple dedicated to ambient light and sound. Eno describes it as "something between cinema, firework display, environmental music and installation."

More important to Eno than the installation itself or even its manifest success - at the premiere, young trendy Russians gazed at the coruscating shapes for hours on end - is the fact that "Lightness" is happening in the Russian Museum. While he has mounted similar work at the Riverside Studios in London and at various venues throughout Europe, this is the first time he has crossed the threshold of such a renowned cultural landmark. It marks the fulfilment of everything that Eno set out to achieve in St. Petersburg: "This place is the equivalent of the Tate Gallery", he whispers, almost in disbelief. "Well, they wouldn't put one of my shows in the Tate because I am a pop musician and I can't really be a bona fide part of that world. But they can put my work on here. This kind of distinction doesn't seem to bother the Russians, if they even think about it at all."

Now that "Lightness" is up and running, Eno is making preparations is to enter the fray again in London - revitalised and ready for some lengthy sessions in the recording studio. But much as Eno may have enjoyed his Russian sojourn, he adamantly insists that there is no prospect of a long-term move: "No, I wouldn't live here permanently," he says, "I doubt if I'll ever live permanently in any one place again. I find that I am very stimulated by dropping into other environments and picking up what is special about those. It invigorates me. It keeps me awake."

Brian Eno's "Lightness" runs at the Russian Museum's Marble Palace until December 15. [1997]