Of mice and me

By Brian Eno

From The Observer, 7th September 1997

I was sitting in a park watching a group of Russian teenagers. They were so fresh, playful and original - each a one-off, no detectable group style. They seemed happy to be exactly who they were in their particular and different lives. That same evening, I went to a jazz club and watched a group of young Americans of about the same age. They, on the other hand, seemed so mediated - every move, gesture and expression gathered from ads, soaps, cartoons, how-to books and pop videos. Their lack of ease with themselves, their desperation to be part of the momentary culture, was embarrassing. It's strange that a society which placed such a strong emphasis on conformity should have produced so many originals, whereas another society which so prided itself on individualism should have produced so many clones. Those young Americans wanted desperately to be 'now' - and 'now' for them is hysterically short, a product constantly being updated.

We were invited to a club on Nevsky Prospekt: the customary quota of semi-tarts in semi-skirts, semi-dancing with semi-hoods. We weren't expecting much else, but Valera, of the band the New Composers, told us he was doing 'something spectacular'. As he began play-ing, people appeared wearing the most imaginative and strange constructions - a woman in a silver cloak which opened to reveal an enormous silver bell, hanging like a giant penis before her. She threw away the cloak to reveal, repeatedly and proudly, a gorgeous bottom - wide, firm and perfectly honey-coloured - and then capped her performance by bending straight-legged to the ground and letting the bell sway between her legs. Meanwhile, human mice scurried around the legs of ladies in black, backless cocktail dresses, and the music gurgled and hissed in its parallel electronic universe.

Gorgeous reappeared as a human apple, big, red and round, which was attacked and eaten by a 20-legged human sex-caterpillar. Another woman fluttered on in a sort of butterfly costume whose vast white wings were secured by wires to the corners of her mouth, so that her lips were pulled wide open. Gorgeous came back again, walking on shoes made of 18-inch-high wooden stools, attended by a man on whose shoulder perched a grey cat with wings. In her dress was a hinged door which opened to reveal a shelf and some liquor bottles. Several backless, topless or bottomless people and a few mice helped themselves to drinks. Most of the audience, bored or baffled, sat still, scrutinising their drinks. Not the situation for a piece of cutting-edge performance art.

There's an old joke: a New Russian comes back from a visit to New York and proudly displays his new designer tie: 'It cost me $3,000!' His friend bursts out laughing: 'You idiot - you could have got it here for $5,000!' For the New Russians - the new merchant class - price determines value, not the other way around. Aware of this, a certain Mr Dorfgans, of hazy provenance, has begun producing leisure products - three types of cigarette, eight of vodka, fruit juice and mineral water, all sporting a cameo picture of him looking very rich and all costing twice as much as their shelf-companions from which, in every other sense, they seem indistinguishable. The added value is the added price. It's an interesting innovation to apply the designer-label approach to commonplace things, and I look forward to seeing how far it will spread. Carrots? Car tyres? Condoms? Anything is possible here.

I've been spending many days in the Russian Museum. Since I will soon have a show there, I've been given a densely stamped little passport which says 'Brayan Ino, Painter', thus conferring on me a new and, in Russia relatively exalted status. I'm seeing a whole new world of painting: it is exciting to watch the thread of Russian art develop from icons to Socialist Realism. The latter looks unexpectedly strong now - perhaps it was one of those moments in history where artists thought they knew exactly what they were doing and the confidence shows. Sasha Borofsky, the director of the contemporary collection said to me: 'Of course, when I was young, you supported the 'leftists' - you couldn't like the Socialist Realists. But now it is obvious that they were often much better painters.'

Brian Eno is living in St Petersburg. This is one of a series of his e-mails.

© Brian Eno 1997