Following the artist's solo exhibition Vessel Orchestra at the Met Breuer, New York in 2019, the forthcoming exhibition will transform the Ely Gallery into a space where the sacred and domestic seem to intermingle.
Centred around the installation of a pianola (a self-playing piano), the work will fill the gallery with a deeply personal piece of music composed in old age by the artist’s grandmother, Oma.
Drawing on his background in both music and fine art, Beer’s practice explores the relationship between sound and space with a particular focus on the voice and architecture. Within and alongside his work with sound, Beer creates subtle and diverse sculptural, installation and film projects that are biographical and also touch upon universal, often intimate, concerns. The artist's social and familial relationships often feature in his multidisciplinary practice, forming the lens through which he explores different strands of individual and collective experience. Extending beyond personal history, Oma considers the connective potential of music passed between generations and cultures, as well as the discriminatory social history of music as a field that is inaccessible to many parts of society.
On the gallery walls, a series of new 'Two Dimensional Sculptures' develop Beer's technique of transforming three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional images. Evoking altarpieces or reliquaries through their hinged format, the new works have all been made from objects that either belonged to Oma or resonate with her life. For the first time in Beer’s practice, the works on display will be able to be opened and closed, revealing and concealing internal forms within an elusive white cube space. These hidden forms include Oma's engagement ring – which she intended for Beer's future wife, before knowing that he was gay – as well as the artist's great-grandfather's metronome, fossilised in resin, frozen in time.
Born in 1913, Oma was forbidden any form of musical education by her father, who was himself a violinist. She made her first composition at the age of 87, which she communicated to her grandson through a combination of singing and drawing. Transcribed by Beer into a dense score in blue ink, Oma's musical textures and tones are presented as both a visual translation and an immersive musical experience. These works represent a continuation of the artist’s interests in the transmission and exchange of music while considering the barriers to access his grandmother faced – forms of discrimination that continue to this day.
With a scroll of perforated sheet music visibly circulating through the pianola’s centre and its top laden with an eclectic selection of objects, many of them musical objects from his grandmother’s home, the installation references both the domestic mantlepiece and a votive shrine. The wall behind the piano will feature a salon-style hang, including the musical score that heightens the sense of an altarpiece or a metaphorical portrait of Oma. Hanging from the ceiling, Beer will present two new ‘vessels’– humble yet beautiful objects drawn from Oma’s life that each emit a unique musical tone. Building on his work with the collection of The Metropolitan Museum in New York, for the first time the vessels shown are activated by the viewers’ presence: the pitches that naturally resonate within each vessel are amplified in real time by microphones and speakers, rendering audible their pure and unwavering tones.
Oma first appeared as a subject in one of the artist’s earliest works – Oma’s Kitchen Floor, 2008 – in which her linoleum kitchen floor was transformed into a monumental hanging sculpture, its marks of wear and tear bearing witness to half a lifetime of movement within the domestic space.
Although my grandmother's story and this intimate moment of musical exchange seems rooted in the past – she was born in 1913 – the sentiment behind it is still very relevant in the 21st century when music is both a force of inclusion and exclusion. I wonder what music my grandmother could have made if the patriarchal society of her day had not excluded her from mainstream musical culture, and I feel conflicted about how Oma’s music has only now become audible through me. Even today only 17% of registered professional music writers in the UK are women, according to the Performing Right Society. The decisions we take now about who has access to music will change the cultural landscape of the 21st century.
– Oliver Beer, 2020