Negative Space

Through film and sculpture, with a particular emphasis on sound, Oliver Beer (b.1985) considers the physical properties and emotional values of objects. This concept has been recurrent throughout the British artist’s oeuvre, with a paradoxical focus on emptiness and absence. The most comprehensive exhibition to date at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, celebrates a figure who combines structure with music to test the creative limits of the aural.

Several recent works involve a selection of empty vessels, to create eccentric musical instruments as installations. The hollow space inside each has its own musical note at which it resonates, contributing to a symphony of different frequencies, with microphones feeding back into looping sound systems. This idea is further investigated in Making Tristan (2016), in which Beer assembles pots, vases and other everyday containers to achieve the ground-breaking chord in Wagner’s Tristian and Isolde, which marked a shift from tonal harmony to modernist chaos. Sharing the space is the three glass spheres of Silence is Golden (2013), containing actual-size replicas of parts of the middle ear – the hammer, stirrup and anvil. The little bones are visually striking, the gold finish drawing visitor’s gaze despite their minute size.

The notion of “negative space” forms a central strand of his practice, whereby a balance is struck between occupied and empty space. The viewer is confronted literally with what is not there. A series of “dissected objects” demonstrates Beer’s preoccupation with this idea – a lightbulb, camera and smoking pipe are embedded into the gallery walls; however, they seem to lack both materiality and a third dimension. This combination of spatial states, between the flat and the bodily, seem to present viewers with drawing of the objects, as oppose to their actual form. Also featured is Oma’s Kitchen Floor (2008), in which the accumulated traces of human movement is displayed upon a wall-mounted linoleum surface, inspired by his Grandmother’s kitchen floor. The idea of charting journeys is also shown in Highway (2014), polished lengths of old train rail reveal the marks of countless voyages, emotive individual stories, origins and destinations. A number of video pieces subtly muse on the beauty of sound. Various songs and voices, including Mum’s Continuous Note (2013), a touching portrait of Beer’s mother who seems to sing a non-stop tone whilst subtitles explain a method of circular breathing.

Lastly, Reanimation (I Wanna Be Like You) (2017) is at the heart of the exhibition. 2,500 Birmingham children, up until the age of 13, were asked to draw a film still from Walt Disney’s Jungle Book. Played in order of age, the animation becomes increasingly mature on a frame-by-frame basis, from the vivid scribbles of youngsters to the more coherent illustrates of the adolescents. Reanimation evokes a sense of the inexorable passage of time.

Oliver Beer, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, from 15 March – 4 June.

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1. Oliver Beer, Silence is Golden (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Ikon.