For Beer, basically all the world is playable. Since 2007, his Resonance Project has stimulated architectural spaces, from the Palais de Tokyo to the Brighton sewers, to resound at their natural frequencies. Yes, everything has a note: the objects in your house, the buildings you move through, even you: for the 2018 work Composition for Mouths (Songs My Mother Taught Me) I & II, the artist asked singers to join their lips in a tight seal to create a single mouth cavity and explore the frequencies of each other’s faces as well as the architecture of the performance space.
Bathing in Geometric Forms
In London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE, Oliver Beer has created ‘Resonance Vessels’, as part of his new exhibition Albion Waves: it’s a chorus of singing vessels made by placing microphones inside a diverse collection of pots, jugs, and vases that are triggered via motion sensors as viewers walk around the gallery. ‘Each vessel is just like a seashell,’ Beer says. ‘It's constantly resonating with its own musical note, and we're just amplifying those resonances in real time.’
"Each vessel is just like a seashell"
Now in the Square Mile, suspended from the ceiling in the mode of Man Ray’s kinetic ‘Coat Hangers’ or Antony Caro’s mobiles, ‘Resonance Vessels’ looks like a cluster of musical notes hanging from a stave or a family tree. Satisfyingly, it sort of is both those things. Beer picked each vessel ‘to create a cross-sectional portrait of British material culture going back to the date of the Mithraeum site itself’. A temple to the god Mithras, which was built in the 3rd century AD, 200 years after the founding of Londinium, sits a floor beneath Beer’s installation, and proved his starting point for it.
"an acoustic portrait of Britain"
He began in Roman times with a cup and a pot – a D5 and A#4, to the trained ear – both discovered in Kent, which is also where the artist was born. ‘I worked my way from 2000 years ago, up to the 21st century with ceramics artists Chris Bramble and Freya Bramble-Carter, the latter in collaboration with the illustrator Cleo Liko, who each kindly contributed a work.’ The father and daughter are joined by their contemporary Edmund de Waal, perhaps best-known for his large-scale installations of porcelain vessels, which are themselves often created in response to collections and archives.
Beer’s response to the Mithraeum’s collection functions both as an instrument and an ‘acoustic portrait of Britain’, as he puts it. ‘Between these two extremities of the most contemporary ceramicists and the anonymous 2000-year-old object, there is the best cross-section I could possibly could get of what we, as a culture, have been making,’ Beer says. Spanning time as well as geography, viewers will find everything from Savoy champagne buckets to Staffordshire Jasperware. My favourite, hanging at toddler height, is a Victorian Majolica Vase from Leeds in the shape of a frog who could either be singing or about to eat its microphone. It’s the campiest vessel, and at the same time, the way the green frog bleeds into its red lily pad recalls its symbolic history as a poisonous harbinger of death.
"bathing in geometric forms"
So we beat on, as Nick Carraway would have it, boats against the current… and around the edge of the gallery are a wash of dusty blue paintings that pick up the ‘waves’ of the exhibition title. ‘These are paintings that were made with the sounds from the vessels,’ Beer explains. He laid the canvas horizontally and placed a speaker underneath; the sound moves the air and the air moves the blue pigment. ‘If you could see that sound in space – like the light ripples on a pool – you'd see the air vibrating in beautiful, three-dimensional geometry,’ Beer says. ‘When you go to a concert, and everyone sits down around the orchestra or a band, they're literally sitting down and bathing in geometric forms. That's what we interpret as music.’
As well as revealing the shapes of the vessels’ notes (that is, the notes formed by each vessel’s shape, are you with me?), the paintings pick up the blue and white palette of some of the ceramics – here, as in New York where Beer sourced objects from the Met’s collection in 2019. Originally, ‘I found [this blue and white ceramic] on my grandma's shelf, and I followed the story of the colours all the way back through all of the different empires that used it – the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, from China, to Japan, and so on – but it ultimately goes all the way back to what is now Iran.’ While the technology of the cobalt oxide that produced some of the earliest blues began in ancient Mesopotamia, it is now a common visual language we all share: ‘[an] amazingly pervasive, contagiously appealing colour combination.’
Besides being a portrait of this little rock, Albion Waves also captures the ripples of British Imperialism and global story of exchange, of the blue and white hymn sheet we’re all singing from. Like the colourful duo at its heart, Beer’s work is contagiously appealing too: all the world’s an orchestra, and all the people merely players.
By Sammi Gale