Art that’s on song

Ray Edgar
The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 2018

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.”

Sound artist Oliv­er Beer with his exhi­bi­tion at Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Pho­to: Simon Schluter

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.

Sound artist Oliv­er Beer with his exhi­bi­tion at Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Pho­to: Simon Schluter

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’s​tapes­try 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.

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