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Oliver Beer nonchalantly leans into the corner of the art gallery and sings. Adjusting pitch until he finds the right note, the room suddenly begins to vibrate. Sound floods the space, drowns him out and overwhelms me.
“Every room and space has its own note,” he says, familiar with the effect his trick has on awestruck innocents. The 33-year-old artist likens it to rubbing a finger on a wine glass. “If you sing exactly those notes the entire room will sing to you louder than your voice is singing to it. It’s called standing waves or resonance. What we’re hearing is not the structure of the building, it’s the empty volume.”
Beer has composed music for a Brighton sewer, a brutalist car park in Birmingham, a 16th-century Istanbul bathhouse and, currently, the Sydney Opera House.
It’s been an intense period for the English artist. Capping off his 18-month residency at the Opera House as part of the Sydney Biennale, Beer also has an exhibition of “sound sculptures” at Anna Schwartz Gallery, a film included in ACMI’s Wonderland exhibition and two videos screening at the AGNSW. A permanent room designed in collaboration with architects Fender Katsalidis will feature in the new MONA addition, due to open in 2019.
Exploring the acoustics of an opera house might seem unremarkable. But not the way Beer performs. For the latest incarnation of his Resonance project, Beer had access to all areas.
“Up to the tips of the sails and four stories underwater – there’s literally not a corner of the building I didn’t listen to,” he enthuses. “I was able to use the building like an instrument.”
After scouring the World Heritage Site’s interstices he settled on a backstage stairwell. “It has no visual interest whatsoever,” he explains. “But harmonically it was perfect – G‑flat with a lovely A‑flat just next to it, which makes a very dissonant tone.”
Beer performs the project with local trained singers. In Sydney he drew on the heritage of each singer’s earliest musical memory – a Mongolian folk song, a Belgian lullaby, an indigenous melody, an English Christian song – and re-orchestrated those melodies for a 10-minute performance around the Opera House’s harmonics.
“What you hear is a polyphony, multiple melodies which are so different in origin and character and historical significance, all forced into a counterpoint that is so harmonious that it sounds like the most natural thing in the world,” says Beer. “It’s the building which becomes the common denominator.”
Because bodies absorb sound, only seven people at a time are allowed to experience Composition for Tuning In Architectural Space during the Biennale.
While Beer could never take the public into the tips of the Opera House sails, he did record his four singers individually. That work, Impossible Composition, reverberates down to Melbourne. Arcing through the middle of Anna Schwartz Gallery is a series of speakers symbolising the height and position of each opera house sail, and amplifying the recording done within each.
“[The Opera House] is one of the most charged places in the whole continent,” he says. “Acoustically it’s magnificent. When it’s quiet you can hear boats, drunks on the quay, seagulls and you hear this quiet fragile hesitation of each singer as they listen and respond to the space they’re in.”
But, as the title suggests, the Opera House residency hasn’t been all smooth sailing. In November, midway through the residency, a Manus island protest at the opera house stalled the project.
“Security became very sensitive about this British artist wandering around their building unattended,” Beer recalls. “For a certain time I was not able to be in the building.”
While locked out Beer, who studied cinema at the Sorbonne, conceived two extraordinary videos, Composition For Mouths (songs my mother taught me), currently screening at the AGNSW. What appears to be video close-ups of two people kissing is actually their faces being used as musical instruments.
“I asked the singers to treat each other’s faces in the same way I was using architecture,” Beer explains. “One sings through the face of the other, so the voice comes out through the other one’s nose. The other singer sings back …matching the resonant frequencies of their mouths and sinus. In one way it’s very intimate, but in another quite a violent thing to do.”
It’s a performance that’s also inadvertently highly politically and culturally charged. The males happen to be singing an indigenous song and an English Christian song. Beer says this was “unintentional”, simply an inevitable consequence of using locals. “Not being an Australian artist those [political stories] are not my stories to tell,” he says.
Producing the two short videos required editing six hours of footage – and much laughter. Yet Beer maintains using the face as an instrument is “one of the most natural things to do. How, over the history of humanity, have we not instrumentalised each other?” he wonders.
In his desire to reassess and strip away art to essential forms, Beer reinvigorates the modernist agenda. He does so in multiple ways. His work explores the liminal line between sound, film, sculpture and painting.
His animated film for Wonderland at ACMI depicts Alice falling into the rabbit hole. It’s a kaleidoscope of colour that resembles the pioneering experimental films of Stan Brakhage in which the American painted directly onto the individual frames of film. For Alice Falling, however, Beer cut up the frames and turned them over to children to colour. “Each of the children has brought their own music to the drawing,” says Beer. “That’s the only thing that makes these original animations.”
At Anna Schwartz Gallery, Beer explores frame-cutting even further. At first glance – or in reproduction – it appears as though Beer’s sculptures are mere cubist copies: exploding violins à la Picasso and Braque. But Beer toys even further with the picture plane. What appear to be paintings of violins are actually real violins encased in resin and sliced to reveal the outline of their familiar bodily shape.
“[Cubism’s] been proposed, but only in painting terms and three-dimensional sculptural terms, not in two-dimensional sculptural terms,” says Beer. “It’s the excitement of knowing that an object can become a drawing of itself.”
Beer first explored this technique with another modernist icon, Magritte’s Treachery of Images. Beer reverses the famous artwork. Where Magritte’s pipe is not a pipe because it’s a drawing of a pipe, Beer’s actual pipe looks like a drawing. But Beer chose the violin not simply to further the modernist painterly allusions.
During his residency Beer researched architect Jorn Utzon’stapestry design, Homage to CPE Bach. He found a kindred spirit. Just as Beer blurs the line between music, sculpture and painting, Utzon sought to “express music in a picture”. At the launch of the tapestry, architect Richard Johnson recalled Utzon referring to its gold shapes as an “explosion of violins”. Beer uses his own distinctive cross-sectional technique to create abstract portraits of Utzon and the singers in his Opera House performance in the form of exploding violins.
“My performances are sculptures, as far as I think of them,” says Beer. “These [paintings] to an extent are musical as well. My way of working as a sculptor is very much about perceiving the world slightly differently.
“Our primary way of experiencing the world is visual and retinal,” he elaborates. “So we primarily have our reference points from the surface of things, [because] light stops at the surface. But sound travels right through the body. Sound is movement and synonymous with space, because you can’t have sound without space. This is a way of hearing the object with your eye. For me it’s all about sound.”
Composition for Mouths, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Composition for Tuning an Architectural Space, Sydney Opera House, part of the 21st Biennale of Sydney, until June 11;Impossible Composition, Anna Schwartz Gallery, until April 21; Alice Falling, Wonderland, ACMI, April 5‑October 7.