A year after the Brexit vote, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that a major art gallery decided to open its doors in Mayfair. Although Austrian gallerist Thaddeaus Ropac, who owns four large galleries in Salzburg and Paris, probably bought the space before all the political turmoil, it gives the London art market a new boost.
Two things strike me. Firstly, the building. This is not just another large art conglomerate creating another white cube to expose ever more expensive art. Ropac’s London venture is a true project of passion. Ely House, a Georgian building on Dover Street, was built in 1776 and functioned as a residence for the Bishop of Ely. Ropac bought it for its essential English character and its history, and had it beautifully restored by Annabelle Selldorf, an architect who excels in museum and gallery design. It never stops to be exciting when the contemporary enlightens the past.
Two of the inaugurating shows – by Gilbert & George and Joseph Beuys – are also historic in the fast changing contemporary art world (from the 1970s and 1950s respectively). Ropac has worked with these artists from the beginning: he famously started his art dealing career by interning in the studio of Joseph Beuys. A selection of early drawings is shown here. Considered a pioneer of socially engaged art, these drawings belie Beuys' more rebellious streak, but they show the artist as a great draughtsman and someone who has a true interest in human nature.
The show that caught my attention, however, is by 31-year old Oliver Beer. A graduate in fine art, Beer originally trained in musical composition and went on to combine elements from both disciplines in his artworks. Beer has received considerable attention in France and Austria, but not yet I his home country, the UK. That may be about to change.
Since 2007 Beer has been expanding on his Resonance Project, whereby he spends time in architecturally interesting buildings, finds the resonant frequencies of its empty spaces and develops his own vocal technique through which these spaces are stimulated to resound. In subsequent performances he brings out each building's 'voice'.
The new work at Thaddeaus Ropac is suitably called Composition for London. In daily performances, classically-trained singers are placed strategically around the grand staircase and instructed to sing specific notes at precise pitches. Working without the aid of speakers or electronic amplification the singers stimulate the space’s natural frequencies and bring out its intrinsic notes, unchanged since the building’s construction in 1776.
The result is truly enchanting. Through the halls of this former Bishop's Residence sound the most fantastic notes, like a Gregorian chant, amplified by the buildings' own acoustic structure. The audience is completely enthralled, and it really feels as if the entire building is singing its own unique song. In the middle of the hallway sits Beer's upended piano, the remains of his performance Making and Breaking Tristan at Centre Pompidou. The strings, cut away note by note in a specific order to first build and then gradually eliminate Wagner’s notorious ‘Tristan Chord’ are tied up in felt and hung like a wreath on the gallery wall.
Music is made visible, sound becomes sculptural and transforms the Georgian architecture. Instead of a performance that accompanies music, Beer shows us the essential elements of music itself and the instruments that make it. As Oliver Beer says, we are "hearing with our eyes".
Susan Phillipsz comes to mind, the first artist to win the Tuner Prize in 2010 with a sound work. But where Phillipsz uses recordings, mainly of her own singing voice, and projects this sound into different indoor or outdoor spaces, Beer goes one step further - by finding the sound of the building itself and letting that sound reverbrate through a live performance.
Beer's musical ingenuiety can have the danger of appearing somewhat over-laboured. In the backroom of Ely House, Devils uses a feedback loop technique developed by the artist to reveal the inherent musical notes of various ancient and modern vessels. Although the visual pairing of these apparently random objects with a complex sound technology is interesting, the work does not engage much beyond its formal qualities.
Both the wonderfully refurbished gallery Thaddeaus Ropac and Oliver Beer’s Composition for London are affirmative endeavors: they celebrate the rich history of London’s buildings and carry this history forward into the present. There is one caveat. All this splendor leaves a somewhat sour taste when looking at the gross neglect currently occurring in London’s social housing system. It is a shame that some of the care and attention given to projects such as Ely House does not extend to London’s buildings with less fortunate owners. Maybe those responsible for the making and selling of artworks that address social issues - the work of Beuys and Gilbert & George are examples - could find a way to make a small part of the inflated proceeds from these works flow back into the community. Then we would have a truly social art: one that not only gives voice to the grand architectural gems but also cherishes the voices of the simple dwellings. And Joseph Beuys would come full circle.
Oliver Beer: New Performance and Sculpture at Thaddeaus Ropac, London Ely House until 29th July 2017