Visiting Abu Dhabi last week with his Constellations (77 Million Paintings) exhibition, master of music Brian Eno spoke to Time Out about Arabic culture, digital art and whether U2 will eventually play in Dubai.
So what’s your exhibition about? What you’re seeing here on each of these screens is generated by a piece of software we wrote about two or three years ago. Basically, it permeates a bank of images that I’ve made over the last 20 or so years and overlays them, so the resulting picture is always a combination of different images. It’s called 77 Million Paintings because the number of possible combinations is just that.
When you say ‘images’, do you mean paintings, digital art or both? Some of the geometrical ones were done on computer using Photo- Shop, but most were done before PhotoShop existed. The way this started, I would have shows where I had four or five projectors pointing at the same surface, creating an overlay of several images. And in order to do that, I had to make the slides. I did this by hand – I’d paint or scratch onto them, and they’re only small, but a lot of what you’re seeing is from that.
Is your time these days spent mainly on music or art? Well, this year, for example, I’ve had 12 of these shows, but I also produced the Cold play album and I’ve just done the U2 record. I did an album with David Byrne, and I did the soundtrack for a film, Lovely Bones. I also did the soundtrack for a computer game called Spore. So I only say this – not to boast, but to answer your question – as it’s quite a range of things.
And this is your first time in the UAE? It is. I’ve been to North Africa a lot, but that’s quite a different kettle of fish. Coming here today – I’ve only had a few hours to get an impression – but there’s an incredible opulence, utterly decadent in several ways.
What do you think of Arabic art and culture? Have you ever experimented with Arabic instruments, for example? Well, we tried to. We did some of the new U2 album in Morocco, in Fez, and we recorded a lot of oud players. But it just sounded like a sprinkling of something, and a little artificial. What did remain with us, though, was the structure and approach to Arabic music. With a lot of Western music, you have the verse, the chorus, the middle eight… those structures are great, they’ve served pop music very well, but they’re not exciting. There’s one song on this record, for example, that has this very odd rhythm that could have only been borne out of the Arab world. It’s totally electronic, so it doesn’t sound ethnic in any way, but it gives you this ‘sitting on a camel’ movement. And the track has an unusual number of bars to the verse, about 20 I think, and again it throws you off the normal rotation of things. But it’s an amazing record, I have to say, and I think their best ever.
What do you think of Abu Dhabi building itself into an art hub, with the opening of the Louvre and the Guggenheim and also staging big-name concerts by Western artists? I completely applaud them for opening up like that, but I also hope they realise they are sitting on one of the richest cultures the earth ever produced. It’s always a problem – a worry even – when people get excited about attracting Western artists; they may forget that they do actually have a very strong cultural position themselves.
Speaking of Western artists, a rumour comes around every month that U2 are playing in Dubai.Has Bono said anything? [Laughs] He hasn’t, no. But Chris Martin from Cold play keeps telling me he wants their next album to be made in Damascus. He says Damascus is the key. I don’t know why.